photo by matusfi
The most important factor in an employee and manager relationship boils down to one thing: communication. The best way to keep communication flowing is to have a consistent, scheduled, private time for both people to sit down and talk. These conversations have many names, but I refer to them as the one-on-one (1×1) meeting . Whenever someone complains about their manager, the first thing I ask is, “how often do you have a 1×1?” The typical reply is “never” or “maybe once or twice during our end of year reviews”. I’m never surprised.
Here’s why the 1×1 meeting is so important:
- Consistency – a consistent time on the calendar to meet and chat removes communication barriers. It’s human nature to put off difficult conversations to “some other time” (translation: never) but setting a consistent time to chat makes it easier to bring up difficult topics.
- No Surprises – Nothing is worse than hearing constructive feedback for the first time during your year end review. You aren’t given any time to fix the problem and it’s being brought up in the context of potential raises or bonuses. If you’re having 1×1’s every other week (recommended), you have 26 times during the year to formally discuss feedback and ways to improve. You should never give new feedback to a team member during a year end review and the 1×1 meeting is the perfect opportunity to keep everyone on the same page.
- The entire business improves – the structured 1×1 is the perfect forum for employees to give suggestions on how the team or overall business can improve. A good manager will listen to this feedback and use it to improve. I call these “crack in the road” conversations. Every business, like a busy road, develops cracks over time. These cracks are the last thing to be repaired because they’re usually overshadowed by potholes or detours. These cracks in the road are annoying as hell to every ground level employee, and the 1×1 meeting is the chance to identify and find ways to repair.
To help improve the quality of 1×1 meetings, I’ve put together a blueprint for the perfect employee & manager 1×1 meeting. I’ve written the rules as directives to a manager because the burden falls on every manager to facilitate great 1×1 meetings. If you’re a manager, start using these rules to forge trust and open communication with your team. If you’ re an employee who doesn’t directly manage anyone, I encourage you to use these rules as a way to improve your own 1×1 meeting.
Master the basics
- Schedule a 30 minute 1×1 meeting with every one of your direct reports to take place every other week. Use your judgement if it makes sense to meet more frequently. I find bi-weekly gives enough time for “stuff to happen” that’s worth discussing without letting too much time slip by.
- Reserve a conference room or private area where you can have an open conversation. The water cooler or hallway is not the place for a 1×1 meeting.
- If you have direct reports that also manage their own team, make sure they are also having 1×1’s with their direct reports. It’s important that everyone in your organization is having 1×1’s to keep conversations flowing.
- Prepare for the meeting. Spend 5 minutes before the 1×1 to think about what feedback you can give. Have you received any feedback from colleagues or clients regarding the employees performance? Are there any lingering conversations you’ve been putting off because you’re uneasy about the conversation? The 1×1 is the best forum to have those difficult conversations.
The 1×1 meeting is for the employee, not the manager. If the team member doesn’t get anything out of the meeting, you’ve failed. This means asking open ended questions (see rule 6) and being a good listener. Just like an interview with a potential new employee, they should be doing 80% of the talking. Every meeting, give direct feedback on exactly how they’re doing. Don’t underestimate the power of feedback to continue strong work and correct poor work.
The 1×1 is important, so act like it. Don’t cancel or move the meeting last minute. Moving or cancelling the 1×1 gives the impression of “another meeting came up, I scanned my calendar, and this 1×1 was the least important thing on there…so we can do it some other time”. If you absolutely need to move the meeting, ask the employee if it’s OK for the 1×1 to be moved. This courtesy goes a very long way.
The 1×1 is not a tactical meeting. The 1×1 is a time to discuss overall performance, review feedback from other team members, and listen to feedback. Don’t confuse the 1×1 with a project status meeting or progress report. You can leave time at the end of the 1×1 to get brief project updates, but that should only be a small item on the agenda. If you jump right into tactics or progress, you’ll make it more difficult for the employee to have open dialogue.
Know your audience. Every one is different and prefers certain communication styles. If an employee is more talkative, you may want to start the 1×1 with some chit chat to get things flowing. If they’re more serious, you can jump right into business. Some people may prefer to be outside the office for a 1×1, so consider taking them out for a cup of coffee. Think about how each person operates and create an environment that fits their style.
Ask tough questions. The most important part of the 1×1 are the conversations you have about challenging topics. This means you have to ask thought provoking, open ended questions. Below are a list of questions that you can use to get things flowing. Many of these are from Ben Horowitz’s book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things“. Rotate through these questions over time and you’ll be surprised at the conversations that follow.
- If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
- What’s the number-one problem with our organization? Why?
- What’s not fun about working here?
- Who is really kicking ass in the company?
- If you were me, what changes would you make?
- What don’t you like about our product?
- What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re missing out on?
- What are we not doing that we should be doing?
- Are you happy working here?
- What can we automate to make things easier?
- What’s working well?
- What can the team improve?
- What activities do you do that you feel is time wasted?
- Are you feeling challenged?
Follow these 6 rules and you’ll have better 1×1 meetings than 99% of other managers.