Status Updates: The biggest trap to avoid in your one on ones

What questions do you bring to your one on ones? If you’re like many managers, they may be similar to these:

  1. What did you do last week?
  2. What are you doing this week?
  3. What are you doing next week?
  4. What’s the status of that project?

While those are good questions for a manager to know about each of their team members, it’s not what a one on one should be about. I mention it a lot in our posts and I keep hearing about managers using questions like these, so I’d like to make the full case here once and for all that one on ones are not for status updates.

status updates are what bill lumbergh would use his 1 on 1s for A manager like Lumbergh from Office Space would make his 1 on 1s status updates

Why your one on ones should not be status updates

1) It’s not scalable.

If you ask your team about their work individually, you create a monopoly on knowing what’s going on with your team. This puts a lot of pressure on you to keep it all straight and forces unnecessary coordination when you inevitably have to direct others on your team to connect.

When you check on the status of projects, there’s a good chance others on your team need to know it as well. That’s why stand ups and tools like Basecamp and IDoneThis exist; to easily inform everyone and allow for coordination without costly individual meetings.

As a manager, you need to be a multiplier.  Having a monopoly on information, because you talked about status updates in individual meetings means you are throttling your team instead.

2) You’re wasting valuable time.

One on ones are an expensive investment to make in your team. It’s totally worth it, but only if you make the most of it. And a status update would certainly be a waste when there are more efficient and effective alternatives as we mentioned above.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, wrote of their value describing one on ones this way:

“Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours.”

Think about it: If you have a team of 5 you have weekly one on ones with, that’s 10 hours a week of team time (2 people per meeting X an hour per meeting), which depending what you and your team make in salaries is a $500 – $1,000+ per week investment.  If you’re going to make that kind of investment, you should do so wisely.

If you’re talking about projects, tasks, and the stuff that fills your team’s other 39-59+ hours per week of work then you’ll never have time to talk about all the awesome things you should be covering in your one on ones like:

The vast majority of those topics have absolutely no other time or forum to discuss them on any kind of regular basis. Letting status updates eat up their one chance to be discussed is a major missed opportunity and can be a major contributor to losing your best people.

3) You create elephants in the room.

Ever been in a situation where you weren’t sure if it was safe to talk about something? A company that no longer welcomes candor is one where the culture will suffer and problems will go unsolved. As Ed Catmull, President of Pixar writes in Creativity, Inc:

“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

If your one on ones are made to be a formal update on projects, then you can unknowingly leave all kinds of topics no place to be discussed. Without comfort and rapport they’re unlikely to bring up what’s really bothering them or to diffuse issues as they arise.

When that happens you both lose. They don’t get help in ways that make work better for them, and you lose out on the chance to hear about problems when they’re small and develop a stronger relationship with each team member.

status updates in one on ones leave elephants in the room

Now, I’m not saying this won’t at times be awkward, or even a bit uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. If you need motivation, read Sheryl Sandberg’s heartfelt public note on the death of her husband and returning to work. In particular, this aspect on “elephants in the room” is powerful:

For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room. 

If Sheryl is brave enough to stand up to the many emotional challenges to the sudden death of her husband, to remove the mother of all elephants in the room, what’s stopping you?

4) You will get surprises when you don’t want them.

If you make your one on ones all status updates, don’t be surprised when problems only get brought to you when they’re already big, and now you have to fight fires and become a reactive manager. It’s because you didn’t give them a regular, safe forum to bring up issues when they could be more easily be resolved.

Unfortunately, these surprises aren’t just issues in the company that blow up. They may also include being blindsided by someone announcing they’re leaving or telling you they have another offer.  These unexpected departures usually happen because something made them unhappy or they had a growth opportunity elsewhere you never took the time to discuss and help them see a path in your company.

You can tackle issues and have long term discussions with your team in your one on ones, or you can wait until those become the worst surprises. Don’t box out the opportunity to talk about them by filling your one on one time with status updates.

5) You’ll mistake the value of the one on one.

No one looks forward to a one on one where they’re just grilled on where their projects are at. I makes it easy to just cancel them and for neither of you to be excited or prepared to have them. Who wants to go have a meeting to run down a checklist of their tasks? This is why Andy Grove also 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.”

The real value of a one on one isn’t for each team member to update you on work. It’s for them. If you make them a pressure relief valve for what’s challenging them and make their career discussions and development a key part of it, you really will have a team excited for them.

Too often, I hear managers who tried one on ones and then gave up on them, because they, “weren’t getting a lot out of them.” Almost every time, it’s because they spent all or a major part of their meetings as status updates and missed out on many of the topics they should have covered instead. So let’s quickly look at how you can change your one on ones to be effective and awesome.

How to have awesome, effective one on ones without status updates

  1. Bring good questions to ask in your one on ones to spark new conversation.
  2. Create another way to get your status updates (like IDoneThis or Basecamp) to avoid discussing them in your one on ones.
  3. Reset your team’s expectations on what they should expect in their one on ones.
  4. Come prepared and encourage them to as well. (An app like Lighthouse can help)
  5. Make your discussions of problems, goals, and elephants, actionable and make progress; it’s an ongoing conversation you pick up every week or two.

Have you switched your one on ones from status updates? What convinced you to change?