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One to one and many to many

Does the prospect of a one-on-one with your manager make you energized or anxious? Are your morale events packed with peers or attended only by slackers and scandal spreaders? Chances are one-on-ones are at best bearable for you and morale events are rare, wasteful, or both.

Wasting one-on-one time and morale events is inexcusable. It takes what could be the most valuable time of your week or month and turns it into redundant, useless, and pathetic time-sucking, cash-burning, work-interrupting guilt trips (“Shouldn’t I be enjoying this?!?”). Is there anything you can do about it? Yes, there is. Have your manager read this column, because it’s all your manager’s fault.

Am I speaking to your manager now? Good. Hi, manager. You stink. You’re not using one-on-ones and morale events properly. It’s all your fault. Only you can fix it. However, all is not lost. Fixing one-on-ones and morale events is simple, inexpensive, and can turn a collective time furnace into one of your greatest tools for team improvement.

A deeper purpose

Let’s start with understanding the true purpose of one-on-ones and morale events. One-on-ones are not for status updates. You get status through charting and status meetings. Morale events are not for manipulating people into believing they are valued. People believe they are valued when you actually value them through trust, guidance, and personal acknowledgement.

What is the true purpose of one-on-ones? To develop strong trust relationships with your staff and get to know them on a personal level. Management is all about effective delegation, which is all about trust. Trust comes from mutual respect and understanding, which comes from knowing each other as human beings and nurturing a relationship. You also need integrity, which is necessary for nearly everything of value.

What is the true purpose of morale events? To break down barriers between people and teams by humanizing them to each other. People working together inevitably creates conflict. A business environment tends to dehumanize people, which fuels conflict. You hear phrases like, “They don’t care” and “He’s an idiot.” By taking people out of the business environment to interact in fresh ways, you put human faces to former pronouns and create relationships that lead to improved collaboration and understanding.

Now you know the purpose of one-on-ones and morale events. Next, let’s talk about how to run them effectively, starting with one-on-ones.

Between you and me

One-on-ones can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. I typically set aside an hour weekly for each of my directs and 30 minutes monthly for every one of my skip-level folks. Before you faint, do the math. Monthly skip-levels with everyone take about half as much time as weekly one-on-ones with directs. There’s no excuse, you should do both.

Why run one-on-ones so frequently? Because you miss them. Several times a month you get unavoidable conflicts. If you miss a weekly one-on-one, you’ll still talk to the person every two weeks. However, if your one-on-one is bi-weekly you end up talking once a month, which is too infrequent to maintain a trust relationship with your directs. The same argument applies to skip-level meetings.

What do you talk about? Whatever your employee wants. One-on-one time belongs to the employee. When is your time? Whenever you darn well please. You are the boss. You can march into anyone’s office at any time to get whatever you need. One-on-one time is for employees to get what they need.

Eric Aside

Okay, wasted one-on-ones are not all the fault of managers. Employees do have to consider what they need and engage their managers. However, managers enable that discussion by resisting the urge to dominate the meeting.

“But what if the employee wants to talk about alpine wildflowers? Isn’t that a waste of time?” No, it isn’t. Remember, the purpose of one-on-ones is to develop strong trust relationships with your staff and get to know them on a personal level. What better way to get to know someone and develop trust than to talk about wildflowers? Look around your employee’s office. It’s loaded with potential topics displayed on the walls or the desk. Worst case, you can always talk about your weekend.

Eric Aside

While some employees are happy to talk about their weekends and personal interests, some are more protective. You must respect their privacy and never pry. That’s why it’s usually safe to ask about the pictures on their desks and walls. They are topics openly on display. If you want to talk about weekend activities, always briefly start with your own and wait to see if your employee is willing to reciprocate.

Float like a butterfly

Aside from building a relationship, why is it so important to talk about personal interests? Allow me to relate an example.

I once had a lead reporting to me who loved remote control (RC) helicopters. Each year, he and his fellow enthusiasts would gather at Nationals to compete and set records. We’d talk about it frequently at one-on-ones.

One year we were shipping around the weekend of Nationals, and some problems arose. The lead offered not to go, but everyone was well prepared to cover for him. He went, had a great time, and we got the product shipped. We knew about the conflict and were prepared well in advance because I knew how much Nationals meant to him. As you can imagine, the lead was quite grateful.

Consider what would have happened if the lead hadn’t told me all about Nationals months before. Who would have agreed to slip due to a RC helicopter convention? The lead would likely have canceled his trip. He’d understand and keep his spirit up, but deep down he’d be disappointed and probably resentful. Compared to the tremendous appreciation the lead actually felt, it’s quite a shift in attitude.

