1:1 Meetings – Useful Not Useless

One of the universal manager duties is to hold one-on-one meetings with your direct reports (1:1 for short) . This can either be one of the most useful or useless meetings of the week. Where you end up on this spectrum too often depends on how well you (focus here on you as the boss) are getting along with that particular team member or how well their latest project is going. Regardless of which side of the table you’re sitting on (boss or employee), the general truth applies that you get out of it, about as much as you put into it. We’ll focus here on you as manager, “the boss”.

The 1:1 meeting is one of best tools available to you as manager. To be effective, the meeting needs to happen regularly – every week, every other week, every month, whatever frequency it just needs to happen regularly. The 1:1 is a chance for you and your team member (for simplicity let’s say it’s Joe) to set aside time to focus on each other. Managers who aren’t good at 1:1s may see this as time to interrogate, or pile on the warm fuzzies, or worse, grunt work “I’ve got at least 100 other higher priority things going on, I just don’t have the time to chit-chat”. Any of these attitudes about 1:1’s can explain why it doesn’t get done regularly, often, or in some cases at all. Without a real purpose, the 1:1 too easily becomes the first victim of other meetings with other (more?) important people or the fire of the day whichever is burning brighter.

The 1:1 is an important investment, the better the working relationship you (the boss) build with Joe (your team member) the more effective you will be as a leader. I start by laying out these ground rules in my first 1:1 with someone:

  • This time is for you

My commitment is to set aside time in my schedule just for you and that during this time, you will have my undivided attention. Too often easier said than done, nonetheless, it’s your time.

  • You run the agenda

If you have nothing to talk about we can cancel. I very rarely have this happen. Usually someone will cancel 1) when they don’t quite get how the 1:1 should work as the employee or 2) they are battling an inferno that day or week; in this case, it’s still worth sitting down together for 5-10 minutes to see how or where I can help.

  • I may have things to discuss, but those will be second to your topics

Again, Joe runs this meeting. I can bring things to ask or discuss but not to check-up on what got done this week. This is a great time to ask questions to explore Joe’s interest in new projects or to understand a problem or get Joe’s opinion, but it’s not to address things on my agenda.

  • This meeting should not cover project status

Be sure to cover project status elsewhere – don’t use up 1:1 time for it. Status is useful here if it’s brought up to openly discuss opinions or perspective about a project that Joe wouldn’t otherwise share in public with the broader project team.

  • Note to self: this is my best chance to 1) listen 2) support 3) ask helpful questions

Try to make sure questions spark thought and conversation — open-ended, thought-provoking, asked to suggest a different perspective; these questions are not as an interview or to solve problems. In the 1:1 you are helping Joe learn how to solve problems, understand where he can improve, and see/understand different perspectives. If you struggle to listen and discuss with a helping attitude for the entirety of the 1:1, then congratulations you’ve just found something to work on with your manager.

The 1:1 is where you exercise your coaching and mentoring skills. Your ability to develop team members is what helps differentiate good managers from great managers. Your strength as a leader has less to do with what you can do and more to do with what your team can do, learn, and accomplish. If your team isn’t growing under your care, then you’re only doing half your job as their manager.

  • Accountability for your goals

These are not business goals (aka performance review goals). These are personal goals, things like: career development, personal growth, technical development, work-life balance. Your job here as the boss is to help hold Joe accountable for his goals. This is where you check-in to make sure Joe is taking action and making progress toward continued learning and development. Manager’s test: are you able to fight the urge to ask Joe about his progress learning a new technology because you know Joe is critical to the can’t-miss-it-deadline or customer’s-going-to-surely-fire-us-support-case?

Your team won’t tell you this, but their 1:1 is one of the most concrete ways you as boss show your respect for and commitment to them. My better bosses were great at keeping our 1:1 time. I especially appreciate one boss who always kept 1:1’s even when travelling. I was especially impressed when he scheduled our 1:1 during his taxi ride to the airport near midnight where he was. That was real commitment (and some pretty extreme scheduling) and I appreciated it.
Bottom line, 1:1’s are a time to connect and build a foundation of trust. If you’ve done your homework and have built genuine relationships with your team then when you do go through tough changes or there is bad news, they will give you the opportunity to lead them through it because they know they can trust you.


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