The Importance of Being Earnest (with 1:1s)

Successful 1:1 meetings are more than just project status sync-ups. It’s a collaborative arena for employees and their direct managers to prepare for performance reviews all year long and guards against spending an obscene amount of time trying to recall what an employee’s goals were at the beginning of the year, what she’s accomplished, and what her areas for improvement are. If you approach it properly, there should be no surprises or last-minute “remembrances” when formal perf review time comes around.

There are a few other benefits to holding these meetings, aside from the regular focus on the employee’s career progression:

  • it’s an opportunity to provide her timely feedback, both positive and constructive, outside of her documented goals
  • the meetings provide a regular forum to talk about personal and personnel issues, to the extent that both people are comfortable talking about them
  • it’s time set aside to talk about the environment as it relates to the employee, the team, the org, the company, and even the industry
  • it’s a great opportunity to receive feedback on your own performance as a manager

Ensuring the efficacy of 1:1s is a shared responsibility between both participants. If the right level of care is taken in preparing for these discussions, the potential to strengthen your employees, team and organization can be immeasurable!


Preparing for structured 1:1 meetings takes time, effort and attention- especially if it’s a new discipline for your team. It’s time well spent, however, and encouraging the proper habits up front makes the ongoing discussions more focused and productive.

The Initial Meeting

Schedule a long enough time slot for your first meeting to address all of the basics. This ensures that you are both clear on the ground rules and are beginning from the same point of view. An hour or hour-and-a-half should be sufficient. Just be sure to emphasize that subsequent 1:1s don’t necessarily need to take that long.

  • Use the first meeting to set goals, if the employee doesn’t already have them. Employees rarely have time to think about their own career, or they’ve never been taught how to think about it to begin with. One of your main responsibilities is the care & feeding of your directs. What does he want to do in the next one, three and five years? Often, employees don’t actually know where they want to be that far in the future. Start by probing what interests him, what he likes doing, who he admires. At the same time, explore what he likes least about certain roles and why (sometimes a person’s perception of a job doesn’t reflect reality). Then, build a plan around allowing him to explore a few roles within the company that might interest him.
  • Review the 1:1 document you will use to track your discussions together. Send this out prior to the meeting so the employee has time to digest it and prepare clarifying questions if necessary. If you have time, fill out a portion of it with them during the meeting to give them an idea of where to start.
  • Decide on the proper frequency for your meetings with the employee. His level, performance, how autonomous he is, and his length of time in the organization and on the team, and the demands on your own time are all factors that inform how frequently you should meet. If 1:1s are a new phenomenon for the team, I would start everyone on a weekly recurring meeting until both participants are comfortable with the routine. I would never pare a meeting schedule back farther than bi-weekly, however. Even if the meetings last ten or fifteen minutes, you both still need the opportunity to re-focus on his career to make sure everything is going according to plan.
  • Commit to your scheduled time. This is tough, especially if you have a more junior team who needs a weekly cadence or if you have a particularly large team. Interruptions to the calendar are always a risk; do a quick prioritization check before rescheduling a 1:1 to accommodate a late-binding request though. The more frequently you reschedule, the less apt the employee is to believe that you truly care about her performance.
  • Set clear expectations about the regular goals of the meeting, and make sure that your 1:1 doc format supports those goals.

Ongoing Prep Work

Most of us don’t have a lot of free time, but prioritizing preparation for each discussion will allow you as a manager to get the most out of the meeting and will reinforce the fact that you really do care about their continued well-being. Devoting ten to fifteen minutes to gathering your thoughts prior to the meeting is a worthwhile way to spend your time as a people manager.

  • Read previous 1:1 docs/notes to refresh your memory of what has been covered and what needs to be followed up on. If possible, carve out time in your schedule to do this at least 24 hours prior to your 1:1 to give yourself time to follow up on any actions that may still need attention.
  • Read the updated 1:1 doc from your employee (see below). Make notes where applicable.
  • Read the ‘fuzzy folder’. Most managers keep an email folder for each of their directs that contains communication about deliverables, performance, etc. I call it a ‘warm fuzzy’ folder because I like the thought of it only containing positive messages. ☺ If there is anything new and noteworthy, add a note to your copy of the 1:1 doc. (if time-sensitive, don’t wait for your 1:1 to deliver the message!)

The more frequently you prepare for the meeting, the less time this prep work will command. Once you’ve completed your own checklist, you’ll be ready to have a productive conversation.

The Doc

I’ve linked a copy of my own 1:1 doc template here for reference. I haven’t had to update it much in the past ten years, although I did create a slightly different one for 1:1s for managers, and I’ve moved to using google docs for easier management. It isn’t pretty, but it allows me to cover all of the topics mentioned in the first section without wasting real estate.

I believe that the employee should make time to fill this out themselves and send it off to the manager ahead of the meeting. Owning the content forces them to think about their career outside of one recurring (and often disjointed) discussion, and it gives them the control over where and how to focus the meeting. The responsibility for making the most of the chat is shared between both participants, but that control is a pretty important factor in showing that the meeting should be focused on the employee, not the manager.

