A manager’s guide to successfully navigate 1:1s with direct reports
1:1 meeting (aka one-on-one or 1-1) are dedicated recurring time blocks on yours and your report’s calendar for private, open-ended conversations. Your reports do the heavy lifting in preparation of these meetings and should drive the meeting... however, that doesn’t let you off the hook!
As a manager, you should ensure that your reports see these meetings as a safe space to be genuine and transparent with you. At the same time, these meetings are a great forum you to stay connected with your reports and create a good feedback mechanism.
In this guide we share a few ways in which you can leverage 1:1s and how you can engage better with your reports.
The only thing worse than your report handing you their resignation letter out of the blue is knowing that you could have prevented it. So, why not invest in building the open communication channel? Use these dedicated time blocks with your reports to understand how they are feeling in their role and if there is anything that you should be doing to make it a better experience for them. A few questions that you can ask them are –
a. Are you liking the work that you are doing?
b. How is your work-life harmony?
c. Is there anything specific that you would like to learn? (Use this to assign new projects to them)
d. Anything you learnt in the last two weeks (if there is an awkward pause after this question, that is a red flag!)
As a manager, you need your team’s support to make any initiative – like, introducing new project, new team goals, reorganizing your team structure etc. -a success. Hence, it is a good idea to get your team’s early thoughts before formalizing it. Even better, you might end up getting a fresh perspective which can be useful. A few ways to guide this conversation are -
a. Hey, I am thinking about Sandra leading our <this> initiative, what do you think?
b. What do you think about us doing a monthly lunch & learn session where different team members can present their work?
c. We are thinking of launching a buddy program to improve the quality of our work, any thoughts?
Getting a sneak peek into their personal life and sharing yours will help you build a more trusting and nurturing relationship with you reports. What we are as individual dictates our working style and how we perceive a situation. You can leverage this to improvise your managing style to fit with your reports preferences and personalize your conversation to bring out the best in each individual.
a. What do you like to do outside of work?
b. What prevents you from doing your best work?
c. What makes you excited at work?
d. Who do you find most helpful in your team (and Why?)?
One of the better leadership styles is to lead with context, not control. Your 1:1 with your reports is a great way to share and get them excited about the “context”. Use this time to align on your team’s north star and build a shared mental model around it. This will empower your reports to take independent decisions in their projects knowing that they are still working towards a common goal. In the long run, this will also reduce the time you spend answering questions and focusing on day-to-day tasks. Now, this doesn’t mean that you start talking about your vision out of the blue. Instead, leverage the projects your report is talking about and ask follow-up questions. Below, we have shared a few prompts on how to start this conversation –
a. Remind me, why are we taking <this> approach in the project?
b. What is our end objective for this project?
c. Can you remind me how this task helps us achieve our <this> goal?
d. Why are we prioritizing this project over other tasks?
These questions will help you uncover any misalignment in overall objective, priorities, and team vision.
It is very fascinating to see how many employees do not know when to escalate or ask for help. This results in valuable time being wasted and projects getting delayed. Hence, use this meeting to look for that “help needed” board. The idea is to let the report know that you are on their side and would like to see them succeed. A few prompts to help you get there are –
a. Do you need any help in <this> project?
b. If you see timelines getting pushed back, ask – “How can I help you move faster on this?”
c. If you see longer project timelines, ask – “What is the long pole in this project?”
Though you do not (and should not) lead 1:1s with your reports, there are few things that you can do to create a better experience for them, promote a productive meeting and derive maximum value from the meeting.
Below, we have highlighted a few ways in which you can achieve this:
This small change works like a charm, and I can vouch for the results. Ever since I started asking “how are you doing, today?” or “what’s on your mind, today?”, I have started getting more detailed responses compared to a standard “I am doing good, how are you?”. This question encourages your reports to think about their week and highlight wins, misses and help needed areas. This usually kicks an active discussion.
I underestimated the energy that goes behind active listening before I became a people manager. This tip is simple - listen to what your report is trying to convey, look-out for potential misalignment or any deep-rooted problems within the team and ask follow-up questions to dig deeper. You can use the repository of questions outlined in the first section of this guide to help you formulate follow-up questions.
In 1:1s, it is very easy to get into “problem-solving” mode and help your reports with suggestions, advice, next steps, etc. However, before doing that... PAUSE and ask, “What do you think about it?” or “What would you suggest we do?”. By doing this, you are guiding your report through the process of problem solving and enabling them to come up with a solution independently in the future. In this process, you also pick up on any fundamental misalignment in the thought process and fix it at its core.
This simple structure follows the age-old quote:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”
This might not be relevant for all one-on-one occurrences, however whenever relevant, ask for meeting minutes to stay aligned on discussions and decisions taken in the meeting. This is extremely important for 1:1s that involve career discussions and professional development ideas. Asking for meeting notes will also help foster a culture of documentation and your report are more likely to send meeting minutes for other meetings as well. Our guide on writing effective meeting minutes outlines a methodical way to write and share meeting minutes.
Since 1:1s are meetings recurring at weekly/bi-weekly cadence, it is possible that your report might not have much to talk about in few occurrences. Hence, be prepared with a few topics that you would like to talk about in the remaining time. You can use the list of questions outlined earlier in the guide to drive the conversation. This might be the only meeting where you do not want to wrap up early and give time back :)