One on ones are the most valuable tool a manager has to connect with, influence, and align with their direct reports.
It is also one of the most stale, unstructured rituals we have in the corporate world. This is not for a lack of trying. We schedule one on ones, we show up to them, we expect our reports to show up in return. Maybe we even jot down some questions in advance. As a result of its ubiquity, it’s a ritual that has undergone little to no reflection.
What is a 1:1 for? Why is it valuable? How can we make the most of our 1:1s?
These are the essential questions that go unanswered.
Firstly, your 1:1 is not just for you. It’s for your report too.
It is time that is dedicated and set aside, should they need it, to access you as a thought partner, a career coach, a source of institutional knowledge, a confidant, and a lever to get shit done.
There’s a tendency for managers to use 1:1s as time for bonding, for getting visibility into their reports tasks, and checking on status of ongoing projects. These feel like the ways to get what a manager wants: productive, engaged, happy employees.
But those things do not feel that way to direct reports.
Too much time spent on personal matters is not bonding for them, it’s a distraction from what is far more valuable, leveraging you to accelerate their growth and their work.
Checking in on tasks and projects doesn’t feel like you’re looking for opportunities to help, it looks like you’re looking for opportunities to micromanage.
What instead do direct reports want?
They want to learn. They want to be effective. They want to be recognized. They want to be rewarded.
As managers, first we need to educate them. The 1:1 is their time to make progress on all of those goals. It is meant to be useful, not just to be habitual. It’s there if they want it. It’s cancellable if they don’t.
Then we need to empower them. The 1:1 is theirs. They can change it. They can cancel it. They can call it early.
When reports understand this and managers create a space where those principles are upheld and encouraged, the 1:1 becomes the best meeting of the week and the only time when their career, their growth, and their needs are prioritized above the day to day concerns of the business.
How do we actually structure our 1:1s so that these principles shine through?
A blank calendar event with no agenda doesn’t really say anything at all. It says, figure it out yourselves. It places the burden on you and on your report to make the meeting good, week after week, month after month, by force of will and charisma alone. This might work for a while, but eventually, you’ll both run out of steam.
Instead, rather than put the burden on the two of you to structure the conversation organically, we can leverage technology to take some of the work out of it and make it more natural to do what we really are yearning to do: get to the point.
At Assembly, our approach to 1:1s is to build the structure in by creating an automated workflow that runs alongside the meeting using our own product. That workflow triggers a form that asks us to reflect on a set of key questions before each meeting. This means both parties show up prepared for the meeting and that the first moments of the meeting can be spent isolating what needs to be talked about, rather than just warming up and chatting hoping it leads to something of value.
By asking the questions beforehand and answering in advance, reports have the ability to actually stop and think. What do I need help with? How am I feeling? What is the best way I can leverage my manager right now?
With that baked in moment of reflection, the meeting can be driven by intentionality, rather than by professional niceties.
What are the questions you’d want to ask your report to value? Maybe it’s about how best you can help. Maybe you want to ask how empowered they’re feeling?
Whatever the question, Assembly allows you to customize a set of questions and the cadence along which you ask those questions so that you can set up a workflow once and then reap it’s benefits automatically for the rest of your relationship with your report.
It’s a living workflow, constantly able to be critiqued, changed, updated, and adapted to better suit each report at each stage of their career even as their needs change.
Rather than create the workflow in a vacuum though, deciding on the questions yourself, the most powerful way to build a flow is to work together with your report to decide what questions work and don’t work. Which ones they find valuable that cut to the core of what they need you for, rather than just providing a pleasant thing to chat about.
At the end, you and your direct report will have a written record of how they have changed, improved, and performed over all of your 1:1s and be able to access historical trends in how their responses have changed over time.
This becomes its own valuable tool as a manager, to prepare for review season, to structure a promotion plan, to evaluate compensation.
It is equally or perhaps even more valuable for your report. They can have a view into all of their accomplishments, all of the feedback they’ve received, all of the ways you’ve shown up for them as a manager, and they can use that to advocate for themselves, make decisions, and grow.
When we go from doing our 1:1s face-to-face, synchronous, and agendaless to running them in a way that are focused, written, and accessible we unlock the unique value of the 1:1 meeting and we open up the room to have a really valuable manager-report relationship.
That’s what we want. That’s what our reports want. And in a world where tenures are growing and shorter and shorter and most people leave jobs due to being poorly managed, it may be just what our employers need.