Whether labelled as “1:1s,” “check-ins,” “syncs” or something even more nebulous, regular meetings between a manager and their direct reports have become an essential part of how modern businesses run. Yet, in some ways these interactions have become so routine that we either arrive unprepared or sit through them on autopilot. As a manager, how can you be making the most of this time?
Getting stuck in the routine
For many managers, 1:1 meetings can consume a significant portion of the working week, especially if you oversee a large team.
While diarising these meetings helps establish practices for sharing information and making decisions, the monotony of such a routine meeting can undermine its value. Even knowing that a 1:1 is scheduled can lead to procrastination throughout the week, deferring important discussions until the designated time.
From personal experience, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your job as a manager is to simply show up. You’re there, but unprepared. You might be engaged at a superficial level, perhaps distracted by the day you’ve already had or what you’ve got ahead. If you make time to listen, you may find yourself scratching the surface of issues but unable to delve deeper. At times you might feel your 1:1s add to your workload, as you leave with additional tasks or things to ‘unstick’.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s likely that you’re not extracting the full value from the time invested in your 1:1 meetings.
Providing coaching, counsel, and connection
The prevalence of 1:1s in our calendars often reflects underlying issues in our working environments, burdened by process and control.
Your team members may use these meetings to seek context (highlighting information gaps), ask for guidance on their work (revealing strategy gaps), or seek permission (indicating unclear decision rights).
Some may even use 1:1s for political manoeuvring or performative progress updates. This dance we engage in within modern bureaucracies aims to portray leaders as worthy of their positions and team members as valuable contributors.
If we’ve learned anything in the few years about the role of managers, it’s that at least 70% of the variance in team engagement is explained by the quality of the manager or team leader in question.
To enhance your management approach through 1:1s, prioritise three key aspects: providing coaching to aid problem-solving, offering counsel based on your experience, and building connection to deepens your working relationship and foster psychological safety.
If your 1:1 meetings primarily revolve around information sharing or permission-seeking, it’s essential to address broader operational problems within your team.
Putting the 1:1 in its place
When viewed through the lens of traditional routine 1:1s, the primary organisational value of managers is to oversee activities and keep things on track. However, the true human value of management lies in maintaining a focus on outcomes, improving information flow, and nurturing team well-being and engagement.
If your current 1:1s are falling short of their purpose, redirect your energy toward other areas to unblock obstacles in the team. Rather than letting 1:1 “checklists” build up, enhance information transparency throughout the week using asynchronous communication tools like Slack or chat. Try clarifying decision rights within your team to avoid being a point of escalation or the single holder of permission.
By focusing on these areas, your 1:1 meetings can become reflective and forward-looking, moving beyond task management in the moment. You can use this time to explore if your team members are receiving the support they need, how you can assist them further, and what collaborative efforts can be made for their development.
As senior managers and leaders, it is our responsibility to make the most of 1:1 time with our people. By breaking free from the routine and aligning our energy around coaching, counsel, and connection, we can unlock the true potential of these interactions.
And remember, your role as a manager extends beyond managing tasks. Focusing on the whole environment for work (outcomes, information flow, well-being) can help you to create a space for meaningful conversations that empower your team and drive future success.