On 1:1s

a wooden figure towers over danbo, danbo leans backwards, appears intimidated
Credit: Flickr / Ivan

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that 1:1s are one of the most important activities of being a manager. And yet we all know of managers who don’t do them, or do them so badly that they can hardly be called 1:1s at all. I’ve heard about managers who show up to the 1:1 and talk at their report until the time is over. I’m not sure if this is better or worse than no 1:1 at all. The worst manager I ever had, I dreaded our 1:1s so much that I used to get up an hour later on days when I would have to speak to him. My recollection of them was that there would be a terrible, awkward silence, which I would feel compelled to fill, but anything I said would be judged and used against me.

Contrived social situations can be awkward. In a new report-manager relationship, both sides have to show up to a meeting with someone they barely (or don’t at all) know, and talk. Some people might face that situation with equanimity. As a new manager, I did not. It was terrifying, but worthwhile – and before too long had passed it was clear that everything I’d read about 1:1s being the most important use of my time as a manager was true.

At the core of a good 1:1 is this: show up and listen.

Let’s break this down.

Show Up

1:1s should be predictable. They should happen at regular intervals, and should only be cancelled under extreme circumstances – and then rescheduled as close to the planned date as possible. You should be on time. This is true for every meeting, of course, but being late for 1:1s can send a message that this kind of meeting is not a priority. That it’s something you fit in when you can, rather than a core part of your job.

Listen

Here is my management trick that works in almost every situation: ask questions, and listen to the answers.

Bonus points for good questions, but questions at all is a start. There are even lists of questions out there to help you! I loved Lara Hogan’s Questions for Our First 1:1, and I found some really helpful questions in First Break All the Rules.

The first question I like to ask anyone, though, is just “how are you?” And then I care about the answer. You don’t always get the most useful answer to this at first. In general “how are you?” is something people get asked a lot and the only answer the asker wants to hear is “fine”. But when I consistently show up and care about the answer I find I start getting interesting ones. Maybe someone is feeling under the weather. Maybe they are excited about something. Maybe they’ve been having a bad day. Maybe they just got some good news. Maybe they just got some bad news. You have no idea until you ask – and listen.

Starting with this question for a while made me anxious, because some people would respond by telling me about their work. I had internalised that 1:1s are not for status updates, but eventually I realised that how people are feeling about their work is not a status update, and it’s a perfectly natural way to start a conversation at work. I also realised that if someone is in the middle of some problem when you start talking to them, then it’s probably top of mind. Instead of asking them not to talk about it, giving them some time to talk themselves into a different headspace is a perfectly reasonable way to spend some of the time you have together. You should have better sources of information for “what is this person working on” than a 1:1, and more immediate signals for “things possibly not going to plan”, but a 1:1 can be a time to talk about “how does this person feel about what they are working on” – which if things aren’t going to plan can be good information about why things aren’t going to plan.

Having time for some undirected conversation is part of why I like 1 hour 1:1s. I read about them in High Output Management and the idea of spending an hour with someone made me feel uncomfortable enough that I sat with it and decided it was an idea worth trying. It’s not about spending the entire hour talking, but about making that time commitment that the whole hour is there if you want it. It gives you time to make feedback something you will work on together (so you don’t just drop it and rush to your next meeting), and it also gives time to work on something together, if that’s something someone wants to do. For example, working on an abstract for a talk they are thinking about.

At my last job, I did 1-hour biweekly 1:1s (every Friday, alternating between the iOS team one week, and the Android team the other) and whenever I mentioned this online I would get men telling me that biweekly wasn’t enough and giving me unsolicited advice about how often I should be doing 1:1s. This really annoyed me for many reasons, but eventually I realised that a core misconception that they had was that the biweekly 1:1 was our main communication. This was completely untrue. Once I found my rhythm, I spoke to everyone who reported to me every day, and if there was something that it seemed like we should talk about then we would jump on a call. Multiple times this resulted in one guy on my team telling me something and saying it wasn’t big, it was just because I asked right then. And maybe it wasn’t that important. But I would sooner know, and I would sooner he felt like he could tell me.

For me, 1:1s were about active relationship building, with a focus on the important-but-not urgent. But having built a relationships where we talked regularly and I listened, that created space for conversations to happen outside of the 1:1. And I never worried about missing something that was both important-and-urgent because 1:1s only happened every other week.

If 1:1s are the only time you speak to someone who reports to you, how to run that 1:1 effectively is not your biggest problem. The 1:1 is the time you set to demonstrate that you are someone who listens, and that generally things are better for you knowing about them.

TL;DR

If you think you don’t have time to do 1:1s, you don’t have time not to do 1:1s. Just show up and listen. It’s a solid start.

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