What if you dread 1:1s with a direct report?

Originally posted Apr 12, 2021

This post originally appeared on Lead Dev.

Through my years as a manager, I’ve been fortunate to work with truly amazing folks. I can count the number of people I’ve dreaded having 1:1s with on one hand.

I’ll share the story of “Mary”, who needed to course-correct her behavior on the team. I delivered feedback to her in our 1:1s, and our meetings grew tenser each week. After weeks of our conversations going sideways, I grew hesitant to continue giving her important but hard-to-hear feedback. I was relieved whenever she declined to meet for a 1:1, or took paid time off when we were scheduled to have one.

It was a really unhealthy dynamic, and when I finally recognized that I needed to change my approach to our relationship, and how I delivered feedback to Mary, I had already dug myself into a pretty deep hole of avoidance.

If this story resonates with you, I want to help you figure out where your dread is coming from, and what to do about it. It’s our job as managers to step up and fulfill our responsibilities to our teammates. Let’s get clear on what’s driving the dread, what you need to do your job, and how you might work with your report.

Figure out the root of the dread for you

Let’s take a look at the patterns that might come up in the 1:1s that you dread so you can identify what, exactly, is proving dreadful.

If you’d asked me back then why I was so frustrated with Mary, I would have talked about how she treated her teammates unfairly, was creating a psychologically unsafe environment, etc. Looking at how this relates to our six core needs at work, I would have pinpointed my “Equality/Fairness” core need as feeling threatened.

If you’re wrestling with a tough relationship with a direct report, ask yourself these same questions. Once you’ve identified what you’re bothered most by, check out the core needs list and see what resonates for you. Which of your values is being trampled on? While you shouldn’t ask your report to entirely change who they are to meet your needs, identifying the root of your dread can help you figure out what’s impeding your ability to move forward and return to the type of manager you know you are.

Figure out what you need

As I began to realize that something with Mary needed to change, I went to my boss, “Adam”, for help. I shared what I was feeling; I teared up as I expressed my frustration; I asked for his advice. What would he do in my shoes? How do you know when something’s just not working? What were my options?

Adam listened. He reiterated what projects we needed to tackle that quarter; he suggested I be more direct with my feedback to Mary, but didn’t provide me with the advice I was looking for. Then he asked, “Anything else?” and ended our 1:1 early. Over the following weeks, he would postpone or cancel most of our 1:1s.

Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure that Adam dreaded 1:1s with me.

Left without answers from Adam, I thought more on my own about what I might need. I definitely needed to understand company protocol for a situation like this, but I also needed to know if my spidey senses were off and what else I should be trying to communicate in these 1:1s. I wanted to know what pitfalls I should try to avoid and what I might be messing up. Looking at the BICEPS core needs list, I needed to figure out how to create a more equitable and fair environment for the rest of my teammates, and how to make sure I was treating Mary fairly, too.

I began to lean on other people – mostly peers – for emotional and pragmatic support. I began to build my Manager Voltron: a crew of supportive buddies who are each a facet of what my ideal manager would be. To quote from that Manager Voltron blog post:

“One person was great at roleplaying difficult conversations, so he helped me repeatedly practice what I wanted to say. One person gave solid advice based on their own experience. One person was a phenomenal listener, and he gave me quiet space to share and process how I was feeling. This experience taught me the value of having a diverse group of people to lean on when you encounter a management challenge.”

After many weeks of processing and practicing before delivering feedback to Mary, I also met with HR and developed a game plan. Through each of these conversations, I grew clearer about what my role was, what I could provide for Mary and the rest of the team, and what I couldn’t provide. With their support, I gave clear and direct feedback to Mary, set new boundaries about her behavior with the team, and eventually managed her out. My Manager Voltron’s support didn’t make the process any easier, but it did help me make sure I was fulfilling the duties of my job while being as fair to the team (including Mary) as possible, throughout.

Be clear about what your role is

Though each organization defines management roles differently, you’re probably expected to provide feedback, direction, and accountability for each of your reports. I recommend you take the time now to remind yourself of what’s documented about your responsibilities. Get really clear on the boundaries of your role, what you’ve been following through on, and what you’ve been skipping or avoiding doing.

