One on Ones with Nicole Sanchez

Nicole Sanchez (@nmsanchez on Twitter) is CEO of Vaya Consulting and co-creator of the new 1-1 organizer app Digamo. In Episode 17, Nicole shares detailed advice on 1-1s: what they are, how they help us, what we can learn from them.



JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Nicole Sanchez to talk a little about one on ones. Nicole, can you say a little about yourself?

NICOLE: Sure. My name’s Nicole and I am the CEO and Founder of Vaya Consulting. We help organizations of all sizes with their culture needs, including diversity, equity, and inclusion. And one of our areas of specialty is management and management trainings.

JENNIFER: Awesome. Thanks for being here.

NICOLE: Thanks for having me.

JENNIFER: One of the things I wanted to talk with you about is one on ones, and I was wondering if we could start off with you briefly explaining what a one on one is.

NICOLE: Yeah. Thank you so much. I’m very dogmatic about one on ones as a concept for managers because I fundamentally believe and have seen that it’s the building block to organizational culture. And one on ones are the primary unit of how you establish and scale good culture and good hygiene around management and around how people experience work. So, one on ones ideally are an hour that you spend with a direct report every other week. And I realize that this may vary depending on industry, depending on team size. But ideally, you’d spend about an hour with somebody you are managing, every other week. And it is a time to talk about tasks. But we have a lot of tools that people use to do task management, which can also be done asynchronously. And so for me, one on ones are really important time to talk about how your direct reports are experiencing work.

So, yes, you can talk about deadlines that you need to hit and information that needs to transfer. But in addition to that, it’s where we talk about things like feedback, professional development, how you’re experiencing the team. It’s really a good practice because managers need to understand that they are responsible not just for the tasks getting done, but how people are experiencing the workplace and what the arc of their story over the course of however long you manage a person with the arc of somebody’s employment story really looks like is in the hands of the manager. And so one on ones are really good, reliable place when done well to make sure that people are having blocks removed, being engaged, understanding where they can get support, information. And to just gauge the engagement of folks on your team to make sure that you can keep retention strong, you can address issues before they become really huge and people leave the job, whether it’s for performance or something else. One on ones should really be this sacred time between managers and direct reports to get a lot of that work done.

JENNIFER: That sounds like a lot to cover in just one hour.

NICOLE: Right.

JENNIFER: Do you try to cover everything all at once or do you recommend spacing it out? And if you space it out, how do you know what’s the most important?

NICOLE: That’s a great question. And no, I don’t recommend taking on everything every hour. And in fact, my team and I built a tool called Digamo which you can download for free at, and it’s for Mac right now. It’s a native app that when you use it, you will see that you can talk about these things over time and fill in the topics we suggest you cover with your direct reports. And over time, you should be checking in on all of these things. Let’s say over four to six weeks, everything in those boxes should have something.

I’ll give you an example. One of them is actually time off. Managing people’s rest periods. And so if you have not, as a manager, talked about when your direct reports next time off is scheduled, then you will see that that’s a topic that remains untouched by you. And you will receive a prompt that says, “Hey, you haven’t talked about this in a while. It’s time to find out when this person is scheduling their next time away from work,” because over the long term, you need to make sure that people aren’t burning out. And so what we do with Digamo is try and help you smooth out that conversation so that, no, you’re not talking about professional development every time, but you’re also not talking about tasks every time. You’re not talking about the “work” that has to get done. It is a nice reminder that over the course of four to six weeks, you should touch all these topics which include feedback given, feedback received, things that are in this person’s way of preventing them from getting good work done. And so you really spread these topics out over four to six weeks.

And as you do that and you keep track of the sentiment of your meetings, which is another thing we prompt you to do, then you start to piece together an actual narrative of people’s experience at the workplace. And the thing that I am really proud of around this is we treat it like a manager’s notebook. It is not a place where data rolls up to OKRs. And then we start to see how somebody’s engagement impacts their ability to complete an OKR. It’s not like that. It’s really for managers to keep track of the story of how somebody is experiencing work and it’s not accessible by anybody.

JENNIFER: Almost like a diary.

NICOLE: Exactly. It’s a manager’s journal where you go, “Well, Jennifer today seemed really frustrated.” So, I’m going to say what I think she was expressing to me was frustration. And I pick up an emoji, for example. There’s one part where you can pick emojis to represent how you felt at the meeting, how you perceived the other person to be behaving or feeling, and then how you would characterize the tone of the meeting. And so over time, you can start to see patterns.

Now, one of the goals for this is and why I’m so adamant about good one on ones is that it is a bias mitigation strategy. