Working the Weekly 1:1

A better approach for the most important meeting of the week

There are a lot of work “rituals” that suck so badly you want to hunt down and interrogate who ever invented them. The dreaded weekly status email is one of them. The weekly 1:1 between a boss and a direct report can be another. What should be a chance to get on the same page with the person critical to your success is often awkward, overly chummy or even skipped.

In my life I’ve been a manager, a coach and a teacher. You could argue they are all variations of management. All three share a common misconception, which is that the job is to tell people things — what to do, what to think or what to know. But it’s not. If you want to be good at any of these, you have to become a facilitator in another human’s journey to self-management.

The job of a manager is to make yourself as unnecessary as possible.

A teacher who only lectures is no more valuable than a youtube video. A teacher who asks great questions makes life-long learners.

A coach who tells you how to solve your problems is giving your a one-size-fits-all answer, creating dependency if the advice works and blowing up in your face when it’s wrong. But a coach who pushes you to closely examine your situation and develop your own solutions is a great coach.

A boss who tells you what to do is a micro-manager. As well as annoying the subordinate, a boss like that doesn’t scale. No CEO has the time to tell their direct reports what to do in every situation, much less all their employees. Although I know plenty of startup founders who try!

A manager has to learn to create a workplace where all employees feel comfortable both making decisions alone and asking for advice when it’s needed. The 1:1 is where that habit is built.

I recommend using an approach based on John Whitmore’s GROW model (based on the Inner Game approach.) I could gush about the Inner Game approach to coaching for days. The big idea is that everyone can be their own coach, because everyone is an expert on themselves. Instead of an advisor, we need a thinking partner to help pull those insights out. Here’s how that model works for 1:1’s.

Start with at least a little prep

Step 0. Before the 1:1, scan the person’s status report. Is there anything there that you should address? A worry, a missed goal, a drop in confidence?

Or you might have something you need to discus with your direct report, such as a concern of a colleague about a behavior issue. Make a note to yourself on what it is and any salient details. Don’t trust memory. Emotion can disrupt it.

Try not to have more than 1–3 things on your list. Just one is best. Remember, you meet every week. Discuss fewer things better.

Consider going for a walk rather than sitting in a conference room. It will be easier to talk, more relaxing and will get you out of the building. Start the conversation by asking an easy personal question about an interest you and the person share, such as sports or entertainment. If you don’t know what they care about, ask! The best work is done when we all know each other as human beings.

Now you’re ready to coach

  1. G is for Goals. Ask your report, “What would you like to get out of today’s meeting?” Let their topic lead the discussion.

2. R is for Reality (or reflection.) Ask questions about the topic they are struggling with. What facts to they have? What insights? What hunches? What is their reality?
Some questions to try out from Coaching Mastery

  • What’s your gut tell you?
  • How’s that make you feel?
  • What’s exciting?
  • What’s scary?
  • What’s making you [sad, angry, happy]?
  • How does your culture or history affect this?
  • What do you know? (Can be used when someone says, I don’t know”)
  • What surprises you about this?

3. O is for Options. Have the report come up with their own solutions to the situation.
This can be tough if you are a “fixer” like me. As soon as I hear someone say they have a problem I start thinking of solutions. But this keeps you as the holder of all answers. Sit on your hands, resist the urge, and ask, “Do you have any ideas for what to do about this?”
More possible questions to ask

  • How can you make your dream happen?
  • What’s possible?
  • What if you had a magic wand, and what you wanted just happened?
  • What’s a new way?
  • What if there were no barriers?
  • What’s the ideal?

4. W is for Wrap up. If you have gotten through the issues you need to, you can discuss next steps, i.e. Let me know how it goes, email me that report, or just, looking forward to learning more next week! And do ask, how can I help. Then you can restart the cycle or finish the conversation.
Wrap Up Questions:

  • How can I help?
  • What resources are available?
  • What’s next?

What if you aren’t the boss?

It can be tough when your boss isn’t the best coach. But you can still coach upwards. Ask your manager what she wants to cover or suggest a topic, then ask her what she knows about the reality of the matter, share what you know, bounce options off her and so on. Help her help you.

As well, look for peer-to-peer coaching. You can read a book like Inner Game of Stress with a small group of coworkers, and discuss it after. Then coach each other, using the GROW model. Question based coaching with GROW allows you coach anyone, even if you don’t have expertise in that area. That means a designer can coach an engineer, or a QA person can coach a marketeer. You might even get greater team cohesion along the way.

Managers, avoid the seduction of bossing

If you do have advice, ask for consent first. Try saying something like, “I have an idea I think might help. May I share?” That little gesture of respect prevents you from appearing bossy and makes space for your report hear what you have to say.

Advice is thrust upon us so often in our everyday life. It’s kinder to ask first, even when you are the boss. Maybe especially when you are the boss.

The combination of deep listening, directed questioning and respectful and restrained advice changes the power dynamic in the employer-employee relationship. It becomes a partnership in which each person has a distinct role to play and in which both are responsible for each other’s success. Which they are.

This model is so effective I’ve been using it in my office hours with my Stanford students. They are bright and passionate, and I won’t be teaching them for long.

I’m better off teaching them to teach themselves.


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