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Getting the most out of 1:1s

| July 26, 2022

by Molly Sharp

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Molly Sharp, Service Management Programs Director at Stanford University. It is a reflection on what she is learning as a current MOR program participant.  Molly may be reached at [email protected].]
Over the months since I began the MOR program, I’ve been evolving my thinking about the purpose of the 1:1, and how to get the most out of them.
I vividly remember when I first became a people manager, more than 20 years ago. Looking back, I was very much in the “managing” mindset (or more accurately, micro-managing), using 1:1s to advance the work I’d assigned to my team members. Small talk for connection happened here and there, but we quickly got down to business, using their to-do list as a conversational guide. Reflection and development were not concepts on my radar in my late twenties. I prided myself on understanding the difference between important and urgent, which, hey, is not a bad thing to know.
Fast forward to my leadership style just before MOR. For years I had been soaking up the behaviors of the best leaders I’ve had the privilege of reporting to. I manage mature employees who must think like entrepreneurs to solve the daily challenges that crop up. These challenges are never the same, and invariably involve relationships and politics. We are not looking at to-do lists. I knew that it was important for me, as their leader, to connect with them as people first and foremost, and to foster reflection, and to develop their careers. But I didn’t have a lot of concrete ideas about how to go about fostering reflection. So I turned to Google, as one does. I read a lot about “the best 1:1 questions” and compiled a small bank of resources, which I share below.
Fast forward to today, having learned so much from time with my cohort at MOR, and beginning to put my new learning into practice. My confidence about fostering reflection is much higher now. I no longer feel the need to have a scripted list of questions in front of me. I really connected with the practice of asking open-ended questions to help someone think things through on their own – without leading them to a solution I have in mind. I’m definitely still working on that last part, but I know I will get there thanks to the practice MOR has taught us about building habits.

Today, I use 1:1s to help my team think through their daily challenges, as well as help them reflect on where they want to take their career. Here is the “best of” list I gathered from my research.

Mix up your 1:1 format with a walking 1:1. Walking meetings lead conversations down different paths, and suit reflection and creativity. It’s also a great solution for the Zoom fatigue we’re all feeling these days.  Walking together changes the dynamic; it feels less formal. Because you’re not looking at each other as much when you are walking, it can also be easier to tackle more emotionally-challenging topics.

If you are geographically separated, you can still do this by each going for a walk in your own neighborhood and connecting via phone. Voice-only is a different dynamic altogether and offers a nice change of pace.

Ask these questions after a long break, a vacation, or at review time. I used these after winter break this January, which led to a week’s worth of the best 1:1s I’d ever had.

  • What were your biggest wins last year?
  • What did you want to achieve but didn’t?
  • What clarity have you gained over the break?
  • What do you want to place more emphasis on during the next few months?

These are general 1:1 questions good for anytime (thanks, Internet!):

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What’s on your plate right now, and how would you change it if you had the choice?
  • Thinking back on the last week or two, what did you do that energized you? What took your energy away?
  • What’s top of mind right now that we haven’t talked about yet?
  • What’s one thing we could change about work for you that would improve your personal life?
  • What’s something you wish we did better as a team?

Ask these (from HBR) when you want to understand how your employee feels about their work:

  • How would you like to grow within this organization?
  • Do you feel a sense of purpose in your job?
  • What do you need from me to do your best work?
  • What are we currently not doing as a team/organization that you feel we should do?
  • Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

Helpful podcasts focused on the 1:1:

I hope these tips lead to 1:1s that leave both parties feeling more energized and more connected.


This Week’s Survey

What makes for the most energizing 1:1s you experience?


From Last Week
Last week, we asked: Do you feel welcomed and connected in the course of your daily work?

  • 63% said I usually do
  • 31% said I sometimes do
  • 6% said I rarely do

The results were in line with what we have found before. Though many of us usually feel welcomed and connected, some do not. If you operate under this assumption, that 1 out of every 3 colleagues you regularly interact with do not usually feel welcomed and connected, what small practices could you bring into your everyday actions that might help move the dial to an overall better connected and welcoming environment?