Jon Atkinson

Jon Atkinson

How I do 1-2-1 meetings


It appears that everyone on the internet completely hates 1-2-1 meetings.

I don't particularly want to add fuel to that viewpoint; I'm sure there are a huge mount of people who completely hate 1-2-1 meetings with their manager. I understand that.

However, done correctly, the 1-2-1 meeting is one of the greatest tools we have in the workplace; building lines of communication up, down, and across your organisation is an extremely high value activity. There's nothing more effective to build trust.

Here's the problem though; all the literature focuses on the 'perfect' 1-2-1 meeting. Apparently you can find success if you just set the right agenda, just ask the right questions, or just set the right cadence. That's all bullshit. Effective 1-2-1 meetings are a highly adaptive process. You need to change your tactics depending on the individual, their state of mind, their current challenges AND your own status. You need to be ready to adjust.

I've ended up with four 'modes' of running a 1-2-1, which I pick from and blend together based on the early minutes of the meeting:

The 'No Agenda' Meeting.

Sometimes, you don't need an agenda. You can let the conversation and the other person lead entirely.

The 'Big Goals' Meeting.

Sometimes, you need to take focus completely away from the current context. This is an ideal candidate for the very end of a day, or a Friday, or better over a long lunch. The most important context change you can make for this kind of 1-2-1 meeting is to make as much space between the general 'work' context and the current moment.

Big questions can be asked in this meeting. This can be a great way of showing vulnerability and building trust;

Clearly, not all 1-2-1 meetings can focus on these big goals. Big goals take time to achieve, so the cadence needs to be wide. That also doesn't mean 'only speak annually about these things'. You're a better manager than that.

The 'Work Catchup' Meeting.

This could easily be renamed "The 'Things I'm Too Embarrassed To Raise At The Standup' Meeting."; it won't shock you to know this is the most common meeting type, certainly for engineering managers. It's also probably the least valuable time you'll spend with your 1-2-1 partner. However there is some useful information you can gain from these meetings:

The 'Shut The Fuck Up' Meeting.

Guess who is doing the shutting-the-fuck-up? You.

Any of the above 1-2-1 meeting styles can quickly flip to this if your organisation has overt or hidden dysfunction. All organisations have both overt and hidden dysfunction.

This is where you need to let the communication flow. Everything you know about active listening and NVC come into play here. Your camera should be on (aside: if your camera isn't on, you're a shitty leader), and at most your contribution should be to prompt for more. If you find yourself becoming defensive, you need to stop and minimise your own needs. When your counterpart is talking about big problems, your job is to listen, NOT respond. This isn't litigation, it's an exercise in building trust and enhancing your reputation with your counterpart. Save the solutions for another time.

Good luck.