There is probably no more ubiquitously abused professional growth tool than the one-on-one meeting between an employee and his or her manager. Of all the tools in the people management toolbox, this one is probably the most reliable. It is the duct tape of leadership tools, capable of fixing just about anything. And yet it is treated more like a monkey wrench – toted out only now and again and with varying results.
Well, this post is an homage to the 1:1. And here are my commandments:
1. Thou shalt not repurpose this 1:1 for status reports. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen managers using their 1:1 time with employees to check in on status. If you are managing your people well, you will need to know more than once a week what is going on. Using an employee's professional growth time to get updates is lazy management. It says you value your own time more than their career.
This one is also for you employees out there. Even if your boss is in violation of the first commandment, that does not let you off the hook. All too often, employees walk in unprepared. Without anything on top of mind, they fall back on the one thing they know: the status of their projects. If your 1:1 devolves into a status meeting, it is likely a two-person problem. This is your time, you need to demand that it be used for you.
2. Thou shalt not shortchange your employees on time. These meetings should be weekly. Don't call them for every other week and think that you are doing your job. And don't skimp on the timeframe. As a rule of thumb, spend an hour a week with your directs and a half hour a week with anyone on the dotted line. Schedule every other week (or at least one a month) with your indirects.
3. Thou shalt not skip 1:1s (or be perpetually late). Nothing sends a bigger message about how serious either the manager or the employee takes their professional growth than missing 1:1s. A manager who is constantly canceling them sends a message that they are beholden to whatever the urgent matter of the day is. But we all know that urgency is never lacking in large companies, so this typically ends up being a recurring event.
And for employees, you need to hold to the same code of conduct. When you postpone your own 1:1s (or show up late), you send a signal that your professional growth is of secondary importance. If you don't take your career seriously, how can you expect me to?
This goes for rescheduling these meetings all the time as well. You might think that rescheduling a 1:1 sends the signal that it is important, but you know what else it signals? That it is not more important than whatever meeting you are choosing ahead of it. Sure, there will be days when the CEO demands your time, but you need to actually have the discipline to say no to some meetings and requests. The most important thing you can do as a leader (any leader!) is make sure your team is productive, satisfied, and engaged. And this requires treating your people as your most important project. Sometimes you have to just say no.
4. Thou shalt not treat each 1:1 as if it is a brand new thing. Managers, you should have a plan for each employee. You should have themes that you carry forward through your 1:1s. If an employee wants more exposure to leadership, talk about leadership every 1:1. If your employee wants to become more well-rounded through training or whatever, then spend time talking about classes or blogs they should read. And then hold them accountable to their own desires the next week. If you don't help carry these conversations forward and help ensure follow-through, you are ultimately dooming your employee. If a topic ever comes up one time and never again, be afraid. Because it likely didn't go away, and now the employee is wondering why you aren't listening.
5. Thou shalt not monologue during 1:1s. I have to admit that I struggle with this one. Managers should not use 1:1s to talk. The point is to get your employee talking. Listen to them. Hear what they struggle with, what they want to achieve, what they want to be. Find out what makes them tick. And all of this is hard to do when you are in love with the wisdom that pours from your ever-moving tongue. I start all my 1:1s with a pretty simple question: How are things? My teams take it from there.
6. Thou shalt not revel in petty crap. People like to kvetch. So sometimes when the door closes, the filter comes off, and you hear some fairly unprofessional dialogues. Even though your manager might placate you (maybe even participate), these are not productive. No matter your relationship with your manager, you should keep the 1:1 focused on your growth. You don't need to tear someone else down to move up yourself. And having been on the receiving side of these, they can be exhausting. They rarely are isolated one-time discussions, and the running thread of negativity can make managers want to skip the 1:1 entirely.
7. Do not covet thy neighbor's strife. Sometimes people just want to help, so they will walk into a 1:1 and start airing someone else's grievances. Mind you, the intentions are almost universally positive, so I don't take this as an act of malice. But the point of the engagement is to foster growth and get stewardship. That cannot happen if the topic of discussion is someone else's problems.
8. Thou shalt not keep a grumpy little rain cloud in tow. An executive leader once told a good friend of mine that every time she talked to him, he had some criticism. It wasn't that she wasn't aware of all that needed fixing, and the constant reminders just brought her down. Even managers need a lift some days, so do us a favor and bring a smile or some good news. As a rule of thumb, if you are negative more than one our of every four meetings, you are very likely digging your own grave.
9. Thou shalt not hear something once and assume if it does not come up again it is not important. Let me try this story out with you. A worker comes in and tells his boss that he wants to be promoted. His boss acknowledges it, they talk about growth plans, and then leave both feeling better about the exchange. The employee then goes the next six months and never brings it up again. A new management spot opens up. The manager is sitting there thinking "Phew! He never brought it up again, so it must not still be important." You know how you find out you are wrong? When the employee drops his letter of resignation on your desk. When someone brings something up in a 1:1, the onus is on you to remember it. Failure to do so is lazy and selfish.
10. Thou shalt not have a computer open, take a phone call, type something, or stare at your phone lest you be perceived as a complete management wonk. Seriously, shut the laptop. Don't answer the phone. Put your phone face down on the desk behind you. And for the love of all that is holy, don't type anything or start looking at stuff. Staring at the clock on the phone is not OK either. The 1:1 is there. If you need to be somewhere, set an alarm to go off three minutes before the end of the meeting, and don't look even once to see what time it is.
The bottom line is that these meetings are important. If you treat them as anything less than, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. That goes for both the employee and the manager.
And now, for a little pro tip from the Bushong school of 1:1s … At the end of every 1:1, I ask the same somewhat lame question: On a scale of one to 10, one being y"ou are so unhappy you are only here to hand me your resignation" and 10 being "you are so happy I don't have to pay you," how would you rate your satisfaction this week?
By gauging this every week, I can correlate satisfaction with events (either decisions, workloads, conditions in the workplace, whatever). Then I ask: what would it take to be a half point or full point higher? I want to challenge my employees to think through and answer what it is that they would like to be different. And I don't mean what it would take to be perfect, but really just what it would take to be better. This helps me implement very specific changes to show that I am listening and that I care about what they say.
At the end of the day, your relationships with your manager or with your employees are all unique. There is no formulaic way to get through these because not every conversation should be the same. But if you remember the basic rules, the 1:1 can be a great tool for both employee and manager.