  • Progress Against Goals This is a fairly self-explanatory section. Define the frequency of reviewing this based on the length of the goal, level of employee, and the consistency of progress made against them.
  • Opportunities This section is broad by design, and could cover anything in the environment, the team, the org, the company, or the industry. Basically, it’s a chance for the employee to tell you where he believes more effort should be focused. I would rarely let someone get away with saying they have no new ideas for opportunities for improvement within the environment. It’s a challenge to them to keep making their job, team and/or company better.
  • Overall Status I use this section more for managers than employees. I get enough project status reports to choke a horse, so unless there is a pressing escalation I need to know about, this is the area I spend the least amount of time on. (no horses were harmed in the writing of that sentence, btw)
  • What Have You Learned? If someone isn’t learning as a part of their job, it might be a sign that they aren’t challenged in their current role or need a fire lit underneath them. Even if their comment is, “I learned I need a day off”, it will give you insight into their mind set and open up a discussion if it’s not already covered elsewhere in the doc.
  • What Do You Need From Me? Get your team used to using you as a resource. Show that you care about making the most of their experience on your team. Ask for ideas on your areas for improvement, blind spots, etc. It’ll only make you better as a manager, and it may provide valuable insight into the dynamics of the team and the employee’s role in it.

You can always add a separate section into your own template to track previous action items or any number of more discrete subsets of the information below. Keep it focused on the employee’s career and the health of the team, rather than tactical project topics if possible.

The Meeting Itself

I only have a few recommendations about the meeting itself. Most of the work is in the preparation and follow-though.

  • Keep the mood and tone consistent with the team’s culture and your relationship with the employee. Introducing formality into an informal environment can hurt the process of gaining the trust necessary to have an open and honest conversation.
  • Create an environment where you can concentrate on the meeting. Close any applications aside from the one you use to take notes in, and set your mobile phone to vibrate (or just turn it off if that’s possible).
  • Keep focused on the agenda. If you run long, make sure to schedule a follow-up meeting to address any important points you haven’t gotten to within the next 24–48 hours if possible. (keep the momentum!)
  • Review your notes together at the end of the session. Canvass the employee for feedback to make sure you leave the meeting with the same understanding.
  • Send your notes to the employee as quickly as possible after the meeting.

That’s it! Short and sweet.

Having Tough Conversations

Constructive feedback helps an employee improve, and should never be called negative. It’s the same reason that performance reviews should cover areas for improvement, rather than weaknesses. This is more than just semantics. It sets the tone for every subsequent conversation you have with the employee. This topic is obviously worthy of many books, but here are some short points I’ve picked up over the years that have helped with having tougher or more critical discussions.

  • Be honest. No one likes to be lied to, and she should appreciate the fact that you’re delivering the message in a straightforward manner like an adult.
  • Be objective. Separate the person from the conversation, and be prepared with concrete examples. Make sure to include the consequences of their actions. (e.g. “failure to deliver your portion of the release caused three of your team mates to work overtime”) Keep the feedback anonymous if possible, though. If you need to bring someone else’s name into it, either represent it as your own feedback (if you’ve noticed it yourself) or consider inviting the other person in for some facilitated discussion. If you’re not trained or experienced, bring in your HR representative to help.
  • Recognize perception issues You should have enough information about your employee’s performance to ascertain whether feedback can be attributed to her performance or someone’s perception of her performance.
  • Deliver the message clearly. Avoid the old “sandwich” message, such as, “You’re doing great! You could work on the timeliness of your code submissions, but overall your performance is solid.” Does he really need to work on timeliness? If so, then be clear about it.
  • Take ownership for delivering the message. Don’t play the “good cop” role and blame someone else for the constructive feedback. If legitimate feedback is given to you by someone else, delivering it is in the best interests of your employee. If you disagree, it may be clear that there is a perception issue that you still need to address. Either way, you are the authority for your team, and you should own the message. Just don’t be a jerk about it.
  • Don’t pressure the employee for a response, especially when broaching a new topic. But don’t let her go away and fester for days or even weeks either. The end goal is to coach her, and you need to give her enough time to participate in a constructive conversation.
  • Give the employee ownership in the actions. Increase his investment in the solution by allowing him to help define the action plan, where relevant.

Following Up

It’s not enough to just bring up a performance issue and then assume that the employee will take care of it.

  • Follow up regularly. If you provide constructive feedback to the employee, it is your responsibility to maintain focus and make sure she is making progress toward addressing the issue. Following up shows you are invested in her improvement and that you expect her to hold up her end of the bargain.
  • Solicit ongoing feedback from any affected parties to make sure the plan is working. Provide timely updates to the employee so you can work on correcting his course quickly if possible.
  • Call out positive progress as reinforcement. I don’t know too many people who thrive on a consistently negative message. If she’s doing well, then make sure she hears that. She’ll be more receptive to feedback the next time around if you’ve shown that the process is meant to make her more effective and happy in her role.
  • Recognize when to bring in HR. Use your HR partner liberally, if only for a sounding board prior to having the conversation. If you are uncomfortable at all with driving the discussion on your own, ask him to give you guidance or attend the meeting along with you. A manager should always be present during performance-related conversations, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone more experienced there to help guide the meeting. If you’re unsure about whether HR ought to be involved, just ask. They should be willing and able to guide you through it.

This process does take time, but it’s so much better to have a tough discussion at the first sign of an issue than to wait until it’s out of control or affecting the team or your customers.