Why You Should Never Cancel Your One-on-Ones (and the only good reason to)

Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours.” – Andy Grove in High Output Management on the value of one-on-ones

Andy Grove knows a thing or two about good investments; as CEO, he grew Intel by 4,500% in market capitalization from $4 billion to $197 billion. His understanding of returns wasn’t limited to financial ones; he also understood the return on investing in people through good management.

And he’s not alone. Ben Horowitz was ready to fire a manager and their boss for not having one-on-ones for months. Serial entrepreneur Michael Wolfe swears by them. Many companies today stress their importance, yet they do not go beyond establishing they should be held.

With everything else managers have going on, it’s tempting to cancel one-on-ones for any number of reasons.  Unfortunately, doing so can create lasting damage, so think twice before doing so.  Here’s just 7 of those reasons for you to consider before you cancel your next one-on-one.

7 Reasons to Never Cancel Your One-on-Ones

1) It’s hard for them not to agree.

Have you ever gone to your team member last minute and said something like, “Things are really crazy today. Can we cancel our one-on-one this week?”  I bet they virtually always agreed and you felt absolved from having the one-on-one, because, hey, you asked and they said it was okay!

Managers may not realize their power dynamic over their team membersUnfortunately, all will not be well. Whether you like it or not, by being their manager, there is an inherent power dynamic at play. Your team members value your opinion and position in the company, which is normally a good thing.  However, in this case, they will downplay their needs thinking they’re doing you a favor, and what you want, by agreeing to cancel.

Even if they do tell you they want to have the one-on-one, now that you’ve established you wanted to cancel, it will be hard for them not to worry your mind is elsewhere during the meeting. This can lead to the meeting feeling rushed, or the team member being less likely to open up on something important for fear you don’t need to hear about “one more problem” right now.

2) They’ll resent it.

When you cancel one-on-ones, whatever reasons you give are implicitly conveyed as more important than your team members.  Depending on what it is, that can range from being very disappointing to your team member to somewhat understandable.

A canceled one-on-one is one less chance to keep things running smoothly for your team and especially that team member. Often the problems, feedback, and ideas you hear in one-on-ones have no other good venue to be brought up in. Canceling your one-on-one with them is thus like putting a muzzle on them when they likely had something important or useful to share. Losing out on hearing them means less of a chance to make small improvements that will keep your team happy, or get in front of a problem while it’s small.

3) You break the rhythm.

Don't break the rhythm of one-on-ones with your teamWhen you have great one-on-ones where you cover a variety of topics, make them actionable, and follow through on what you discuss, you’ll find a great rhythm develops with your team (an app like Lighthouse can help you with this the workflow). They’ll interrupt you less at random times and instead count on their one-on-ones as a safe, low pressure place to bring up problems when they’re small. When you cancel a one-on-one, you break that rhythm.

Andy Grove wrote, “the most important criterion governing matters to be talked about [in one-on-ones] is that they be issues that preoccupy and nag the subordinate.” If you’re meeting with someone every 2 weeks, a single canceled one-on-one means you go a full month without checking in on those issues. If you meet even less often, or fall into the temptation to cancel multiple times, then the issues are compounded across months! You should never go a month or more between one-on-ones.

With the rhythm broken, it becomes easier to cancel more one-on-ones, and now you’ll be on a downward spiral where issues build up before you hear about them. You’ll also find your team will push you into reactive management, because they now have to come to you at random times with issues instead of counting on saving them for their next regularly scheduled one-on-one. Spare yourself the compounding issues and don’t break the rhythm!

4) Busy times are when you need one-on-ones most.

Is your team under a hard deadline? Are you getting pulled into yet another high-priority meeting? You may be pushing to launch a feature, get a big project done, or otherwise under great stress, and that’s no time to skip a one-on-one.

Are you more likely to snap at someone or get frustrated when you’re rushed and sleep-deprived, or relaxed and under control? When stress and tension are at their highest for you and your team, your one-on-ones can have the highest impact by relieving some of that major stress.

Your team can have the most mature, high-skilled people on it and there will still be team issues.  As a manager, you will get the greatest return by keeping your team running smoothly.  Don’t endanger that by canceling one-on-ones when they need your help most and an attentive ear with a few small actions would improve a situation greatly.

5) Copping out is weak.

It's lame to cancel a one-on-one for lack of things to talk aboutIf you have nothing to talk about in a one-on-one, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve heard managers say things like, “if my team member doesn’t bring anything to talk about, I cancel my one-on-one.”  Congratulations, you’ve just cut your management effectiveness in half.

Not everyone on your team is going to make your life easy by essentially managing themselves. It’s great that they contribute to the agenda for the meeting (it is supposed to be all about them after all), but it’s a cop out on your part to not also prepare.

There are literally hundreds of questions you can ask in your one-on-ones and it’s unlikely that every team member will think to bring all of those questions to you on their own. It will also take you months, or even years, to cover all of them, so you should always have something new to bring to a one-on-one to discuss.

6) You miss out on times to listen and learn.

Don’t have anything pressing to talk about? Great. Not every one-on-one should be about problems and fires to fight. Instead, use some of your one-on-ones as an opportunity to talk about their career development and growth, or to get feedback and ideas to improve the team.

If you hear something from one team member, there’s a good chance others on the team have an opinion and a view to share on it as well. Shopping ideas and gathering feedback privately across your team is a great way to solve problems and discover great new opportunities.

Toyota has built their Total Production System to focus management on the principle that front line workers have the best insights and ideas. As a new Toyota manager learned, “improving actual operations was not his job—it was the job of the workers themselves. His role was to help them understand that responsibility and enable them to carry it out.” If it’s good enough for one of the best car manufacturers in the world, it’s good enough for you, right? Don’t pass on your best opportunity to learn from your team.

7) Rescheduling is an easy solution.

Emergencies will happen.  There will be times that your regularly scheduled meeting time won’t work.  But that is not reason to cancel entirely and wait until the next scheduled meeting.

If you have an emergency (personal or at work), and it would either severely distract you in the one-on-one, or you literally can’t be there, then your best bet is to reschedule not cancel.  Don’t miss out on the opportunities to fix problems when they’re small, get feedback, and show you value your team member’s one-on-one.

By rescheduling, you maintain your team member’s confidence that they will have a regularly scheduled opportunity to talk about what’s important to them, and you avoid issues piling up due to missed weeks.  You also reduce the chance of coming into a future one-on-one with a blank stare because it’s been so long since the last one no one remembers what you were talking about before (Lighthouse can help with this).

And the only reasons to cancel: Vacation and Holidays

Vacation and holidays are the only reason to cancel one-on-onesIf one or both of you is not available at the time of your one-on-one due to extenuating personal or work reasons, or a vacation, then it makes sense to cancel the meeting. You can’t reschedule in this case, because their or your unavailability is likely more than just that day.

In these kinds of situations, many of the other issues we’ve discussed don’t come into play, because they, or you, are not in the regular work environment.  You aren’t able to take action on any of their feedback anyways, and they aren’t in the office environment to experience the kinds of issues they’d want to bring you.  This means you can pick everything up without a problem next time you are both back from holiday, vacation, or other extended leave.

Canceling one-on-ones hurts you, too.

It can seem so innocent to send a quick message or ask your team member to cancel, but as a manager you’re really hurting yourself.

All of the above reasons are examples of the multiplier mindset you need as a manager. The return on investment on helping your team succeed and run smoothly is much greater than anything you can accomplish on your own. Don’t miss out on taking advantage of a manager’s greatest tool by failing to use it.