be a better manager in 2017

Most of us who manage have a hell of a lot of room to do it better.

Here are four things to do differently this year to make yourself a stronger boss – and get better results from your team.

1. Get on the same page as your staff members about what a successful year will look like. Managers tend to assume that their teams know what success will look like, even if they haven’t taken the time to explicitly spell it out. That approach can lead to staff member prioritizing the wrong things and putting energy into projects you don’t care much about while neglecting the things you do. Sit down with your staff while it’s still early in the year and talk through this question: If it’s December 2017 and we’re looking back on the year, what will we need to have accomplished for the year to have been a success? Then build your goals and work plans around that.

Once you’ve gotten aligned about those plans, doing two things will dramatically increase your chances of making sure those plans come to fruition: First, schedule monthly or quarterly meetings right now to ensure that you touch base on progress throughout the year. (Getting the meetings on the calendar now makes them much more likely to happen.) Second, now that you’re agreed on what you most want to focus on, talk about what you need to de-prioritize – or even not do at all – to make room for the those key priorities. If you just try to cram everything in, your key goals may end up getting short shrift.

2. Change the way you do one-on-ones (or just start doing them in the first place). If your one-on-ones with staff members typically consist of running through a list of project updates, resolve to change how you’re using that time. Ask your staff members to send you short bulleted updates ahead of time, so that you can read the updates before the meeting and spend your face-to-face time on topics that truly require conversation – like debriefing recent work, giving feedback, or digging into a particularly challenging project where you can give advice or act as a resource. (And if you traditionally haven’t held regular one-on-ones, make this the year that you fix that! They’re the easiest place for you to do the core work of managing, work that often gets neglected if you don’t have a structure in place to make it happen.)

3. Revamp how you give feedback. Feedback is probably the biggest area where managers mess up, whether it’s by not giving enough praise, not speaking up when you’d like someone to do something differently, or both. But giving regular feedback is one of the most important tools you have as manager to shape the performance of your team, develop people’s skills, and get the results you want. This year, put in a place a system that prompts you to give feedback on a regular basis, such as making it a regular item on your agendas for one-on-ones and/or putting regular project debriefs on your calendar. And speaking of feedback…

4. Ask for more input. If you’re not already in the habit of regularly seeking out input and advice from people on your team, make this the year you change that. Ask staff members for input on decisions you’re grappling with, on what they’d change to make your team run better, on what policies or practices are getting in their way, on the best way to move forward on a project … on pretty much everything. People will be more invested in their work when they feel they have a voice and that voice is heard, and you’re more likely to make better decisions when you get a wider range of perspectives in the mix. (Of course, don’t just go through the motions; you want to truly consider the input you’re getting, ask questions, and engage with people in a real way.)

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. hermit crab*

    Anyone want to contribute additional tips for one-on-ones (either as a manger or as an employee)? What have you found to be useful? A few months ago, I got my first direct report and I also got assigned a new manager. I have regular one-on-ones with both of them but I never really know what to talk about (especially with my direct report, because we work closely together in our day-to-day work).

    1. Nan*

      Hmmm…. for my boss I send her a list every week of what I need to chat about. Sometimes it’s 1 item, sometimes it’s 10. We work 1000 miles apart so don’t have the advantage of seeing each other daily. This gives her a chance to look up answers she may need to look up or push the question higher up if need be. That way when we do talk, we are ready. Our 1:1 are on Thursday. so I start my list on Monday and keep it running until Wednesday so I don’t forget something and send it to her on Weds. We also check in on our “running items” list. Also known as The Stuff That Will Not Die Because Others Won’t Respond To Their Part List.

      For my team, who I see daily, and we chat daily, it can be harder to come up with an agenda. A lot of the times it’s “do you need me?” “nope” “ok, good chat” If we need to talk, we do. If we don’t, we don’t. But I spend at least 10 minutes a day with each of my team members on a daily basis, so that half hour one day a week with them isn’t always needed. But it’s there if we need it.

    2. Jaguar*

      As an employee, I want to know where I am with things. So I go in with the list of projects I have, where I am with them, and how I’ve prioritized them. If I had regular one-on-ones (which I don’t), I would talk about the ones I was planning on getting to before the next one-on-one and how I intend to tackle them and see if the manager wants me to do it a different way / use different resources / is happy with how they’re going. I don’t have any problems pushing my manager for the information I need if he or she doesn’t look like they’re going to volunteer it, be it either job-specific stuff or general “am I doing a good job?” stuff.

      When I was a manager, I never did one-on-ones (oops!), so I can’t really speak to that.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I’m a manager and I don’t do them either. I’ve talked to my team members several times to see what they prefer and none of them feel the need for it. We meet as a department every week and we talk just about everyday on different matters, and they’re all fine with that. My manager doesn’t do them either, and it’s fine with me as he’s included in the weekly meetings and he stops down several times a week to say ,”What’s up?”

