Since I moved into my first management position about 3 months ago, one of my biggest learning curves has been around how to give a good 1-on-1.

Here are the 8 most important lessons that I’ve learned so far:

1. It’s important to take a personal interest in your reports

While we are all professionals, the truth is that personal and work life get mixed up all the time. If someone is struggling with a difficult issue at home, of course this is going to affect their work as well. That is normal and human.

Having a genuine, personal interest in your reports helps to build closer relationships and trust. It not only makes your work life more fun when you are friends with your colleagues, but it also lets them feel safe to let their guard down and be more open about issues so that you can tackle them together.

In short, good 1-on-1s are built on a foundation of trust and rapport; it can’t just be all business, all the time.

This is something I have gotten a lot better at but I am still not perfect by any stretch.

2. People are different from each other

It sounds obvious but it’s not: people are actually very different from each other.

Something that opened my eyes to this was when we did a StrengthsFinder session at work.

StrengthsFinder is a kind of personality test with a twist - it encourages you to double down on your strengths rather than trying to shore up your weaknesses.

I remember going through the quiz and thinking “but the answers to these questions are all so obvious.”

When my results came back* I wasn’t really surprised by any of them.

But the real surprise came when I saw that everyone else had different strengths from me, and from each other. What that really means is that they held different values about what was important to them.

Each team member is different and understanding each person’s values is really important as a way to find out what they are motivated by, how they like to receive feedback, and how they might best work with each other.

3. 1-on-1s are for them, not for you

In my first 1-on-1s I treated it more as a check-in and opportunity to give feedback.

Over time I came to realise that a 1-on-1 is for the report, not for me. It’s an opportunity for them to discuss what is bothering them, to offload complaints or to ask for help.

I’ve had to get better at truly empathising, listening and understanding what is being said, and resisting the urge to jump in with a solution at the first opportunity.

Often someone just needs to talk through a problem and they don’t even need any help.

However it’s also super important to remember that most reports don’t often get a chance to voice frustrations about things like company direction, process or even upper management.

As a line manager, you may be the only person they can talk to who can potentially do something about these issues, and it’s important to take your reports’ feedback seriously and go bat for them if necessary.

A rule of thumb I use is to spend roughly 70% of the time listening and 30% of the time talking.

4. 1-on-1s are an opportunity for positive feedback

Something else that surprised me is that it’s not always obvious to someone how they are performing at work.

If you’re working with top tier people who care about excellence, changes are that they really care about how their work is received, and they don’t often get a lot of feedback about it.

I am a strong believer in the power of positive encouragement. People do not hear enough praise in their everyday lives and yet this is one of the most effective tools for change.

You are far more likely to get the results you want by letting people know when they do something well than by criticising when they are doing it wrong.

1-on-1s are a great opportunity to tell people exactly what they are doing right and to keep up the good work.

5. 1-on-1s are an opportunity to make expectations clear

As a corollary to the previous point, 1-on-1s are an opportunity to make expectations clear to your team.

Ambitious and driven people want to know what the rules are, so they have a yardstick against which to measure their performance.

Without clear expectations, people can become stressed and frustrated because they feel like they don’t know what they should be focusing on.

It also devalues the work of high achievers when poor performance is left openly uncorrected.

Sometimes making expectations clear requires giving some constructive feedback. It’s really important to give this with specific examples, and to ensure that it is designed to be helpful to the person and guide them in the right direction. It should never come across as a personal criticism.

One thing I have learned is that different people need to be given feedback in different ways. Some respond well to a direct approach, while others need it to be framed in terms of their own personal goals. Sometimes it needs to be softened with a lot of positive phrasing.

On very, very rare occasions however, the most effective technique is to give someone a reality check and a bit of a kick up the arse.

6. Structure is not necessary

In my early 1-on-1s I tried to follow a rigid structure, but I didn’t find that it worked very well.

In the end I decided to go with my gut and let the conversation take it’s own course in 1-on-1s.

I think this gives the best opportunity to surface issues that may not have been foreseeable had you tried to plan out the topics in advance.

7. But you need to lead

Previously in my own 1-on-1s with my managers I always had plenty to say and it felt natural for me to lead the conversation around my concerns, challenges and what I was happy about.

So when I first sat on the other side of the table I assumed that everyone would be like this.

It came as a surprise to me is that most developers are not naturally forthcoming.

In fact, usually they require a bit of coaxing to get to the meatier topics, and this is where the art comes in.

The more introverted someone is, the more important it is for you as a manager to dig and coax out of them what is really on their mind.

8. Give honest and open feedback

I think one of the best things you can do for your reports is to be honest with them.

They need to know they can trust you to tell them when they are doing good work, or when there is something they can improve, or when there is something afoot in the organisation that might affect them.

This doesn’t mean being harsh or mean, of course.

It means being direct and genuine. I think the best angle to come at this from is “honest but kind”.

And that’s it! 8 lessons I learned from my first 50 1-on-1s.

I’m still a beginner at this management game and probably making quite a few mistakes, but I hope with a sincere desire to improve and learn I can keep improving and do the best for my team.


* For the curious, my StrengthsFinder results were:

  1. Competition
  2. Achiever
  3. Learner
  4. Focus
  5. Individualisation