How to give a great 1:1

Kimber Lockhart
Feb 6, 2017 · 9 min read

When I first became a manager, I hated 1:1 meetings. My company required them for each direct report, but I found the whole concept odd. What were we going to talk about for all that time? What if I was asked a question I couldn’t answer? What if I was awkward? As a result, I avoided 1:1s for my first six months as a manager.

How wrong I was. In my fear of the awkward moments, I was missing out on one of the most effective tools available to you as a leader.

Individual time with each person gives you a glimpse into their reality, and helps you understand their motivation and point of view. You can listen to concerns and help people get through difficult times. In short, doing regular 1:1s gives you the insight and material to do your work as a leader — to align the goals of your team members to the goals of the company.

I believe 1:1s are so important that I don’t want any new manager to struggle with making them happen. Below you’ll find my guide to preparing for, conducting, and following up on productive 1:1s. For those of you with rapidly growing teams, I’ll offer some hard-earned tips on making 1:1s work at scale.

1:1s are regularly scheduled, semi-structured meetings with direct reports. These conversations should be work-related, private, and focused on removing obstacles, giving feedback and facilitating the development of each individual. While there’s certainly space for two-person meetings that are scheduled on-demand, conducted with peers, or that comprise status reports or social chats, those aren’t what I would call 1:1s, and we won’t focus on those here.

The ultimate goal of a 1:1 is to establish a regular cadence of meeting with each individual on your team, aligning expectations and facilitating feedback. After all, it’s awfully easy to put off scheduling a session for awkward feedback — finding yourself face-to-face with each individual regularly makes it easier to give the kind of feedback that makes for well-functioning organizations.

1:1s are particularly valuable in times of rapid growth or change. Building a team in an evolving organization, you’re going to want to challenge the status quo. Do we really need formal requirements documents? What about changing our all hands meetings to monthly instead of weekly? The good news is that 1:1s form a sort of safety net as you iterate on other processes in your organization. If you’ve created a problem, you’re likely to hear about it. If you’re missing a communication channel, it’s inefficient, but feasible, to fill in the gaps during your 1:1s.

A theory of effective 1:1s

The single most important factor in successful 1:1s is getting roles and responsibilities right. It’s pretty simple: the manager’s job is to set up the meeting and prompt discussion. The direct report controls the topics and content.

“A 1:1 is your time, not mine.”

This is counterintuitive to many managers. “If I don’t direct the conversation,” they wonder, “how do I make sure we focus on the most important content?” I’d argue if you control the conversation, you will absolutely not get to the most important topics.

By handing off responsibility for the content covered, you fight the natural tendency to defer to the agenda and opinion of a manager, allowing topics to surface that might have otherwise been hidden. Regardless of how approachable you are, people defer to their manager (no, you are not the exception). To have successful 1:1s, you need to take concrete steps in the other direction — steps to ensure you’re not dominating the conversation.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve entered a 1:1 with a mental agenda only to find I only had partial context. The team members I was meeting with completed the picture and transformed the feedback I was going to deliver.

Of course, you can bring up topics that are avoided, ask hard questions, or deliver direct feedback in a 1:1. Just make an extra effort to listen before you start to lead. Let go more days than you take charge, and you’ll see your team members fill in the gaps with important concerns you otherwise would not have thought to address.

Putting theory into practice

For this to work, you need to give each team member context on the type of content you expect in advance, and you need to execute with consistency. Here’s my super-simple five-step formula for a great 1:1.

  1. Prepare: Look through your notes for the person you will be meeting with, reflecting on the tone and topic of your last discussion as well as aggregating any items for follow up. You’ll want to think through possible feedback points, both positive and constructive. Even brief preparation is better than none; in a pinch, the five minutes between sessions can be invaluable.
  2. Establish personal connection: “How was your weekend?” Keep it genuine, but take a moment to connect on a personal level. You might find yourself learning details about a team member’s preferences and motivation that you’d otherwise miss.
  3. Their agenda: “What’s on your list for today?” This section is deliberately first; the ordering supports the direct report’s responsibility for directing the 1:1. You’re asking for a list of issues, concerns, opportunities and ideas from your team member. For each item on their list, listen to what they have to say, clarify details, coach through issues, collaborate on ideas, and establish accountability for next actions.
  4. Your agenda: “I have a couple of things on my list.” Here’s where you discuss everything else—delegating projects, setting expectations, seeking clarity and giving feedback.
  5. Close and follow up: Ask if any items or concerns remain, write down next actions and establish accountability for completion.

The major challenge to successful 1:1s is consistency. To achieve their purpose, 1:1s need to happen with every single person on your team, and need to take priority over other demands in your schedule.

Important logistics

Frequency. How often do you really need to do 1:1s? Conventional wisdom seems to center on once a week for an hour, but some grade school math tells us with a team of any scale, that gets very difficult (and rather inefficient). I like half hour sessions, once a week or, if I have a large team, once every other week. If you’re not sure, I’d recommend starting with a half hour every week and iterating from there. You can adjust differently for each individual — some people and some roles will require more time than others, and it’s perfectly fine to use a different cadence for each person. One constraint: experience suggests going any more than two weeks between 1:1s gets risky: if one gets cancelled, it could easily be six weeks between meetings, and that’s certainly too long.