        It seems to work for all of us.

    3. AMG*

      I like knowing how my work aligns with their expectations. We have annual goals that are the foundation of our bonuses and I like to let me boss know where I stand on delivering those. I also like to know what I can be doing better. No matter who you are there is always room for improvement. Also, what career aspirations do you have and how can you get there from here?
      Same for the direct report, but find this stuff out about him/her.
      Also, what can you be doing to increase efficiency / save money? Have directs look at that.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The key is to not use them just for status updates — that can be done in email. You want to use them as your “forum” for management — the place where you give feedback, debrief recent projects, check in on progress toward big goals, problem-solve, give input, and generally act as a resource to your staff person.

      More here:

      I know a lot of managers don’t do them and don’t see the need, but I think they’re making a big mistake. Having a structured place to do this stuff ensures that it happens regularly, when otherwise often some of ends up happening way too infrequently. This stuff is the core work of managing.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Plus, I think it’s a great time to bring up issues you’re having with coworkers. If a manager only has team meetings, you can’t do it there obviously, and at least where I work, a lot of my coworkers are timid about bringing issues up so as not to “bug” the manager.

        1. Generation Catalano*

          Or stuff you just don’t want to discuss in front of everyone.

          Also, if you only do group check-ins you’ll often find that a few people do most of the talking and some quieter voices don’t tend to get heard. If you’re just sharing workflows that’s different and not what I would class as a managerial check-in.

          Sorry if this posts multiple times in various forms, my internet connection has gone doolally.

      2. LawCat*

        I think structure is key. A terrible ex-manager of mine tried to implement one-on-ones, but I think only because she’d been to a management training that said she should, not because she actually had a grasp of the concept. It was basically me going to her office and her telling me saying, “LawCat, this is your time to bring up anything you want.” It was a disaster.

    5. Bonky*

      I ask my guys for a quick report (a bulleted list of items) every Monday of what they’ve worked on in the previous week, and what they’re expecting to work on this week. Everybody’s list is shared publicly on Slack so we can be sure there’s no duplication. We also use a workflow program so I can see what’s assigned, what’s being worked on, what’s up next and so on. I don’t think the bulleted lists have ever matched from one week to then next, or with the workflow program, so that’s a good place to start talking!

      Once that’s done, we have one-on-ones. We talk about prioritising, about how the previous week’s work has gone, about any issues that come up (for example, this week I had someone inform me about a health problem which may affect his work in the short term, someone else had a complaint about the way we’re managing recycling, and someone else had some problems with the way a project outside my team that she’d been assigned to was being run…nothing out of the ordinary). We run through deadlines; and I make sure that workload is rational and reasonable, and that expectations among my team and the people outside the team who are assigning them work line up. If there’s feedback I need to give, I’ll sometimes do it in these meetings, or I’ll talk to the person when it’s more fresh, depending on what’s going on. “The CEO told me she was blown away by the video you made,” or “Your workrate seems to be slowing down dramatically when we give you more than one thing to work on at a time, what’s up with that?” are Monday conversations. “You punched Bob on the nose. Punching colleagues on the nose is not OK,” is something that needs to be dealt with as soon as I hear about it.

      Afterwards, I talk to other managers to deal with what I can if any issues have arisen from our discussions: this week I had a chat with a colleague in another department about some unreasonable demands her intern was making of my guys, I talked to the office manager to bring the recycling thing to her attention, I had a conversation with a manager in a different department about one of his team being a bad communicator, and I talked to some other managers to make sure expectations about due dates were reasonable. In the case of something like my colleague’s illness, I make provision for cover.

      I usually expect this process, and the process of assigning tasks that other groups in the business have asked us to look at over the next week, to take up at least the whole of Monday, and usually the discussions with other managers will carry on all week.

      We’re a really effective and very happy team. I think this process has a lot to do with that.

        1. Bonky*

          We’re currently using Waffle, which I’m not entirely happy with (no ability to prioritise, record time spent on a task, link to Slack and a few other niggles), so we’re moving over to Freshdesk next month. Waffle still does what I need it to, but it requires a bit more time and attention from the team, which I’d like us to move away from. (I’d rather have them ticking a box, say, than having to write a few sentences about how long something has taken.)

          Both Waffle and Freshdesk report to a GitHub back-end, so swapping between the two shouldn’t be a problem. Freshdesk also allows me to set up Slack alerts from the tool for the team; we use Slack a lot and find it very helpful.

      1. J.B.*

        Wow that sounds really well thought out and a good way to prioritize discussions to get benefit from it. I’m glad it’s working well for you and your team!

