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1:1s are a powerful way to support your team, offer feedback and context, and build a healthy environment full of thriving people.

When they work well, 1:1s are a place of trust, reflection, and growth. When they don’t, they undermine the rapport between you and your report, fail to accomplish anything, or are reduced to status updates.

No matter how long you’ve been managing teams, don’t forget these foundational elements of a 1:1:

  • Put them on the calendar, recurringly (ideally once every 1-2 weeks).
  • Pick a duration that gives you and your report time and space to go deep, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
  • Protect the time; don’t cancel or multitask during the conversation.

Getting to know your direct report

Understanding your report is a huge part of supporting them in the time you work together. Ultimately, we show up as whole humans at work, bringing with us a set of values; our default perspectives; and the way we define success, authority, and progress. 

Here are some of my favorite questions to dig into the many different sides of what motivates and what discourages the people on your team:

  • What was your dream job when you were eight? Why?
  • What made you grumpy this week? What made you happy?
  • What do you do for fun?

First 1:1 meeting: set out to learn about your reports 

Your first 1:1 is a good time to lay some of that foundation in getting to know your report. This is also a golden opportunity to cover some logistics such as how long and how often these meetings will take place, how your report prefers to receive feedback, and their values. 

The first 1:1 serves as a way to provide initial context on both ends (on the business and on their career journey) and set some goals together. If they haven’t just joined and you’re taking over from a different manager, combine this with a handover 1:1, or 1:1:1.

It’s not the end of getting to know them. Over time you’ll get more and more glimpses of how they work, how they deal with surprises or conflict, their comfort with praise and criticism, whether they’re more akin to a sprinter or a marathon runner in the way they get things done.

During the meeting

It is important to actively listen during a 1:1. Identify the topics they’ve picked, take note of the words they use but also note the body language and what they haven’t chosen to talk about. This will give you insight into what type of conversation would be most helpful. Make a point of asking whether they prefer advice or just some time to vent and think out loud.

Though 1:1s are the time for partnership, they should be led by your report, as they’re ultimately in service of your report’s success and growth. It is a collaboration, and by all means, make a point of proactively adding topics you want to cover. At the same time, if you’re the one speaking most of the time, or you notice that your report never has anything they want to talk about, get curious. Reflect together on whether they’re getting the most value out of that time, and whether a different structure would work better. It’s also an excellent time to give and request timely, actionable feedback.

Listening can look like being silent and taking in what they share, but it also shows up in the way you facilitate the conversation. Ask lots of open, exploratory questions, and help your report spot patterns in how they approach situations, make decisions, and navigate challenges. Guide them to dig into their own goals, motivations, and how they want to show up at work. 

Nudge away from cold status updating. Make a point of checking up on the progress of work outside that time, or work with your direct report to set up a system so that you can stay up to date. Gently but firmly redirect the conversation when it goes too deep into updates or project blockers. 

Here’s an example: “I noticed we consistently need to use some of our 1:1 time to talk through project work. I want to make sure I protect this time for conversations about your own personal growth. Shall we figure out an alternative? Perhaps we could have a pairing session every Thursday where we go over project work, or we share asynchronously in the team channel.”

Empowering your direct report involves providing business situations they’re not directly involved in. That’s helpful in itself because it offers them information on what’s unfolding across the business and the wider team. It gets even more impactful when you offer reasoning and invite their perspective and input on that context. Remember, the ultimate goal is to empower. You’re not there to only run through some announcement points.

Finally, show transparency and vulnerability. If there’s something at work that you’re struggling with, bring it up. It’s a win-win; it gives your report insight into what your role looks like, and gives them space to offer a perspective that you might have not considered.

A note on notes

Notes are great for memory, but could get in the way of you being present. There’s a healthy balance to strike here between being present and capturing important takeaways. There’s no right way or amount of notes, but if you’re feeling curious, try the opposite of what you usually do.

If you naturally tend to take a lot of notes, and especially if you feel it keeps you from fully being present during the conversation, challenge yourself to go notes-free for a few 1:1s. If you can never remember what you talked about or what actions you took away by the end of the week, start a habit of spending five minutes at the end of 1:1s so that you can make a note of the main points that you discussed. 

Themed 1:1s

Weekly/biweekly 1:1s are great for ongoing conversations, but work even better when you occasionally step back with your report to look at the bigger picture. Here are a few different types of 1:1s that you might set up:

  • Quarterly reviews. Regardless of what your company’s official performance reviews schedule is, dedicate an hour every quarter to each of your reports to specifically review how they are doing against their goals. This helps to minimize surprises, makes it easier and more likely to course correct early if there are any issues, and more generally normalizes these conversations.
  • Goal-setting conversations. These go hand-in-hand with quarterly reviews. After you review performance, go back to the goals you’ve jointly set, and see what’s done, what’s now irrelevant, and what needs to continue or be added.

In between meetings: reflect and set things in motion

A good part of the positive change that 1:1s bring often happens outside of the hour that you have together. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Have a system for keeping threads going

A lot of what you’ll talk about with your direct report might not be resolved right then and there. It might be that you don’t have the answer and need some time to follow up. It might be that there’s something that’s come up but is not fully actionable at the moment (“I’m keen to work for a promotion but not until next year”). Or it might be that nothing specific came up during that one session, but three 1:1s later, you notice a repeated pattern. A good system here will allow you to easily keep note of what patterns arise over time. You can find an example below; feel free to make it your own. 

Have a system for completing actions and prioritizing them

If you take an action during a 1:1, set yourself up to complete it. We’re all humans and the occasional blip will happen, but nothing erodes trust quicker than consistently not following up on actions.

Look for opportunities

Keeping in mind what your report brought to you, be on the lookout for opportunities for them to grow the skills they want, get the visibility they’re after, get one step closer to the goals that inspire them. This is how 1:1s ultimately connect to your report’s success: by them acting on the insights and feedback that you offer them, and by spotting opportunities that will unlock their potential.

1:1 meeting template 

Here are two checklists that help me put all of the above into practice when reflecting or preparing for 1:1s. I have a Google doc per direct report (here is a downloadable template you can use), and start a new page with these prompts each time we chat. Feel free to use them (and evolve them freely to match your style and team!)

Checklist: Downloading after a 1:1

Spend five minutes on this list, ideally right after your 1:1 when the conversation is still fresh.

  • What main points did they bring up today? Where did we get to? (keep this in a doc shared with your direct report)
  • How did their morale and perspective on things look?
  • How did the conversation feel? What am I noticing? Did anything set off my Spidey-Senses?
  • How did I show up? What mode was I in?
  • What did I say I would do, or, what actions did I take away?

Checklist: Preparing for your next 1:1

This is a list to fill in during the week; as news and feedback come up, think about what would be useful to bring to your next 1:1. Look through it at the start of the day or a few minutes before your 1:1.

  • Review the reflection worksheet from the last 1:1, to refresh your memory of the main points that came up.
  • What do I want to bring up? Any company context or feedback?
  • What is my state of mind? Anything else on my mind?

Final thoughts

In the end, there’s no one perfect framework for an effective 1:1; the secret sauce is you and the care you bring for your direct report. That’s what makes the tough conversations good, and the happy conversations amazing. Good luck!

What if you dread 1:1s with a direct report?
What if you dread 1:1s with a direct report?
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