Back 27 April 2024 by Damian Sosnowski

How To Run Effective 1:1 Meetings

#people #howtos

Face-to-face meetings are one of the most important management tools. Yet they are rarely done well. Nearly half of employees rate their 1:1 experience as sub-optimal, and many managers struggle with low team member engagement and low value from these meetings. Yet, when done well, 1:1s can make a team's work more efficient, build trust and improve employee well-being and engagement. Based on my years of experience as an engineering manager, I've written this opinionated guide to preparing and running 1:1s as a manager. If you feel your 1:1s are not where they should be, give it a try!

Having regular 1:1 meetings with your teammates is considered the most important tool of every manager. A silver bullet of management. Just talk with your direct reports regularly and everything will be fine. Simple, right?

Well, not really.

According to various surveys, nearly half of employees rate their 1:1 experience as suboptimal. It’s also a topic that many managers often struggle with. They complain about the small engagement of their teammates, on lack of meaningful conversation and the feeling that they are just doing the chore of ticking checkboxes for the sake of it.

And when the schedule gets tight and deadlines are pressing, 1:1 meetings are often the ones that get cancelled to “focus on work”. A big mistake that results in team members feeling disconnected, both functionally and emotionally.

No Silverbullet

For such an important topic, there is a surprising lack of consensus on how to run 1:1 meetings properly. What’s even more surprising, hardly any company is providing their managers with a template or guidance on how to run those. As a result, managers try to do their best but make mistakes and fall into all possible traps along the way.

Every company is different and every person is unique in their own way. But based on my years of experience as an engineering leader, and lessons learned from mistakes I made in the past, I’ve created this opinionated handbook on how to prepare and run 1:1 meetings as a manager.

It’s designed to work in most of the situations you will face. It targets 1:1s with your direct reports (not skip levels). Enjoy!

Why are 1:1s important?

Inevitably, as a manager, you are managing people. And people are wonderful creatures, full of emotions, that crave attention. Yes, even computer nerds. They want to feel that their manager cares about them and that you take a personalised approach to them, to their work and their growth.

Regular, well-prepared and executed, 1:1 meetings are indeed the best tool to do that.

They put a process on a very important topic that is often overlooked. In everyday grind, it’s easy to forget about personal relationships and the human aspect of our work. Pressing deadlines, timelines, KPIs and corporate shitstorms, all get more attention, and create more noise. A personal touch is lost. Regular 1:1s scheduled in our calendars remind you that there is a time and place to focus on people in your team. To give them care and attention.

At its core, the one-on-one meeting is about having personalised conversations with your team members. You set aside ~30 minutes each week to meet individually with your direct reports. Think of this meeting as a strategic timeout, a quality time you spent together, focusing only on them, their work and problems.

When the meetings are done well, they can make a team’s day-to-day activities more efficient and better, build trust and psychological safety, and improve employees’ well-being, motivation, and engagement at work.

In fact, according to Gallup, meaningful weekly conversations are the most effective way for managers to influence employee engagement.

Opinionated handbook on running 1:1s

Below you can find a graphic cheat sheet on how to run effective 1:1 meetings. It summarises key aspects of this handbook. Click to open a full screen version.

How To Run Effective 1:1s - Cheat Sheet

If you are still curious and want to know more details, keep reading!

Scheduling 1:1 meetings

Star with openly announcing the new formula of 1:1 meetings to your team. Especially if you were not having regular 1:1s before. Many people get anxious when they see a sudden invitation for an unexpected meeting with their manager. Let’s not stress them unnecessarily.

Tell your team members what you need from them to make the meeting successful. You would like them to drive the agenda of the meeting, actively participate and bring topics for the discussion. Make sure they understand that this meeting is for them and about them.

I strongly recommend having weekly 1:1s with your direct reports. These meetings are most effective when you can build momentum around specific areas of the direct report’s activities and growth. It’s also much easier to recall and discuss more recent events. The longer time frame will make it more difficult.