    6. NW Mossy*

      I explicit frame them as time for my employee to talk to me about anything that’s important to them, because a big part of its purpose for us to have a good relationship. When you have the foundation of a good relationship, all kinds of things that might go unsaid start to emerge. Just today, I had an employee give me an update on a health condition that’s been really worrisome (very good news, thankfully!), and if the employee hadn’t felt comfortable with me, I likely never would have known. The relationship side really helps with the harder conversations, too, because people know that you’re there to help, not hurt.

      It’s also very important to keep them on a regular schedule and not to cancel them if you can at all avoid it. If you’re like me and in meetings a lot, the only way I can guarantee that my employees get face time with me is to have standing appointments with them on my calendar so I don’t double-book. Also, my employees can also assess their items and say “This can wait until Tuesday” or “I gotta tell Mossy right now, this is big.”

    7. David*

      If you are a first-time manager, my recommendation is to read The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman. He is the co-host of the Manager Tools podcast. The book discusses four key behaviors : 1:1s, feedback, coaching, and delegation. Learning and improving these skills will make you a better manager and will help you in your career development. It’s a good start.

      I’ll also say that it’s highly compatible with Allison’s book — if you liked her book or what she writes on her blogs/websites, then you will connect with Mark Hortsman’s advice as well.

      To help with your new manager, my recommendation is Bruce Tulgan’s It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss : The Step-by-Step Program for Making the Best of Your Most Important Relationship at Work. The overall theme is about being proactive and not reactive when it comes to managing your relationship with your manager. This one comes with a qualifier — not everyone connects with his theory of an under management epidemic, or how to respond. You don’t have to agree for it to be valuable — I remember thinking I can’t do [X], but now that I have read/thought about it, I can definitely do [Y].

      Hope this helps.

    8. Joe*

      I start every one-on-one with my direct reports with the question, “How are things going?”, and have made it clear that this is intended to be an open-ended question to which I want an honest reply. If things are great, and they’re feeling good about the things going on, this is an opportunity to say so. If they’re feeling frustrated or stalled or unhappy or anything else, whether it’s tied to a specific project, interactions with coworkers, their dog being sick, whatever, this is an opportunity to talk about it. I want to get a general pulse first, and then we can dive into the specifics.

  2. Adlib*

    As an employee, I was recently on a small team. Just myself and my team lead. My team lead was constantly swamped yet never delegated any of it to me despite my asking. I think it was just an issue of where she felt better having control which I understand, but part of my job was to help her. I just couldn’t get her to let go sometimes.

    Also, please understand that it’s okay to say no to a time off request. I once took one day off, and my supervisor let me have it (a little unprofessionally) after I got back to work because I guess I should have known not to take off even though she approved it. I would have been fine with “no” because sometimes that’s how work goes, and I get it. (I think part of the issue was that she never delegated and never took time off herself.)

  3. deets*

    Does anyone have any insight on convincing your company and/or manager to start one-on-ones? Outside of our performance reviews at the end of the year and sporadic conversations related to specific projects, we don’t currently have a process for formative feedback throughout the year, project updates, etc. I actually brought this up during my performance review as something that I thought could help me be more successful in 2017, and was basically told that it’s part of the company ethos that we all manage ourselves. I get wanting to have a flat structure, but I’m struggling (as our others) with the total lack of direction – especially when there are clearly instances where our owners want us to do a specific thing but don’t communicate it. Has anyone successfully resolved something like this?

    1. Bonky*

      That’s tough. For a team of any size, one-on-ones are a lot of work for a manager if they’re done properly; if your work does not have a culture of strong management it’s very hard to implement it from where you’re standing. This stuff tends to have to start from the top and come down. It sounds like the culture that the people who own your organisation have settled on is not one of strong management. I’m not sure where I’d go from there; it sounds like you’ve asked (which was the right thing to do) and have got a “Nope” in response.

      1. deets*

        It’s really a culture of no management – the owners are in charge, but beyond that there’s not an organizational structure or change of command. The owners are generally very busy (business development, HR things, project work, etc) so it’s hard to get there attention if something isn’t actively a crisis. In some ways it’s great because my role isn’t restricted by age/experience level, but in other ways it’s very chaotic.

        Some of this, I think, is driven by a very start-up/small business mindset. But, they want to grow us from 10 people to 50, and I can’t imagine this model being remotely efficient or productive with five times as many employees.

    2. Camellia*

      Instead of “convincing your company and/or manager to start one-on-ones”, can you just do it for yourself in a sneaky way? Just go ahead and schedule a meeting with your manager? Don’t call it a “one-on-one”, call it a status meeting or a checkpoint meeting or whatever you think will make it palatable to her. And don’t make it a recurring meeting on a regular schedule, that is too obvious; stagger the meetings. Then you “drive” the meeting – go in and ask the questions you want, and so forth.

      If you can’t get something in place for the whole company maybe you can get what you need this way. If you are successful, maybe you can encourage others to try it.

