Posted on 12 mins read

What is a 1:1 ?

A 1:1 (“one to one”) is a meeting between a manager and a ‘report’.

What is a ‘report’ ?

A ‘report’ is a member of staff of which the manager is responsible for. Specifically the manager is responsible for that person’s happiness at the company and their career progression.

How important is a 1:1 ?

A manager’s 1:1 meetings are their most important meeting, as the primary goal of this meeting is for the manager and the report to build a strong and trusted relationship.

If you’re a line manager, then you should always attend these meetings. Never skip or reschedule a 1:1 as that has the potential to give a bad impression upon your report (e.g. your report feels like they’re unimportant and not appreciated by the organisation).

As a manager, your most important priority is your staff.

How long should a 1:1 be?

At least thirty minutes, no less as there just isn’t enough time to really get into what’s on someones mind. If you schedule a fifteen minute 1:1, then this again suggests you don’t have time, or care enough, to fit your direct report into your schedule.

When should 1:1 meetings happen?

1:1’s should happen regularly. Typically they are scheduled once a week, although fortnightly (i.e. once every two weeks) is more practical for some people. Just remember that if you have them weekly, then that helps to keep them shorter in length (increase the length of the 1:1 depending on how far apart they’re scheduled).

Note: unless you’re an experienced engineer of many years, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I don’t need regular 1:1’s”. You’ll be surprised to discover what tidbits of feedback and shared experience can help you progress with both your practical and soft skills.

What do we talk about in a 1:1 meeting?

If you’re the report, then quite literally anything that is on your mind.

  • Got an issue with someone at work? Talk about it!
  • Got problems at home with a new born baby? Talk about it!
  • Got ideas for ways to improve company communication? Talk about it!

Remember, what you talk about doesn’t always have to be centered around work. If you’re having trouble sleeping (whether that’s because you have a new born baby or you’ve hurt your back from being sat in an office chair all day), then talk about it!

The reason being is that your line manager can help expedite any tasks that help to resolve these problems. Whether it be chatting with HR and Facilitaties to get you a standing desk or a new chair to help your back, or whether they can talk to the tech lead on your team to allow you some leeway as far as the tasks you’re expected to work on.

Maybe you’re interested in taking on some extra responsibilities yourself and want to do some mentoring or looking after an intern? Your line manager can help investigate all these possibilities on your behalf. They are quite literally there to help you.

These meetings should be a safe space for you to share how you’re feeling, and that’s important because if you’re not feeling great (for whatever reason, whether it be physical or emotional issues), then that’s ultimately going to have an affect on your performance.

If you’re a line manager, then a 1:1 is your opportunity to perform weekly ‘preventive maintenance’ and to understand the overall health of your team. If you’re effective in these meetings, then you (and the company) will be rewarded with good work from your teams and you won’t have any sudden built-up frustrations turning into drama or someone resigning.

Unfortunately most 1:1’s end up being some form of status (or project) update, which isn’t good because the focus of a 1:1 is for a report to communicate with their line manager about how their doing and not how the project is going †

† that’s what project/product managers are for.

What about the silent types?

Now not everyone is going to be overly talkative, and so it’s the line manager’s responsibility to tease out the conversation.

The most common question a line manager will (or should) ask is:

“How Are You?”

But if the response is a nonchalant “Not bad”, then the line manager might have to resort to some other options for kick starting a meaningful conversation. Some examples could be:

  1. Mini performance review
  2. A current disaster
  3. How to improve X

Remember, we don’t want the 1:1 to be a status/project update.

Suggestions

If you are the report, and you have nothing to say or have zero issues with any thing happening in the company (which to me would be doubtful), then just be aware that the meeting (if not handled properly) could turn into a status update and that’s ultimately a pointless use of everyones time.

So try and make an effort to care about what’s going on in the organisation, as there is usually always something that can be discussed.

If you are the line manager, then use the above three points to help guide the conversation to a meaningful topic that benefits both yourself and your direct report.

A mini performance review is great because we should always be looking at keeping staff on track with their goals. In order to do this we need to understand their motivations and what they want from life, so start the discussion there and that will help you to understand how you can guide their progress.

Discussing a current disaster is a good way to get some feedback on a topic that’s important to the company and allows you to get the perspective of someone either not involved in the problem space or who doesn’t even work in the same area of the business. This equally allows the direct report to feel included and that their opinions matter.

Lastly, choosing an area of the business where you feel could use some improvement is also a good option for opening up the discussion and having a meaningful 1:1, and it results in similar benefits as mentioned in the previous comment.

Meeting structure

Here’s the approach I’m currently taking in my 1:1 meetings…

  • How’s things? (in general)
  • Any wins this past week? (positivity boost!)
  • Any updates from last week?
  • Any team or project concerns? (can I unblock?)
  • Any projects you’re interested in helping with?
  • Any broader company wide updates I can share?
  • Any career progression updates? (either from me or the report)
  • Any feedback on my performance so far? (make me more effective)
  • Anything you looking forward to? (can be work related or personal)
  • Finish by celebrating their hard work ❤️(another positivity boost)

This structure can change depending on what I know going into the meeting, as well as what arises from discussions within the meeting.

Generally I want to be sure to take advantage of any opportunity where I can help a report to learn from mistakes and to share my own experiences as a way of expressing how I believe certain interactions/incidents could have been improved. Especially when it comes to ‘soft skills’ and communication.