Location. It’s easy to get stuck in the habit of doing all your 1:1s sitting across from one another in a conference room, but I’ve found myself surprised how different people react to different venues. I once struggled to make conversation with one person for months before we discovered going to get a coffee made our dialogue click. Other team members have mentioned they cannot focus if we’re walking around the neighborhood and request going back to the conference room. Change it up.

Remote. Video chat beats audio any day, but whenever it’s possible, do your 1:1s in person. If you can’t, remember that in remote 1:1s it’s especially easy to jump right into work, so don’t forget to start by making a personal connection. Bridging the connection gap is even more important for team members who miss out on the camaraderie and serendipity of in-office interactions.

Questions I didn’t think to ask

I have serious feedback. Do I still have to let them go first? In short, no. If the feedback is urgent, important, or pointing toward a larger problem, it’s appropriate to take control of the conversation immediately (see Part 3, the “There’s a Problem” 1:1). If you do so, remember that you don’t have to do all the talking. It’s helpful to ask questions before delivering a difficult message — “What did you think of this week’s presentation?” Give your team member the chance to give their own feedback and then share your point of view clearly and directly.

What do I do with the awkward pause? In 1:1s, more so than in any other kind of conversation, it’s important to let pauses be pauses. Whether considering the next topic or recovering from hard feedback, we race to jump in, and accidentally take control of the time rather that leaving it for our team members. I distinctly remember a 1:1 where I stopped talking for what felt like ten minutes (it was probably 45 seconds). It was excruciating, but finally he jumped in to admit he just wasn’t excited about the job and wanted to explore other opportunities in the organization — a big win for both of us.

Just in case, make a list of thoughtful questions to keep in your back pocket for empty agendas, special circumstances or lulls in conversation. Here’s a start:

  • How do you think that (event, project, conversation) went?
  • What are you most concerned about at work right now?
  • How is your team dynamic this week?
  • What are your priorities right now? How can I help you with them?

Should I take notes? Some managers find taking notes in a 1:1 natural, others find it forced. Similarly, some direct reports are sensitive to their thoughts being written down in such a connected setting while others couldn’t care less. I believe notes are an important artifact of 1:1s, but I try to adjust my style based on the preference of my team members (ask if you’re not sure). If I don’t take notes in the session, I end a few minutes early and jot down what I can remembers so I can follow up next time.

Yikes, they seem emotional — what should I do? 1:1s can be deep conversations, carrying an emotional charge. I’ve heard rather startling personal admissions, seen tears, and been the target of some deep-seeded anger. Each individual situation requires some sensitivity and finesse, but this kind of personal issue isn’t on you to handle alone. If you’re not sure what to do, bring the conversation to a close, and then reach out to your people team for some help.

Yikes, I’m emotional — what should I do? You’re human. Sometimes you’ll get upset or angry during a 1:1. When this happens, wind down the conversation quickly, and come back when you’re fresh. It’s perfectly fine to say “That’s a really important topic, I’d really like to keep talking about it, but I can’t do so today. We’ll pick this up again tomorrow.” You’re the best judge of you — while regularly scheduled 1:1s are helpful for making sure feedback gets delivered, it’s fine to reschedule a session to enable you to be your best when you know you’ve got tough news to deliver.

1:1s at scale

As your team grows, the time will come when you look at your calendar and realize you spend a huge amount of time in 1:1 meetings. Doing 1:1s at scale (more than 10–12 direct reports, or a large set of skip-levels) has a unique set of challenges and constraints. Here’s some words of wisdom I’ve collected:

  • Move to a less frequent cadence (every two weeks or so) with all or part of the team. Fairness isn’t equality, so spend more time with your highest leverage direct reports.
  • Remember who said what. Write notes to track general themes and follow-up points. As mentioned above, talk with your reports about why you take notes, and stop if it’s negatively affecting the conversation.
  • Make it quick and easy to be prepared. Keep topic lists for each direct report up to date throughout the week and take the minute you have back at your desk to craft a quick agenda.
  • Reduce your follow up items. Instead of automatically taking on issues that are raised, enable the person you are meeting with to take the next step — even if it’s just to set up some dedicated time to chat. In the words of Oncken and Wass’ classic Harvard Business Review piece, “don’t take the monkey on your back.”
  • Protect your productive times: cluster 1:1s during lower energy parts of your day.
  • Always reschedule. I find if I start skipping 1:1s, I skip with the same people over and over. Set the expectations that 1:1s will move, but they will always happen. If a direct report needs you, make sure your calendar is always open to them.

Regardless of whether you’re doing two a week or twenty, great 1:1s can form a reliable foundation for how you lead your organization. Keep it simple and repeatable. Design systems to stay consistent. Avoid perfectionism; great 1:1s or even good ones are better than none. Most important of all, remember a 1:1 is just a conversation between two people who share the goal of working together successfully and done right, the time can be a highlight of the week for each of you.


Learn more about delivering great 1:1s in Part 2: The four types of tough 1:1s and in Part 3: Situational 1:1s.

Kimber Lockhart

Written by

CTO @ One Medical, Sr. Director Eng @ Box, Founder/CEO @ Increo, Stanford CS. Opinions are solely mine.

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