      1. deets*

        Part of the catch here is that I don’t actually have a manager, beyond the owners generally being in charge… but that is a good thought, and something I will try with said owners. Thanks!

    3. MillersSpring*

      If your organization is really anti feedback, you could try a stealth 1/1. Send your boss a meeting invite, non-recurring, and call it a Project Check-In. Make a list of questions you have and give her updates about your projects. Ask about big-picture strategies or corporate projects that she may have more info on than you would. Ask if there’s anything she wants you to do differently.

      About two to three weeks later, schedule another one. After three or four such ad-hoc meetings, you could say something like, “I really appreciate these check-in visits.” Never call it a 1/1 or performance feedback.

      In this way, it’s not like you’re trying to overthrow the company’s practices or grumble about your manager’s style. You’re just checking in as you need to. ;)

      1. azvlr*

        Similarly, I have realized that as an employee, I have more control over my 1-on-1 than I currently take advantage of.
        I should be sending her an agenda ahead of time. I hadn’t been doing this because things have gotten lost in her email pile. I think that doesn’t change my responsibility to do it, or the expectation that she will have read it.
        Also, project updates are “safer” territory than discussing performance, so I’m guilty of letting the whole conversation be about work updates, too.

  4. Be the Change*

    If you’re newly managing a team and 1/1’s don’t go as well as you expect at first, don’t give up. It may take your team a while to warm up and be willing to talk to you.

    I found this out the hard way when I began with a team, started 1/1’s and people were as monosyllabic as teenagers (it was soooo uncomfortable) so I stopped the 1/1’s… only to find out 6 months later in a very painful manner that people felt I didn’t know anything about what they were doing. In fact, I knew *what* they were doing but our perspectives on the activities were too different. So I reinstated the 1/1’s and battled through. I still don’t LOVE 1/1’s but I make myself do them as a way to stay close.

  5. Generation Catalano*

    Our one-on-ones aren’t for project updates at all. They are for talking through what’s going well, what you’re struggling with, any training needs you’ve identified and how things are going in general.

  6. Generation Catalano*

    Also, these comments have made me hugely appreciate my employer who considers one-on-ones essential and has a very good template for you to fill out beforehand – your manager then adds their notes afterwards and sends it back to you.

      1. Generation Catalano*

        Sorry for the delayed response. Hope you see this. Here you go:

        -Review appraisal objectives and key work responsibilities. Identify key achievements, any issues of concern and priorities for discussion.

        -Set objectives moving forwards. Record key priorities and actions to be implemented including their outcomes.

        There’s more but it’s reaaallly specific to my employer.

  7. J.B.*

    Don’t say you’re looking for employee input when what you really want is validation. You collect information and make decisions. If you want to know how things are working the most productive use of everyone’s time is to get information, go think about it and then come back and say do x. Context is great, but own your decisions!

    1. Josie Prescott*

      I’m about a year into my first experience with 1:1s on both sides

      As the manager, I work very closely with my single employee on a daily basis, so we do 1:1s every three weeks, and they are specifically not for project updates. The employee is relatively inexperienced, so the first six months it was mostly goal setting, talking about what it took to get promoted and other general orientation to the profession type stuff. After that it transitioned more to ask me anything, though I throw some career development in every so often, like we worked on her resume. (Job is a stepping stone, I expect she’ll move on in a couple years, hopefully internally.) I really enjoy it. We always find something to talk about, and I feel it’s significantly accelerated the employee’s growth.

      On the other hand, as the employee, I report to a Sr. Manager that I pretty much only see when I set up a 1:1, generally monthly. They are mostly project updates, but I try to have at least one more philosophical question for him every time. They have too many direct reports and just don’t have the time for much mentoring. I really need to find a good mentor.

  8. Joe*

    This is a great post. I’d like to see more of these managing and advice posts because they are very useful.

  9. Regina 2*

    Another version of hermit crab’s question — how can you move your manager along on this when you are a remote employee? I am new to this team, and my manager is great, but the distance is hard, AND I’m on an incredibly steep learning curve right now where not being with the rest of my team and being a part of the daily conversations in their office is to my detriment. They’ve all told me I need to just pick up the phone and call them more, which, okay, that’s fair, but I do feel like I’m lacking direction/feedback/training. We speak frequently enough but it’s not structured in the most optimal way.

    Is it really as simple as asking? Are there other behaviors I can implement to encourage the managers to loop me in more?

    1. PX*

      This depends a lot on your office culture, but to be honest, if they’ve said just its on you to pick up the phone, call them more and make the effort, then just do that! Also, it seems like this is a situation where it will be on you a lot to drive things, so if you want more direction/feedback/training, come up with a list of what you want, talk to your manager and see about implementing it.

      It looks like this is a place where you will have to be the change you want to see…

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