How To Do Simple, Effective, & Great 1-on-1s
Why Regular 1-on-1s Matter
Let's be honest. We all know regular time between a manager and direct report is important. It's just not often prioritized or executed well. I could cite employee engagement statistics from Gallup or a nice quote like "people don't leave companies, they leave managers" but you already know this.
On a practical level regular 1-on-1s are important because:
It's a time to build trust and get to know each other
It's a time to provide clarity and align on goals
It's a time to congratulate wins, identify risks, or address problems
It's a time to coach and develop
If you're a manager not regularly checking in with your direct report, you're not fulfilling your management responsibilities. Full stop. 🛑
Responsibility of a Manager
There's an infinite body of literature on what a manager is. I think the role of a manager can be boiled down into a single basic principle:
As a manager you're responsible for a team or individual executing goal(s)
So how do 1-on-1s fit into that?
Regular 1-on-1s enable you to effectively communicate goals, guide strategy, remove roadblocks, inspire, hold people accountable, as well as give and receive feedback. You need to do this because people are not robots! 🤖 They have thoughts and emotions that managers need to understand in order to unlock their potential. For example, let's consider feedback - a positive or negative signal on how someone's doing.
According to research by HBR people crave feedback and employee engagement is strongly aligned with a manager's ability to give honest feedback, but if delivered poorly they hate it. What's the secret to giving honest feedback? Trust.
Holding regular 1-on-1s provides the critical time for managers to build that trust with a person on a human level.
In addition to giving feedback in 1-on-1s they are an opportunity for managers to get feedback or learn important insights on the business. Yup, I said it — managers learn from their direct reports. 😯In a 1-on-1 you can learn about risks to the business, new ideas for solving problems, company gossip, and more. All of which can improve decision-making. Managers often desire hard data in the form of a KPI dashboard, but often overlook the data inside employees' minds. In fact, this is one of the guiding principles behind the Toyota Production System. Now let's look at how to run 1-on-1s.
How To Run Effective 1-on-1s
Everyone runs their 1-on-1s a little differently and that's good. But often people make them too administrative and regimented, which reduces their effectiveness. Over time, I've developed a simple and effective way to run 1-on-1s that you can use immediately. To begin, let's cover the basics:
Have them, regularly. Either weekly or bi-monthly. (It's OK to cancel or move 1-on-1s but I recommend never skipping more than two in a row.)
Schedule them. (The direct report should own the calendar invite.)
The direct report owns the agenda and both of you should come prepared.
Have a living document with the agenda and key outcomes that you both contribute to.
It's a conversation; managers should listen and ask lots of questions.
My rule of thumb is not to have more than 5-6 direct reports and I normally schedule an hour for each conversation. Now let's look at my simple 1-on-1 agenda template.
How To Use The Agenda
You will notice these are all questions. There's a reason, the goal of the 1-on-1 is to open up a conversation! Now let's look at the intent and how to use each question.
1) How are you feeling this week 1-5?
Intent: Get a sense for how the person is doing overall.
The first time I do this I'll get asked by a direct report "how am I feeling about what - work, life, health?" The answer is overall, real simple. By asking this question you as a manager get a sense of what's going on in their mind and by keeping it on a simple 1-5 scale they can't get too lost in the details.
Your direct reports are people before they are employees, and emotions drive people's actions, which affects their ability to deliver on goals. This question is also a chance to learn what is important to them and build trust with them.
For example, one day I had an employee (let's call him Tom) tell me he felt like a 1. I was surprised because he was crushing his role and excited about some cool stuff he was building in Salesforce. Tom told me his daughter was not sleeping well. As a result he wasn't getting much sleep so he couldn't focus at work, and he felt ashamed that it was affecting his ability to deliver on the Salesforce project deadlines.
With this insight I was able to deal with it in a way that built trust with Tom and ensured the project stayed on-track. I suggested Tom take the rest of the week off to address his daughters sleeping problems. I also asked if we needed to move project deadlines or if there was a way to provide him extra support? He asked if he could work from home the following week and get a junior person to take some data cleaning tasks off his plate. I happily said yes to everything and he was able to meet the project deadline.
