Having better one-on-ones (1:1s) is usually left up to the manager. There are loads of articles and books written with the manager in mind. But focusing exclusively on only one of the attendees drastically reduces how useful the meeting can be. In this post I’ll focus on ways that the team member (report) can improve a 1:1.
Your 1:1s have improved if you get more value out of the meetings. A 1:1 can be “bad” in that you received criticism during the meeting. However it can still be valuable in that the feedback helped you be better at your job. Similarly a 1:1 can be “good” in that you and your manager had a nice chat. However a 1:1 like that might not be valuable in that you and your manager might already have a pretty solid relationship. (Yes, I know having “just a chat” can be valuable from time to time, but if that’s all you’re doing it’s unlikely that the relationship is helping you with your job.)
The tips below set a decent baseline. Many of you are probably already doing all of these things - that’s great! Some of you will find starting with these three tips to be challenging enough for now - that’s great too! I’ll add some more posts with tips later on. These suggestions should continue to increase how much value you get from your 1:1s, and will be a little more difficult than the tips below.
1. Actually have the meeting
Think back over the past six months, have you and your manager met regularly?
If you don’t have a 1:1 calendar slot already then add one in. Pick a regular time to meet with your manager. Make sure that time usually works for them. Add a calendar event and invite them to it. Frequency varies a lot, so I recommend starting with every other week and adjusting from there. If having 1:1s at all is unusual at your company you might want to try for 30 minutes once a month and increase the frequency as you’re able.
Some people have a meeting setup but don't actually have the meeting. Occasional misses are generally ok (people get sick and go on holidays), but if the meeting is skipped more than 25% of the time then it’s a problem.
If you are canceling then evaluate why that is and try to make a change.
- Are the meetings at a bad time? Ask your manager if you can shift to a different time. Give a suggestion about when works better for you (in the morning right after standup, at 11:30 just before lunch, etc) and ideally check their calendar to make sure they’re free at the time you’re suggesting.
- Do you feel you have to get your work done and don’t have time for a meeting? Have an explicit conversation with your manager whenever you bail for this reason. Perhaps they agree with you in this particular situation (ideally you can reschedule) or perhaps they haven’t made the priorities clear.
- Do you not get value from the meetings? Keep reading! Make some changes and give them another chance.
If your manager is canceling the 1:1s…
- consider that having 1:1s with you is part of your managers job. You have a right to expect these meetings just as much as they have a right to expect you do your job.
- raise it with them. This is hard. I won’t judge you if you don’t go down this path. Ideally you can ask them why they keep canceling and come up with a solution. Perhaps your manager thinks you’re doing so well you don’t need regular meetings! Whatever the reason letting them know you want to meet at least helps set expectations.
- raise it with their boss. Again difficult, but possibly easier than speaking directly to your manager. Perhaps your manager has too much going on but they haven’t been able to bring it up with their boss yet. Possibly they think they’re meeting with you more frequently than they really are (they have a lot of meetings, it’s easy to forget). Whatever the reason, raising this with their boss can give feedback and context and hopefully help your situation.
If your manager is asking questions they want the answers! Answer with something more than just yes or no. If you need to, ask for some time to think over what your answer will be and respond at a later date (if this happens a lot ask them to share their questions in advance where possible). Awkward silences signal that you probably don’t want to be there - and it’s just as awkward for your manager as for you. Ideally bring something to contribute to the conversation as well, which brings us to…
3. Prepare for your 1:1
Before your next 1:1 take some time to think about what you want to talk about. This doesn’t need to be a big ordeal, you can start with just 5 minutes. As you get more comfortable with it, you can take notes on what you’d like to discuss any time between meetings. Many people have a 1:1 page to jot down notes about what you’d like to discuss in your next meeting. Bonus points if you share this page with your manager.
- Do you want some feedback? Ideally ask for feedback on something specific rather than an open ended “do you have any feedback for me?” Yes, asking for general feedback is ok too, but you’ll probably get better quality feedback if you ask for it on a particular topic. You’ll get even better feedback if you let your boss know you’ll be asking for that feedback in advance!
- Would you like some advice? Maybe you’ve had a difficult personal interaction, perhaps your work took longer to get reviewed than you would have liked, possibly you’re uncertain about how to get started with your next piece of work.
- What’s something you’ve done well? 1:1s are a great time to highlight your accomplishments.
- Do you have some insights into your team? What do you see that your manager might have missed? Maybe someone took the time to explain a new concept to you, perhaps you’re concerned about friction between team members, possibly your recent retrospective got you thinking about a new process you’d like to try out.
- How are things progressing on your project? Are you happy with the quality you’re producing or do you need more time to better plan the work? What process might need changing?
- What can your manager change to help you and the team? Your manager probably doesn’t get a lot of feedback from their reports - a 1:1 can be a good time give them some.
If you don’t have regular 1:1s with your manager, start by setting one up. From there you can work on having deeper and more useful conversations during your meetings. Regular time with you manager can be really helpful. These meetings can be even more valuable if you contribute too!