Marcus Blankenship on How to Fake Excellent 1:1s

By Marcus Blankenship    |    March 12, 2018
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“When things are going wrong, the common denominator is unstructured, low-substance hit-or-miss communication.” - Bruce Tulgan, The 27 Challenges Managers Face

One-on-one meetings between you and your direct reports are the cornerstone of your leadership practice. They build good relationships, align goals, and create emotional safety between you and your team, which drives productivity and quality.

It’s hard to overstate how important these meetings are. So why are they so darn hard to do well?

Our survey of 455 Tech Leaders reveals that managers and team leads are…

  • Too busy
  • Too distracted
  • Wearing too many hats
  • Under constant pressure to deliver faster, with fewer resources

On the Eisenhower Method matrix, these meetings are squarely in the Important quadrant, but they’re rarely in the Urgent one. However, whatever the reason might be, this key practice is too important to screw up. What you need is a way to fake excellent one-on-one meetings.

Fake it ‘til you make it

While we’d never suggest faking that you care about your people, it’s easy to fall into bad habits that harm your relationships. Remember, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s not enough to just care, you need to execute well.

Read on for four simple tips for excellent meetings that will help you deliver what your developer wants most: a real relationship with you.

The 1:1 Faker Framework

Pick a time, together. Then stick to it.

“Reliability is the precondition for trust.” ― Wolfgang Schauble

If you want your direct report to show up prepared and excited, don’t start off on the wrong foot by mandating when, where, and how you will meet. Instead, choose a time for the meeting together. And then make that meeting, no matter what.

When you cancel the meeting, no matter why, only one message gets through to your developer: They are not important to you.

Since that’s not the message you want to send… show up, ready to work. Every time. “But…things happen. Unexpected things come up. They should understand, right?”

They may say it’s not a big deal, but we doubt it. It’s a big deal, so don’t undermine all your hard work. Plus, canceling your meetings actually makes you busier.

If your one-on-one meetings have started slipping, have a reset meeting and discuss the best timing, frequency, and format for both of you. Collaborating on this simple decision allows you to work together rather than introducing potential conflict.

Additionally, different team members may need different meeting frequencies. Many managers assume they must meet with everyone on the same schedule, but this isn’t true.

When you discuss when to meet, also discuss how often to meet. Try that schedule for three months and then revisit the discussion. One or the other of you might feel differently after experiencing it.

Remove distractions

Ping, beep, buzz, chirp! The electronics in your office are all trying to get your attention. We all have important things to do, but right now, this meeting is the most important thing.

Set the tone for a focused, productive, and respectful meeting by:

  • Turning your monitor to the side.
  • Putting your cell phone in a drawer on Airplane Mode.
  • Putting your computer to sleep.
  • Taking notes by hand.

Everything else can wait a bit. Don’t tempt yourself.

It may seem reasonable to type notes during the meeting, but resist this pitfall. Typing and looking at a screen not only violates the second rule, but it can’t help but make the other person wonder if you’re paying attention.

Plus, without fail, something will come up: An urgent message from your boss, the Ops team, or a customer will appear that will destroy your focus. Avoid this problem and turn off all your devices.

Come prepared (and ask that they do, too)

Have an agenda for your one-on-one meeting, and share it in advance. If you don’t have a particular agenda, share the structure of the meeting. Sharing the agenda removes concerns about what will be discussed, allows them to prepare for the topics, and reduces their anxiety.

Unsure where to start? Begin with this 1:1 structure for a 45 minute meeting:

  • “So… how are you?” (10m)
  • Review past action items and promises from both sides (10m)
  • Discuss and clarify priorities (10m)
  • Offer feedback on their work, and ask for feedback (10m)
  • Confirm time for next meeting (5m)

In addition, discuss other topics quarterly, such as:

  • Current training activities
  • Short-term and long-term career goals
  • People they know who might be a good fit for your team
  • How your 1:1 meetings could be improved

Now that you’ve got your notes, and they have theirs, wouldn’t it be great to get on the same page? Use a shared Google document (or other shared document tool) to track major topics, action items, and promises over time.

A shared document, with a rolling history of most recent notes at the top, is a great way to keep you both accountable. In addition, both of you can use the shared document to track items between meetings that you’d like to discuss. This reduces forgotten ideas, as well as constant interruptions from your team about items that can be handled in your 1:1 meeting.

Avoid Surprises

This mistake will erode trust faster than anything else.

Unless you’re surprising them with a big raise, avoid big surprises in these meetings.

Feedback, especially corrective feedback, is like a glass of milk left out on a hot summer day: it spoils fast.

Don’t turn 1:1s into a ways-you-screwed-up-this-week meeting. When you see problems, address them immediately. No one likes the thought of their boss withholding the feedback they need to improve. It’s unfair, and makes them feel as though you are “keeping score” or building a case to fire them.

Of course, this also applies to positive feedback. When you catch someone doing something great, tell them immediately. The One-Minute Manager and Radical Candor provide great advice for giving feedback.

While your 1:1 provides a “safety net” that ensures feedback isn’t held until your annual evaluation, build trust by always offering feedback as quickly as possible.

→ Download the 1:1 Checklist


One-on-one meetings are the fastest way to build trust, align goals, and provide feedback to your team. Consider them as sacred time, your investment in a high-performing team.

Like any investor will tell you, discipline is key. While you might see short-term gains by skipping, canceling, or eliminating these meetings, you won’t end up with the team you need.

Faking excellent 1:1s leads to real, solid relationships with your team. Those you never have to fake.

About the author

Marcus Blankenship Engineering Leadership Coach at