I learned a lot about how important family is to Tom and the pride he takes in his work. I also built trust with Tom and showed him I care about him as a person while getting ahead of a potential problem for the project. Never forget to ask how people are doing, make sure to listen, and respond in a way that gives them dignity.
2) What did you accomplish last week?
Ensure clarity and track progress of goals
Inquire into employee's work
Learn about them and provide coaching
Goals, not tasks. Let me say it again — goals, not tasks. Too many managers use 1-on-1s to review a checklist of tasks. This is called micromanaging and neither of you want that. As the manager it's your job to ensure they know why the goal exists, what the strategy is, and then delegate it to them. Delegation means giving your employee ownership over how something gets done.
You want the person to synthesize the goal and progress towards it (curious how to do this, read my piece on how to effectively synthesize with a goal). You want to understand what they learned in the process of solving the problem, ask questions so you trust they are executing a sound strategy, and where appropriate provide coaching to them. If done well this should be conversational and both of you should learn something new.
Through this process you will also learn a lot about how the person thinks and operates. For example, if they continually miss deadlines on a project you inquire to find out why. Are they bad at estimating how long things take (in which case you should double their estimates) or are they just over capacity and you need to reallocate work? Or maybe they don't have a coherent strategy yet and you can provide guidance on their approach.
3) What are your goals this week?
Ensure clarity, update, and track progress towards goals
Inquire into employee's work
Learn about them and provide coaching
This is very similar to the previous question, but forward looking. You want to be sure they know what the next steps are to meeting their goals and be aware of any risks to accomplishing them so you can help. Other times you might need to adjust their goals or reprioritize what they are working on.
When you need to reprioritize what they are working on you will likely need to help them figure out how to adapt their plan. When this happens it's a great time to ensure clarity of the goal and coach them. The key to doing this is to explain the why behind the change and help them plan the what.
It's also a time to learn from your direct report. Remember, if you delegate things to your employee well they will probably have a better command of the subject than you — the devil is in the details. So you as the manager need to ask what the second order consequences might be by reprioritizing.
Finally, there might be roadblocks to them meeting their goals that they need your help on, which is exactly what the next question is all about.
4) What do you need from me?
Intent: Ensure employees have what they need to succeed.
I hate asking for help, and your employee might feel the same way so I find it helps to create the opportunity. Maybe they need to get your advice on how to handle a conflict with another team or get an update from you on broader strategic plans that affect their work. Whatever it is, this is the chance for you to earn their trust by listening to their questions, answering them, and providing help. It's a chance to display you're there to help them succeed.
5) Anything else you want to discuss?
Intent: Ensure you cover anything outside of the basic goals associated with your team's responsibilities.
Examples of topics that might come up:
When are reviews and how will they work this year?
There's a lot of rumors about person X leaving the company. What can you share?
I've got a vacation planned for the last week in July, wanted to make sure that's OK?
Or, it might be a time for you the manager to raise something. For example:
I'm going to be hiring a new person on the team
Person X is leaving the company, here's why
I've been hearing some difficult feedback about you on X, let's discuss how I can help
Wrapping up the conversation
Once you have run through everything be sure to add any action items for you or your direct report to your living 1-on-1 document. Update any goals you agreed would be changed. Always thank them for their time and provide some positive words of encouragement. When people leave a 1-on-1 you generally want them to feel better than when they entered the conversation. They should have more clarity around what to do, how to do it, and trust you're there to ensure their success. If they do, you know you've run a great 1-on-1. 👏👏👏
In summary, as a manager it's your responsibility to ensure goals are met and the most powerful tool you have to increase the odds of your team's success is the 1-on-1. But running a 1-on-1 is not something we get trained on, make overly complex, and often deprioritize. This guide clarifies the 1-on-1's purpose, explains the role of each party, and provides a simple framework for how to do it. If you follow these steps and meet with your direct reports regularly I guarantee that your team will operate more effectively. You will have more time to allocate to other work because of the trust you've built with your direct reports. And when your peers ask why things just seem to work on your team you will say, "I just make sure to keep my 1-on-1s" 😉