If you have many reports, or for some reason weekly meetings are not possible, go with bi-weekly. Anything less frequent than that will be very inefficient and is a bad idea.

A meeting should take 30-45 minutes. More than that will most likely not be efficient.

Avoid cancelling 1:1s! It sends a bad message to your teammates, suggesting that they are low on your priority list.

Preparing agenda

If a meeting is important enough to schedule, it should have an agenda and 1:1 is no exception.

The key factor here is that you should not drive the agenda of this meeting on your own. Your teammates should bring their topics to the table. But if you just leave this responsibility to them, they may struggle, especially in the beginning, with knowing what they should talk about.

Help them by establishing a framework that will guide them. Prepare a high-level agenda of topics that should be discussed on 1:1s and ask them to fill in the details before every meeting. Bring your topics as well, but nudge them to contribute.

Remember that this meeting is to focus on your teammates, not on you. As the manager, your responsibilities are to ensure that the meetings occur, actively facilitate them, encourage genuine conversation, ask good questions and offer support when needed.

High-level agenda for your 1:1s:

  • Quick Check-in - Ask about the well-being and mood of your teammate.
  • Key topics - Key subjects to discuss this week. Both you and your report should pre-fill this section with topics before the meeting.
  • Team health: Especially important if you are managing managers. Discuss the situation and morale in your teams.
  • Feedback and growth: Share fresh feedback about recent events and discuss the personal development and growth of your teammate

Quick Check-in

Kick off the meeting by showing your interest in how your colleague feels. Be smart about the questions you ask. If you just ask “How are you?” you will get an auto-answer “Fine”. That’s not enough.

A nice trick is to ask a bit different question “On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your mood?”. This forces them to think about their mood to give you a score. And then you can ask additional questions on why 6 and not 9.

Some people are more talkative and will eagerly tell you how they feel, some are more reserved and you will have to dig a bit more to extract it from them. Over time, this should get easier once you build trust and understand them better.

Some additional questions you may try:

  • What is the thing you (or your team if manager) did this week you are most proud of?
  • What caused you the most trouble this week?
  • What is the biggest challenge you are dealing with right now?

Key Topics

This section should be filled with a list of topics to discuss with both you and your teammate. Don’t worry if the list gets too long. You don’t have to tackle all of those in a single meeting, just make sure you keep them in the agenda and follow up on them next time.

Don’t make it a status update! This meeting is about your colleague. It’s ok to talk about the work they are doing, the struggles they have or the goals and directions they are heading towards but don’t turn this meeting into a mundane sprint review.

Team Health

An important point on the agenda, if your direct report is a manager. A manager is as good as his team and his team is also where he invests most of his effort. You should be up to date with the dynamics and morale of people in the teams you are managing, not only your direct reports.

Ask smart, open-ended questions, like the ones described in the Quick Check-In section to learn about the wellbeing and morale of the team. Even if your direct report is not a manager, it’s a good habit to ask him about his colleagues and any issues in the team you should be aware of.

Based on the information you receive here, you can plan some additional actions, like skip-level meetings to investigate any concerning signals you notice.

Feedback and growth

Personal development is a big topic and cannot be fully tackled just in 1:1 meetings. But you should use this opportunity to give your reports immediate feedback on their recent actions. Deliver both praise for a job well done and areas for improvement if you notice any.

Remember to reinforce and clarify goals and expectations for the role your colleague is having. Remind and if needed, explain the strategic company’s goals they should align with. Make sure that your direct report understands what is expected from him and his team, and how those expectations and their work contribute to the bigger picture.

Lack of clarity of role and expectations is one of the most frequently raised issues by employees. It has a strong negative effect on morale and engagement. Make sure you pay attention to it.

It’s also a good place to periodically review personal development goals and the progress your report is making in reaching those. Reevaluate the goals you’ve set up in the past, review the progress and agree on what should be steps your teammate is going to take next.

Finally, ask your teammates for feedback about yourself. This way you show that you care about their opinion and you promote an open and honest culture of collaboration.

