Principles for stellar 1:1s

1:1s are deceptively hard. On paper, they look straightforward: set aside some time to let your reports talk through what’s on their mind. Actively listen, give them feedback, repeat. But no report shares the same personality, seniority, career trajectory, or learning style. Add to that mix a changing agenda and office politics, and you learn early on good listening alone won’t cut it. Knowing how to react at the moment in a way that’s tailor-made for your audience tends to elevate 1:1s from so-so to stellar.

But flexibility challenges aside, some principles work well for every report regardless of their background or environment. If you’re new to 1:1s or been doing them for a while and want to get better, adhering to these four basics will help.

Establish consistent timing

Hold your 1:1s at a consistent time every week and don’t cancel on your report. Show up promptly. For the rare instance where you can’t make it, make a point to arrange a substitute meeting elsewhere in the week proactively.

This principle may sound obvious and easy to follow, but it’s tempting to break as a busy manager. Given the inherent power dynamic you have over your reports, it can feel painless to make your 1:1s the first meetings to bump where you’re looking for extra room to chase a deadline. Don’t give into this. Treating these meetings as a priority shows respect for your reports and keeps open a critical venue for two-way feedback.

Prepare for several potential discussion topics

Noteworthy 1:1s require preparation. Think ahead to what’s likely on your report’s mind and what subjects could spark important conversations. I try to walk into every 1:1 with at least three solid topics, captured in bullet points, ready to go. I also like to anticipate subjects the report will bring up and prepare some notes of what I’ll say on the subject beforehand. It’s a minor commitment; for all but the rarest of exceptions, prep for any single 1:1 should take well under five minutes.

Ideally, preparation stems from the report as well given it is their meeting. But sometimes you’ll find yourself with time to spare because the thread of conversation wound down faster than expected. Or maybe the report came unprepared or otherwise light on content. It might be worth giving time back. But just as often there’s a valuable topic to probe further, and this is where your preparation kicks in. If career growth hasn’t come up lately, broach the subject with a few concrete growth areas in mind. If there’s been a new hire, a change in process, or other news that affects the team, ask how they feel about it; getting insight on ground level team dynamics can be invaluable.

A report’s needs trump structure and topic

Different managers have different preferred approaches to handling 1:1 topics. Some like having a shared topic doc, some email each other a list beforehand, and some head into the 1:1 cold for more freeform discussion. There’s no right answer here, and as their manager, it’s fine to suggest a format that works best for you and is consistent with other 1:1s you may run.

But remember the meeting isn’t for you, it’s for your report; be flexible. If they want to run the 1:1 in a different way, give them the option. It may incur more context switching and be a bit outside your comfort zone. However, 95% of the time it will lead to better, more productive 1:1s for your report. They’ll feel at ease, they’ll open up more, and they’ll be more engaged.

Likewise, don’t stick to any 1:1 structure that doesn’t give flexibility for late breaking, urgent issues. Maybe both of you agreed well in advance that this 1:1 would be all about career growth specific to mentorships. But then hours before your 1:1 your report is in an abrasive, high stress meeting. All she wants to chat about is how difficult it is to keep her calendar free. Now is not the time to focus on career growth; switch to talking about time management and saying no to bad meetings. Acknowledge that the initially planned topic got bumped and make it a priority to focus on that subject next week.

Status reports are off limits

When you report starts giving a blow by blow on their work progress over the last few days it’s time to transition to another subject. Places like standup or alignment meetings, Jira, email, or Slack should already capture status reports. Besides, the reason why progress reporting lends itself so well to web sites and apps like Jira is that they rarely require face to face discussion.

However, the best managers know that the transition requires finesse. You may not have to shift far from your starting point. Pay attention; the dividing line between a dry update and a headier, valuable topic can be subtle. One minute your report is talking about a project kickoff meeting that you’ve already read the notes and action items. But then you hear an offhand remark on how the meeting lacked a clear agenda. There might be a nugget here to move into a discussion about the process; was the fumble a one-off rarity or something that’s coming up repeatedly in other team meetings? Why?

Likewise, a good rule of thumb to know you’re on a good 1:1 topic is if it can’t be easily captured in a tracking tool. 1:1s are tailor-made for “between the lines” discussion, for going beyond what’s captured on paper to the long term and high level, having discussion to settle ambiguity. Practice makes 1:1s better, but some principles are foundational and easy to enact from day one: show up consistently, prepare beforehand, embrace a flexible agenda, and keep dry status reports out of the discussion. With just a few basics, you’re helping provide the tools for your report to have a great 1:1.