Now consider that this example was about competing at a National convention, a desirable event. Imagine the impact of negative events, like family illnesses, divorce, or other tragedies. The employees entrusted to us as managers are whole human beings with lives at and away from work that impact their performance on the job. Ignoring their life interests and issues puts you and your team in jeopardy. Embracing them builds loyalty and trust.

How am I doing?

“But when do you discuss career development or performance issues?” One-on-ones are a great time for coaching and career development. Usually, you don’t have to bring this up with employees. They often want to spend time talking about advancing their skills and position. However, you should always be looking for opportunities to highlight critical decisions, strategic and systems thinking, change management, communication style, and other situations and work products that might be used to improve an employee’s capability.

In the unusual event that you don’t talk don’t about career development and commitments with your directs over the course of a month, be sure to bring it up yourself. It’s too important to leave entirely to chance, and no one likes to be surprised by feedback that should have been delivered earlier. This also means you should be thoughtful and prepared to give feedback whenever an employee asks.

In particular, performance issues can’t wait for “teachable moments.” They need to be handled immediately and the messages reinforced at one-on-ones. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, you may need to document your feedback in writing so there can be no mistaking what you mean and when you meant it. For further thoughts on this, read The toughest job—Poor performers.

Are we having fun yet?

Enough about one-on-ones—what about morale events? Remember, the purpose of morale events is to break down barriers between people and teams by humanizing them to each other. How often is this necessary? Well, how long does it take to objectify people? I think you need an event every month.

Monthly morale events keep people treating each other like people. Of course, you can schedule one month as a team event, followed by an event for the larger group, followed by a quarterly event for the entire organization. As long as people are engaging in a humanizing way at least once a month you should be covered.

“But isn’t that expensive?” No, because the best morale events are often the cheapest. Ideally, the activity is an equalizer—something no one can dominate or where experts aren’t taken seriously, like bowling. Here’s a short list of cheap and easy diversions:

§  Frisbee golf (free)

§  Board games—Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, and Scene It are ideal team games

§  Card games, particularly games that involve four or more people

§  DVD watching with take-out food

§  Geocaching (

§  Billiards and ping pong at a local pub

§  Hikes or other outdoor walks

Remember, when it comes to morale events, cheap beats infrequent every time. Big teams can afford to spend more on activities like bowling, whirlyball, or curling. The key is to break out of your collective rut and have fun together like real people.

Eric Aside

Morale events are best avoided during crunch times even though they may be needed more than ever. The trouble is that people are stressed and won’t easily relax. They’ll be heavily distracted and not let go. Many team members won’t participate at all.

The best solution to crunch times is to minimize their frequency and length through solid planning and prioritization.

You gotta trust me

If one-on-ones and morale events have anything in common it’s about taking time out to deal with each other as whole human beings. Doing so builds understanding, friendship, and trust. The relationships generated improve communication, collaboration, and team unity.

It’s not that people become better talkers and writers when they know each other. It’s that mistakes and misunderstandings are more easily forgiven. Context is better appreciated and acknowledged. People try to figure out what someone really meant and are willing to talk it through. When people work with trust and understanding, we operate as a greater whole and achieve more together than we possibly can apart.

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  1. L6x L6x

    Sadly, dead on.

    Too many managers in Redmond consider the 1:1 to be time for status reporting and "catching up".  It’s 30 minutes of information flowing one way and instructions flowing the other way (when they’re not cancelled, of course).  I hate my 1:1’s because they’re a waste of time.

    Having directs, and getting them to deliver results, remains the critical path for career advancement in Microsoft.  But many managers have major individual accountabilities or dotted-line stakeholders.  

    It seems that Microsoft places more importance on the manager’s personal performance (the "do’er") than on his team’s performance (the "manager").  Abuse of the potentially valuable 1:1 time is one more sign of misplaced organizational priorities.

  2. Anon Anon

    This is one of the best articles / topics you addressed in an awesome style. (The style applies to all your articles). Hope all managers read this!

  3. A great management reminder for the new year.  It’s too easy to let a 1-1 slide into "talking about the easy stuff" i.e. current work.

    A friend once put it like this: "Microsoft employees are volunteers. They don’t need to work here specifically, they could be working anywhere. If they stay, it’s because they love it."

  4. Anon Anon

    In my Microsoft Test Group we have 4 Test Leads and 1 Test Manager. Two and a half years working here and I just had my second skip level 1v1 last month! This is the norm for the group: you talk to the manager once a year if at all. This is painful for testers because the manager in question was our best Lead, and his replacement has struggled to fill the role. If the meetings could happen more than once per year it might encourage said manager to take a larger role in coaching the testers and leads reporting to him.

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