On the meeting

The first rule of 1:1 meetings. Listen. Don’t talk, listen. Be present. Turn off email alerts, put your phone away, and silence text notifications. Remind yourself that it is fundamentally about your employee’s needs, performance, and engagement. Ask open questions and dig deeper to get good answers, but remember that you are here to learn about what’s inside your direct report head and what is keeping them occupied.

Before the meeting, ideally, a day before, go through the list of Key Topics that both of you have added to the agenda. Discuss, prioritise and timebox the ones that are the most important and you need to discuss them next. If you are not able to tackle everything, that’s fine, schedule them for the next meeting. Confirm this list with your direct report so they can prepare accordingly.

You need to put some structure on the meeting but also remain flexible to allow the conversation to move organically. Often some interesting side-topics are discovered during such discussions.

Remember to bring a good energy to the meeting. Be open, friendly and curious. Mood is contagious, so make sure you infect your colleague with a proper one. If you are swamped and tired, try to take a short break before the meeting to recharge.

Collaborative problem solving

Inevitably, some of the topics your teammates bring to the meeting will be about problems they are facing. That’s good, you are there to help them. But don’t jump immediately into problem-solving mode yet. Encourage your reports to bring not only the problem to the table but also a proposal of the solution.

Then you can add your perspective and together engage in collaborative problem solving, digging deeper into the issue, pooling information, identifying root causes and evaluating proposed solutions.

There will be some exceptional situations but ideally, you should help, coach and give your report a space to come up with their solution for the problem. This will help them grow, develop better problem-solving skills and be more autonomous in their work.

Take notes

A notebook is your friend. At least if you have a memory of a fruit fly, as I do. You should have a document with an agenda for 1:1 meetings, action points, topics to discuss etc. shared with your teammate. You both contribute to it before and after the meeting to have a single source of truth to refer to.

But you should also keep private notes about your direct reports. Not shared with anyone. There you can write your observations, important facts, things to remember and even some personal events in the report’s life that you would like to get back to in the future. Something that will allow you to keep the continuity of thoughts and topics in between the meetings.

Finish and Follow up

Finish the meeting a few minutes before time. Ask a question or two about personal topics, like how was your weekend, to relax the atmosphere a little (especially if there was some difficult feedback or topic discussed).

Write down what you’ve discussed and any topics that you should follow up on at the next meeting. List any action points and clarify their ownership and the timeline.

Always follow up with an email (or a Slack message) summarising all the information mentioned above.

Ask for feedback and iterate

As with every other process, don’t be afraid to experiment and iterate. After a few weeks, evaluate with your teammates if the formula for 1:1s is working for you. You can ask them directly or survey them with one of many available tools.

Again, be smart about asking questions. Ask about the desired outcome. Do they feel the manager cares about them and their work? Do they get the support they need in solving problems? Do they receive prompt feedback and proactive support in personal development?

You can also talk with your team members asking if they have any ideas on how your 1:1 meetings can be improved to help them in their work. What works for one person might not be a great fit for another. Also situations and needs change over time, so make sure you keep monitoring and adjusting your processes accordingly.

If your company is doing regular employee engagement evaluations, you can use those to check if you see a positive effect of your 1:1 meetings.

Effort that pays off

Running regular, well-prepared meetings with all your team members is a big commitment, but it’s one that’s worth it. With a little bit of luck, it will make your team feel happier and more supported. Your people will feel like they can rely on you when they’re facing challenges or growing personally. And happy people are more engaged, more effective, and have better retention rates.

All together, it will also help you as a manager. You’ll have a great understanding of what’s going on in your team’s lives and you’ll build stronger, more meaningful relationships with your people. It might take some effort, but it’ll be worth it in the end!

Frequently Asked Questions

After I published the article, I received several interesting questions on this topic. No wonder! 1:1 meetings are among the most popular managerial processes and people hold strong opinions on how to run those.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything and 1:1s are no exception. So I’ve decided to summarise the most frequent and interesting questions in the short follow-up article.

Thanks for reading! Follow me for more 🚀

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