How I conduct 1:1s with a People First Operations approach

by | Jun 8, 2023

I’m going to start by reiterating a point made in my previous blog post about 1:1s:

For a manager of people, there is simply no other meeting that is as important as a 1:1 meeting with a direct report(s). I consider 1:1s to be “sacred” and treat them with extra care because I treat my “people” with extra care.

So to dive in a bit on what that means for me, here are some of the ways that I approach, conduct, and even communicate about 1:1s.

Schedule them at a time that serves your employee

I have found that one of the ways that I can show my people great respect is in caring for their calendar. I don’t want to be the one to presume that my schedule is more important than theirs because I’m the boss. And, if you’ve read my other blog posts, you’ll know that actually their calendars are more important than mine because our team’s velocity and accomplishments are due to them! Some of us bosses also do some IC (individual contributor) work so we can help get things over the goal line but without the team and your people, you’re not going to make it. So look for 1:1 times for each person that fall to a part of their day when they’re the least productive and if you can, put those 1:1s at the end of the day (if that’s a least productive time) so that you can tell ’em to get home to their family at the end. Again, make sure it works best for them. I also will look to put a 1:1 up against another meeting that is already scheduled so that they’re not “starting and stopping” their own work more than they need to. (I’ll write another blog post on the costs of starting and stopping – but till then, just know that you should minimize it for your people but giving them and protecting their large blocks of time to do development – or whatever work they do)

Also, apart from vacations (mine or theirs), I never will cancel a 1:1 outright. I will always reschedule them with permission from the person and at a time that works best for them. And if you’re wondering, yes, I do ask them if it’s ok to reschedule the 1:1 and I will give them the specific reason for asking and also apologize for the need to reschedule it. All of this is very important because they are, in fact, the most important relationship that I have at work. I treat my direct reports with the utmost respect, and how I handle our 1:1s shows them just how much I do respect them and their work. Furthermore, if I have had to reschedule the same person’s 1:1 recently, I will work extra hard to not reschedule it again for a while. There are always exceptions but again, people will read into your handling of their 1:1s as how you feel and care about them directly. To them, a 1:1 is not just a meeting, it’s their relationship with you.

The 1:1 meeting is about your relationship with your direct report

They should know that up front and they should feel that throughout all of your 1:1s. It is especially during the 1:1 meetings that your direct report should feel how much you care about them as a person and as an employee. The old quote: “People don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care.” is particularly poignant here. This simple point is the starting point for the next points.

Smile! Enjoy them!

This is the time to charge up them up and neuroscience shows that we get charged up by being with someone who wants to be with us! And the way we know that they want to be with us is that they’re happy and joyful when they’re around us. So smile and laugh as much as possible!

NOTE: There will be times where smiling is not appropriate and that is when you have the honor of being told something really hard by them that can at times be sad or upsetting. I say that it is an honor because if you’ve done things correctly, you’ve built up a ton of trust and psychological safety with them and they’re feeling open to share something hard with you. I once had a direct report share with me that their child was suffering from a severe eating disorder and that they were being hospitalized and put into a rehab facility. Heartbreaking in every way. An honor for me to enter into that pain with this person and care for their heart and even, with permission, to pray for the situation. Honestly, tears were shed by both of us and it took our relationship to a deeper, more meaningful level. It’s ok to show your emotions with your people as you care for and support them.

Be fully present.

Silence all the things – except for your family of course. You do not want any distractions during this time, however long it is. You want them to know that this time is all about them and what they need. So do not check your texts, your email, your slack notifications, look at your watch, etc. Just give them your full undivided attention. If you think about how that makes you feel when someone does that for you, you likely understand why you will want to do that for them. But if you don’t feel any certain way about that, just take my word for it. Your people will notice and they will feel cared for a LOT.

If you’re not fully present, then honestly it would have been better to not have the 1:1 at all.

If they see that you’re just distracted, then they’re not going to want to be there with you either because it tells them that you have more important things to be thinking about than them. Instead of charging them up, you’ll be draining the life from your relationship with them.

Keep notes. Usually I start off my 1:1s with 2 questions: “How are you doing?” and “What can I do for you?” (and if the answers for the first 2 questions don’t yield much, I’ll ask “What do you want to talk about?”) NOTE: I will let them end the 1:1 early if they would be better served by that but if they’re not in a hurry to do so, I will tend to try and fill that time with other questions and just spend time with them. That’s what this is about!

When I ask the first question, I am asking for them to “check-in” with me and if you’re not familiar with a “check-in”, it’s really more about their heart and how they’re really doing. Are they excited? Frustrated? Nervous? Fearful or anxious? Enjoying their job? You might have to explain what you mean so that they’re not thinking this is an empty “How are you?” type of question and that you really want to know.