Are any of these documented responsibilities draining your energy or creating that feeling of dread?

If the answer is yes, this could be a clue that what’s expected of you and what you expected of this role don’t match up. It’s time to talk to your manager about this and what options you have.

But also, in most management roles, you have a bunch of responsibilities that are really, really hard. Your drained energy or dread could instead be a clue that you care. As Marco Rogers said, “People really don’t care if managers and leaders find the job hard and stressful. Here’s the problem, it’s only hard and stressful if you actually give a shit.”

Figure out what you need to survive in this role, going forward. Maybe you need feedback – positive and constructive – on your approach. Maybe you need to feel more of a sense of progress in your work. Maybe you need a safe place to vent. Maybe you need advice and mentorship from experienced leaders that you look up to. Make a list of what you need and begin to find folks in your Manager Voltron who can help with each bullet point.

Work with your report to move forward

But back to your direct report. Now that you’ve clarified what’s expected of you as a manager, and you’re figuring out how to get the help that you need in this role, it’s time to go back to your direct report and carve a new way forward.

It’s very possible that you reviewed your responsibilities and realized that you are meeting them all; you simply find this person abrasive, inscrutable, or hard to work with. Or, you might have realized that you need to step up and change your approach with this teammate to fulfill what’s required of you in this role.

Either way, you can reset your 1:1s by – to steal a term from coach training – “designing your alliance”. This involves articulating what each person expects from the relationship, agreeing on how you’ll work together, and being clear about your boundaries.

Some ways to do that:

  1. Learn what your report needs from you right now by asking them what’s worked in the past. You could pose the question, “When you think back to great managers you’ve had, what kinds of support did they provide that you found helpful? What did you lean on them for?” Once you’ve asked, stop talking. Give them space to think and then answer. You could even send them this question before your meeting so that they have time to think about it beforehand. Be sure to truly listen and fully understand their response before the next step.

  2. Either during the 1:1, or before the next 1:1, pinpoint whether or not you can provide the kinds of support this person wants. You can’t be this person’s everything, and that is okay. You know what’s expected of you in your role already because you’ve identified what you should be doing for this person. Is what they’re asking your responsibility? How might you deliver on that? Are you comfortable doing so? Lean on your Manager Voltron crew if you need help coming up with new potential ways to get your report what they need.

  3. Once you know what your report is looking for, and you have a deeper sense of your responsibilities and limits, share with them what you will and won’t be doing as their manager. Be as specific as possible; high specificity will help establish boundaries, too.
    • For example, if your direct report would like you to spend more time reviewing their work, you might say, “I can give you feedback on your code reviews within 24 hours if you tag me in the pull request.” If they say they need a safe space to unload frustrations, you might say, “We can spend up to ten minutes of our 1:1s with me listening to you vent about what’s going on for you right now. I’ll set a timer.”
    • But it’s equally important to establish what you will not be doing if there’s something they’ve asked for your help with but it’s beyond the bounds of your role and your comfort zone. For example, “I recognize you’d like me to give more feedback on your work, but I won’t be able to review 100% of your pull requests. In each 1:1 we have going forward, I can commit to giving you at least one piece of positive or constructive feedback on the work you sent the team for review in the previous week.”
  4. Help your direct report identify other folks to lean on for the elements of support you cannot provide. Share the idea of a Manager Voltron with them, and if it feels right, pair up on filling in the Manager Voltron bingo card in your 1:1 to help them take the time to think about it.

Following these steps doesn’t mean you and this person are set for life. Eventually, I managed Mary out; I’m not sure if I consider that a success or a failure. But I do know that I grew very clear on what I could do to support her, what was unreasonable, and what support I needed to step up and do my job.

Dreading any part of your role is unpleasant, especially when you take pride in your work. But by putting energy into finding the support you need and getting clarity on your role, you’ll have a much better shot at designing an alliance with your direct report that’s healthier for everybody and gives you a clear path forward.

The clarity that comes from this might mean newer and better ways to work together; it also might be the clarity of knowing your relationship is never going to work, and you really did your very best. Whatever happens, a few things will be true: you’ll have certainty that you’ve done everything you could, some new skills, and a stronger network of support going forward.


Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.