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The Black Hole

The value of “1 on 1s”

These meetings are an opportunity to connect with each other and humanize our professional interactions.


Will you join me in stepping away from our regular weekly articles? I’d like to walk with you through an altogether different topic that’s been weighing on me for some time: how we connect with one another other. I’m happy to share my brief thoughts but really, mostly, I just want to hear what you think.

I’ve learned a lot about running high-performing teams over these last five years that can (surprisingly) be distilled into a single observation:  science is easy – managing people is hard. Among the most impactful lessons I’ve learned are the value of “1 on 1s.” “One on 1s” are regular face-to-face meetings between you and an employee/colleague/supervisor. They can be of any duration, but I’ve found 45 minutes works best, and they can be of any frequency, but I’ve found once a month to be just right. My preference is to keep them informal and leave the office/lab (the distance helps). A short walk to a local coffee shop works well. Most importantly, the purpose of the “1 on 1” is to listen.

Do we really need another meeting?

I hear you. We already connect frequently enough, and often many times a week to discuss strategy, review outcomes, or assess performance; but these are professional and often formal meetings with clear deliverables, and we are usually striving to get through them as efficiently as possible so we can get back to work. It’s true that we try to go out as a team often enough to relieve stress and socialize, but it’s also true that we rarely get any meaningful time together to really connect at these, and sometimes we’ll get through a function without having talked at all. It’s not that we need another meeting, it’s that I care about what is going on with you and to be frank, I really haven’t had the opportunity to ask you in an appropriate setting.

We’re both working our asses off because we truly believe in what we are doing. It matters, and we’re surprisingly good at it. I know you (regularly and voluntarily) give up your personal life to accommodate the needs of the team. As a group we try to remember and acknowledge these wins and recognize the accompanying sacrifices. We could definitely do better, and some things go unmarked, although not unappreciated or unnoticed. These conversations are usually a little awkward (I personally don’t like talking about my accomplishments, although I do appreciate the recognition) and we quickly revert to talking about what still needs to be done or what we maybe could have done better. We do all of these things except talk to one another about what’s going on behind the scenes.  What I think we sometimes forget is that our accomplishments are supported and sustained by our personalities, desires, heartaches, family, passions, conflicts, activities, and, well… our life.  How we are doing is so fundamental to how we are performing, and it varies so substantially over time as circumstances evolve, pressures shift, and relationships change. When else are we having that conversation?

This is what I propose…

One on 1s are opportunities to take the pulse of how things are going. Although work may come up in the course of this discussion, it shouldn’t be the focus. What we should strive for is transparency and honesty with what’s going on in our lives and how it’s shaping our view of the world. These are sometimes awkward, they’ve also sometimes been fun, a few have been very painful and sad, but in every case they’ve given us perspective into why things are the way they are.

Look, there are always going to be strong corporate pressures to compartmentalize work from life. These are often fueled by concerns of litigation or unwelcomed proximity, and I can understand that. What we need to remember is that for most of us our work is a part of our life, and what is going on in our life inevitably shapes how we feel about our work. Groups are built on people, and professionalism is about respect for one another and extends to recognition and awareness of the life pressures surrounding our work which affect our performance. One on 1s are an opportunity to connect with each other and humanize our professional interactions. They’ve certainly helped me understand my colleagues better and have helped resolve a lot of potential issues by putting circumstances into perspective.

Thank you for taking the time.  I’ve really valued this talk, and I’d like for us to continue doing them because I think they matter. Anyway, that’s what’s been weighing on my chest. I’m interested to get your thoughts.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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