I also like to understand what a person’s strong points are because this person might be able to have some greater impact on a project or team that they otherwise might not realize was an opportunity for them to be a part of. I can help them progress by getting them onto projects they wouldn’t normally consider or even know about, or start helping them to prepare and to learn new relevant skills.

Making it personal

I like to find a common interest with my report. This normally happens organically but at the very least I like to have a basic understanding of what my report enjoys doing (i.e. I take an interest in them), and once I do that I feel more of a connection and more invested in helping them succeed.

Do they like to read books in their spare time? Do they like rock climbing? etc. This helps me to keep the conversation light and informal when the meeting starts and I ask “How’s things with you?”, because if I don’t get much output (e.g. I’m dealing with a ‘quiet’ one), then I feel like I can tease out some light conversation by asking about their interests.

Generality can be misleading

If you ask “how are things?” you’ve asked a very general question, and that can sometimes be ok but it can also be too vague a question for your report to answer in a meaningful way.

So to tackle this I like to ask specific questions such as: “ok, what happened in the past week that was…”

  • Exciting
  • Frustrating
  • Rewarding
  • Challenging
  • Engaging
  • Boring

Notice I flip-flop between positive and negative toned queries

This helps me to tease out characteristics of the report and this helps me to then align their interests with what’s potentially happening within the organization.

Understanding

The following questions are useful for getting a clearer understanding of what will and not work with your report. Remember, like how a good teacher will adapt their lesson plan for different types of students (some students have different learning styles), you should adapt your 1:1 to best fit your report (yes this takes effort, but this is your responsibility, and an important one at that).

Most of these questions are taken verbatim from Camille Fournier’s awesome book “The Manager’s Path” and is strongly recommended reading!

  • How do you like to be praised, in public or in private?
  • What is your preferred method of communication for serious feedback? Do you prefer to get such feedback in writing so you have time to digest it, or are you comfortable with less formal verbal feedback?
  • Why did you decide to work here?
  • What are you excited about working here?
  • How do I know when you’re in a bad mood or annoyed? Are there things that always put you in a bad mood that I should be aware of? (e.g. does your report fast for a religious holiday which can make them a bit grumpy)
  • Are there any manager behaviours you hate?
  • Do you have any clear career goals that I should know about so I can help you achieve them?
  • Any surprises since you joined, good or bad, that I should know about? (e.g. where are my stock options? you promised me a relocation bonus and I’ve not received it)
  • Would you like more or less direction from me on your work?
  • What could I do to make you enjoy your work more?
  • What part of the day do you have the most energy and focus? What changes could we make to accommodate this?

Soliciting Ideas

Some questions can help the report feel like their voice is heard and that their opinions matter:

  • How could we change our team meetings to be more effective?
  • Do you feel your ideas are heard by the team and I?

Evolve your process

You try things. They fail. Tweak them as necessary. If my earlier suggestions aren’t working for you, then obviously make sure you’re comfortable with them and that you feel like you’ve given them your best effort, but if they’re not working don’t keep forging ahead. Try a different approach.

Remember, these meetings aren’t about you and your success as a manager. They are about your report and their success. Drop the ego and start thinking about the best interests of your reports and how you can leverage their best self to make the company as a whole better.

If I’m taking over reporting duties from another manager, I like to talk to the previous manager to understand what worked or didn’t work (in their opinion) when they had 1-1’s with this report. I might ignore their suggestions or I might not, but it’s good to dig into the previous manager’s experience with the report.

Track progress

Some managers like to jot down details of their reports alongside their normal work notes. If that works for you, then fine but I personally feel that you should work with a medium that allows your notes and thoughts to be easily shareable with your report.

You can continue to write private thoughts separately of course, but having a document that’s shared with the report so they can see how they’re progressing and have a place to review previous conversations is a good way for them to feel these regular conversations are providing value.

Note: this will also be useful to you (either as a line manager or as a report) when it comes time to give/receive six monthly performance reviews, as you’ll have a complete track record of all discussions.

It’s important for reports to understand that they own their career progression, and so once you’ve had an opportunity to understand your report the next step is for the report to come up with their goals and to pro-actively work through the relevant steps that lead to the realization of those goals.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to help and support the report with this process.

Dealing with issues

If you’re a line manager, then there are two types of issues:

  1. Mild
  2. Serious

The first is someone just venting frustrations, the second is where they’ve reached their limits and have exploded their anger all over you.

In both cases you should:

  • Say nothing (for now).
  • Listen.
  • Do not attempt to problem solve (yet).
  • Do not comfort or try to take away their experience.

Once they have had an opportunity to say what they need to, then you can start to identify the various moving pieces of the problem (although, if they’re that angry you may find them repeating themselves and so at some point you might have to interject).

This could include discussing with them topics such as:

  • What the next steps are (e.g. intermediary and long term resolutions).
  • How we can reach each each step as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • How we might prevent this issue from happening again.

If you’re the direct report and you’re struggling with an issue to the point where you’re now very angry, then this is a good example of why it’s important to have frequent, qualitative and effective 1:1’s. They allow a lot of issues to be caught ahead of time.

Thought leaders

For anyone interested in learning more I would highly recommend following these key players

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve found this breakdown of 1:1 meetings interesting and are able to bring some new learnings into your own 1:1’s to make them more effective and successful.

Good luck out there!