Raise your hand if you’ve experienced this scenario before. Your weekly 1:1 meeting has been locked into the calendar for Friday at 3 p.m. You diligently prepare all week, noting down talking points you want to discuss. Then, at 2:55 p.m. on Friday, your boss pings you on Slack: “Hey, sorry, but something’s come up and I need to cancel our 1:1 this week.”
It can be incredibly disheartening for employees to invest time and effort into personal development, only to have managers offer up a tepid excuse to postpone. We’ve written before about the numerous benefits of regular 1:1 meetings, but getting a company to buy into the value of doing them on a recurring basis is sometimes only half the battle. The challenge comes when leadership pays lip service to having regular face-to-face meetings but doesn’t walk the talk of showing up and putting in the time.
Of course, emergencies happen and schedules need to shift. But when it happens on a continual basis, even the most confident employee can start to have doubts. This can, in the worst case, actually impact their performance.
“It says to the employee, ‘I don’t care, I don’t value talking to you, I don’t care about what you have to say’,” says Kim Rohrer, Head of People at Disqus. “Hopefully that’s not true, the manager is going to say ‘I just got too busy.’ But if you’re too busy to take a half-hour to talk to your employee, what does that say to your employee? That’s like if your partner is too busy to have dinner with you. You would feel bad.”
The basis for any successful 1:1 meeting is personal respect. It requires the employee to do their part by preparing for the meeting, and the manager to acknowledge this preparation and show an active interest in the personal and professional development of their employees.
If your manager has taken to shoving your 1:1s to the backburner, here are some tips from top HR experts on how to make sure you are getting the feedback you require.
Don’t take it personally; take action
It can be hard not to feel slighted, but employees shouldn’t assume it’s a reflection of their relationship with their managers.
“I think the key is to not take it personally and let it affect your output – stay persistent,” says Vanessa Stock, HR Director at Clue. “If your boss is a bottleneck for key topics, try to get as far as you can without their input.”
She recommends considering a more constructive, albeit unorthodox approach, like suggesting a new time when your boss is reliably in the office so they’re easy to snag, i.e. right before or after an all-hands meeting. She also said some people at her company have set up supplementary 1:1 meetings with a different colleague or in other departments, so ongoing feedback is happening even if the manager isn’t always part of it.
“Think about creative and individual ways to get the info you need from your boss,” she says.
And if nothing else, Vanessa adds, you can discuss pairing with a different manager at the company who has a more consistent schedule. Instead of emotion-driven accusations, the focus should be on finding a way to get the employee the feedback they need.
Even though it’s a standing meeting, it’s not unusual for a busy manager to be taken by surprise when that calendar reminder pops up 10 minutes beforehand. If they feel unprepared, it’s often easier to avoid it all together – which is where that last-second cancellation request may come from.
Employees can mitigate this with a bit of advance work, says HR expert Jason Lauritsen: “If your manager commonly cancels your 1:1 meetings with little notice, get in the habit of sending a list of discussion items a day or two in advance of the meeting. It helps to make this time more than just an appointment on the calendar for your manager.”
Providing a small amount of context and prep can make the difference between your manager reacting with “ah yes” or “oh shoot!” when the calendar reminder fires.
Show why it matters
If there’s no burning problem to address, your manager might not see a compelling reason to devote calendar space to your 1:1. For a manager, a late afternoon, routine 1:1 check-in with a high-performing employee might not seem as high priority as, say, a last-minute strategy session with the head of product. The employee might need to do a little extra explaining to make the value of the meetings clear, even if there’s no urgent issue that needs resolution.
When you prepare that personal agenda a day or two before, make sure you can explain how and why each item to be discussed impacts their ability to do their job well. This will help managers understand why the meeting is important. So while the manager might think that updating the company’s vacation policy isn’t pressing, you can explain that you’re dealing with multiple questions a day from colleagues wanting to know if the week between Christmas and New Year’s is included or not.
Save some big news
Employees can be strategic about how they use that precious manager time, advises Adam Miszta, People Operations Manager EU at Marley Spoon. He recommends not to spill all your recent achievements when you run into your manager by the coffee machine and start chatting. Instead, get managers in the habit of knowing that 1:1 are a time to share major personal milestones or big wins.
“Stay calm and persistent – and make your manager curious about you,” Adam says.
Soon, managers will be looking forward to hearing about an employee’s latest success story when they see that half hour meeting approaching.