With that second question, sometimes they will ask me for help or for “things”. And that is a good thing!! One of the main goals is for my action item list to grow during these, not theirs. And I will tell them exactly that! When you are doing things for your people, you are doing your job! Most of the time, I thank them for bringing this up to me. I literally praise them for their requests for my help. Welcoming these requests establishes so much psychological safety and allows them to know that they can ask and trust me with their requests. And sometimes I can’t help them with something but typically I know who should usually be able to help and I can either go to them on their behalf or I can make introductions or give instructions. The fact that they asked me first is a great indicator that they trust me to help. And the more I can reinforce that I am here to help them, the better our work relationship becomes.

Back to keeping notes, I am a busy person with a lot of plates spinning just like you! If I don’t write them down or better yet, put them into a digital to-do list with alarms and reminders, I might not get them done. This is where you can shine in their eyes.

If you follow through on doing what you say you will do, you will make them feel even more cared for, listened to, and important to you.

The 1:1 is not the time to load up all the work on them. You can have different discussions at different times with them about that. This is the meeting where they may tell you that they’re blocked and you need to take a note so that you don’t forget and you unblock them. Please refrain from assigning them new work in the 1:1s. You want 100% of this time to be “filling them up” and not demotivating them. Make this is a safe space for them without any surprises.

Empathize with them in the job and in other aspects of life.

Empathy (not pity) creates psychological safety and trust. Our people do hard jobs and sometimes they just need to vent about how hard it is! Our people sometimes work with hard people and sometimes they just need to vent about how difficult that person can be! The 1:1 is “sacred” and things shared there need to stay there. There are exceptions to this rule of course. But oftentimes, the things shared should stay there and not be shared with (or thrown at) others. It’s important for you to be “in the know” about strained relationships so that you can be a source of peacemaking between them if it comes to that but typically when one of my direct reports tells me that there’s someone who’s making their work life difficult, I can give them some tips and tricks, some coaching for how to approach that person. It’s much better for everyone when conflicts can be worked out and resolved between the 2 parties involved rather than involving any managers. And for you to be invited into that is a good thing because you want to be able to work through those struggles so that you have a better, more healthy culture!

Sometimes they need to tell you about stuff that’s happening at home because it’s spilling over into their work life – a flood in the basement, a loved one who’s sick, they’re moving to a new house, etc. All of these types of life things are hard and take extra time and empathizing with them and giving them the space and time to take care of themselves and their loved ones is so important. To do so in a caring way, not begrudging them anything, will really charge them up and produce a desire in them to work hard for you when they are fully able to return.

Encourage the person!!!

Like A TON!!! Speak life to them. 90% of what you say to the employee during a 1:1 should be positive and encouraging and 10% can be instructional and, if need be, corrective or guidance. But you have to be careful even with the 10% because if you approach that discussion without really dialing in a care-filled communication, that 10% can become 100% of what they hear and it can be extremely discouraging and demotivating. It also depends on the person that you’re talking to. Some people love direct, forthright communication and just want you to “spit it out” (still, you must be careful in what you say and how you say it) and they have a thick skin. Some, however, do not and any notion of them not doing a great job can cause them to have a “sky is falling” viewpoint on this. And this leads into the last thing that I use 1:1s to do…

Get to know them.

I don’t just mean what their hobbies are, where they live, etc. I mean what their likes and dislikes are, what their preferred communication styles are, how they like to receive praise/recognition (public or private), what their strengths and talents are (a LOT more to come on this topic), and other more “meta” level things. So, in your 1:1s, ask lots of questions as they talk about whatever it is they want to talk about. As mentioned above, use this time to really get to the heart of what motivates them each day, what their passionate about, what their upbringing was like, what their culture is like, etc. Just be curious and willing to share yourself with them too! People really do love talking about themselves and you can give them that gift in this regularly scheduled time. If they ask you questions about yourself, then that’s a gift back to you!

I hope this blog post was a helpful look into how I run my 1:1s and why my direct reports have felt cared for by me. It’s one of the main ways that I have been able to build psychological safety with my direct reports over the years. I’ve made mistakes and have learned from them! And I want to give you the same opportunity because I care about you and I care about your direct reports! Really!!

This type of 1:1 framework is just one piece to the overall People First Operations framework for creating that team (and being that boss) that everyone wants to join and no one wants to quit.

NOTE: My next blog on 1:1s will be on effective skip level 1:1s – boss’s boss to direct report. The People First Operations way for skip levels will probably blow your mind! Stay tuned!

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