The #1 Reason that Your 1:1s Are Poor (+ How to Fix Them)

The #1 Reason that Your 1:1s Are Poor (+ How to Fix Them)

Today I'm going to show you how to turn your one-on-one meetings into a high leverage use of your time.

Far too many leaders that I meet experience their 1:1s as bland, low-impact, and just another meeting on the calendar. They know they're not great and can better, just aren't sure how.

A manager's job is to create the conditions for their team to be successful. One-on-ones are the time when you can best see the current conditions that your report is operating in and understand how they might be improved. By seeing this you'll know exactly your role in supporting them. And importantly also know when they're already set up for success and don't need anything from you. I see many managers in a perpetual state of wondering. Do they have what they need? Are they working hard enough? Are they working on the right things? What do I need to do to get them more productive? More aligned?

Unfortunately most one-on-one meetings are set up to meet your - the manager's - needs.

It's not all about you...

Are any of these thought patterns familiar?

  • You've heard that one-one-ones are important, so you scheduled them with all of your reports and now they just feel like another damn meeting to go to.
  • You're worried that your reports aren’t working hard enough.
  • You're more concerned with being seen as a good manager, than actually getting clear on what a good manager does.
  • During your one-on-ones you’re forever on the hunt for the next problem to solve.

Your one-on-ones are ineffective because they're all about you. Your insecurities and your desire to control get in the way of the power of 1:1s.

Effective one-one-ones require you to give up control of the conversation. And giving up control is going to be uncomfortable.

There's gonna be some bumps on the way.

You're still going to worry that the meetings aren't good enough.

But by reframing your 1:1s you're going to notice results quickly. They'll become time well spent. Maybe the most important time you spend each week.

Let me show you how...

#1: It's Not Your Meeting, It's Theirs

It's time to give up control in your one-one-ones. These meetings aren't about you or your control over another person. These are a time to empower and resource them. And doing so, you resource yourself with a person better enabled to do their work.

Ben Horowitz shares:

The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting.

In making this change, you'll likely experience some inertia at play here. Most people have been victims of poor 1:1s. And so you'll see them launch into status updates. I did this and I did this and this is on-track. Blah blah.

This is politics and posturing. We don't have time for that. There's a business to build, so be explicit about the context that you're creating together. You're here to be their ally.

#2: Your New Role: 90% Listening, 100% Curiosity

Since this is no longer your meeting, your role needs to shift. Your role is to be their ally. Not their problem-solver. Not the cracker of the whip.

Your core message is simply “I believe in you, I'm here to listen, and I'm here to help.”

As an ally you mostly listen. Aim for 90% of the time they are talking. As they share, follow your curiosity and inquire with questions to explore deeper.

Ben Horowitz’s quote from above continues stating that one-on-ones are:

...the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.

Be the person who they can bounce half-formed ideas off of. Be someone who they can share joys, pains, questions and concerns with. Stop trying to solve, force, or coerce. Those are all about you. You’re there for them.

This mindset shift alone will transform your 1:1s.

#3: Start Personal, Then Move to Professional

Most 1:1s are one-dimensional, focused only on the business outcomes. This dismisses the broader context of life that a person operates in.

For better or worse, people are bringing more of themselves and their life's challenges to work. Simon Sinek has a video where he notes how the institutions that used to support us as full humans have vanished, leaving us with the modern workplace being often the only place available to us to bring our struggles of our lives. And this is doubly true in remote working environments where the lines between our personal and professional lives blur.

In light of this, as managers we have an opportunity to meet our people in the reality of their life. It's not ideal, but it is real. And the opportunity is to create a space in our one-on-ones for vulnerability which creates trust and trust creates candor and candor creates unique insights on how we can better resource our people. You don't need to be their therapist but you can help. And through our help we can create more capacity in our people.

Having a few questions at the ready can help here. Even simple ones like:

  • How are you feeling about (your life at work/personal life/your team/your OKRs/our culture)?
  • If you were me, what would you do?
  • What information/tool/connection would best help you?

Again, be curious and seek out opportunities to better resource them, their team, and the company.

#4: Persistent Feedback

Giving feedback is scary for most managers because they believe it will create conflict. The real problem though is that most feedback comes out of the blue since you aren't in a regular cadence of giving it. The most effective systems (think sports teams) give and receive feedback all the time. This is much nearer the ideal than most companies where feedback is held until review cycles, if ever shared.

One-on-ones create context for regular feedback.

A portion of each meeting should be for bi-directional feedback. This can be made easy for both of you by using sentence stems.

For example:

  • One thing that’s going well is...
  • One thing that I wish for is...

When possible try to name a specific situation, specific behaviors you observe and the impact it had on you. This feedback mode is SBI (Situation, Behavior, and Impact).


  • One thing that’s going well is that you were willing to share your opinion on the Q2 company roadmap at the All-Hands, which made me feel excited about the changes that you proposed.
  • One thing that I wish for is that we would get the product team dashboard live. I fear we're aiming for perfection instead of getting something live that we can learn from.

Getting in the habit of feedback creates momentum for more feedback, more honesty, and more ease for both the giver and receiver.

#5: Provide the Scaffolding for a Powerful Conversation

Now that you have the mindset (be their ally) and focus areas (personal, then professional + feedback) all you need to tie this together is a simple structure to support those outcomes.

Give your reports a single document that provides the scaffolding for this. Here's a very simple template that you can take and use starting today. Inside you'll see a simple agenda including comments from me on each part.

Since the 1:1 is their meeting, this doc can (and should) evolve over time. Consider it a sign of success if each of your reports begins adapting the initial structure to better meet their needs. (Note: The manager who sees 1:1s as about themselves, would take offense to these changes. Seeing them as signs of their ineffectiveness as a manager.)

Starting the Experiment

Revising your 1:1s is an exercise in change management. Start by enrolling them in the change, by doing two things:

  1. Take personal responsibility for the ways that your 1:1s haven't been high-quality while also casting vision for how they can be better. A sentence like "I notice that I've been trying to exert too much influence over our 1:1s and think that by letting you lead they might better serve you." can go a long way here.
  2. Frame the change as an experiment (e.g. "I'd like to try this new approach for our next 3 one-on-ones"). If the new approach doesn't serve, then you can always go back to the old way.

Even better yet, If you're not sold on this approach, try changing your 1:1s with just one of your reports for now. The contrast will generate clarity. And I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Further reading:

  • Learn more about the SBI Feedback model that is used above in the sentence stems.
  • Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team: