I’ve been managing teams in tech for two decades, some small, some numbering five hundred plus. During this time, I’ve presided over two dozen sales kickoffs, hundreds of team meetings, and countless offsites. I can run a pretty good meeting, if I may say so myself.
But I stink at garden variety, plain ol’ bread, and butter, one-on-one weekly calls.
I like making big, bold, strategic bets, then getting teams on board to run with me up a mountain. I don’t have the same affinity for the more predictable, repetitive parts of my job — like 1:1s. It’s an area I’m constantly trying to improve and one that I imagine many other folks in similar positions may struggle with.
And so, as something of an authority on the topic, I present to you the top ways to screw up your 1:1 meetings.
Show up late/repeatedly reschedule: Nothing shows one of your direct reports how (un)important they are in the grand scheme of your day as you consistently showing up late. Don’t do it. The same goes for rescheduling every week or at the last minute. Show respect for their time, lest they feel unimportant.
Jump right in: There are a host of surveys that conclude feeling as though their manager cares about them, their families, and their interests is a critical part of avoiding turnover in team members. Though you may be itching to get to the data, fight the urge to dive into the substance and instead take some time to make a personal connection. Also, surveys aside, it’s a pretty tough time for many folks at the moment. Letting people blow off some steam is just the decent thing to do.
Be a shitty listener: While you may be thinking about the board presentation you have in two hours or the budget fight looming with your CFO, chances are your direct report is 100% focused on their conversation with you. Multitasking, or obviously glancing at other things, suggests you aren’t listening, and you’re not engaged. And candidly, it’s a whole lot easier to listen and focus if you are holding someone’s gaze (or so my wife tells me...)
Set no agenda or don’t read theirs: Starting every 1:1 with “how’s it going?” and having nothing of substance to inquire about thereafter suggests the call is just an item to be checked off of your daily task list. Identify some things you want to cover prior and send a note confirming. Also, if your direct proposes an agenda prior to the meeting, take a minute to read through and prepare. Show that you value their work, their priorities, and their time.
Provide no encouragement: Leaving your team member with a bit of inspiration — something to feel positive or excited about — will be important to their motivation during the time you are apart. This is especially important if your 1:1 is one of the only meaningful interactions you have with them. If you have constructive criticism or a tough message to deliver, get it done early in the call, and bookend it with acknowledgment of growth or progress in another area.
Multi-task: See 3. above. I can knock out 25 email responses in a 30-minute 1:1 if I’m not listening. It’s tempting, but the work will still be there after the call. Remove the temptation by closing Slack or Safari, so you can focus on your team member.
Make it about you: After coming out of a stressful meeting with your boss, a key customer, or some other high-intensity call, it can be tempting to use a 1:1 with a direct report as a time to exhale. Don’t vent about your day, debrief them on your last call, or otherwise show up without focus or purpose. But, as per the point above, you can be human and talk about the latest NCAA game that had you shouting at the TV.
One to one time with direct reports is a foundational element of managing teams. When done well, these calls can increase productivity, reduce simmering tensions, and provide the guidance and inspiration that so many folks need in their day-to-day work. These conversations will unfortunately not work to perfection with little to no effort from you. Take a few moments to consider last week’s 1:1 meetings, and check yourself against the pitfalls above. If you find yourself being a shitty listener, ordering shoes online while offering (faux) contemplative nods, talking about yourself, or just being endlessly critical, make the time to get better. It will make you a better boss, I promise.
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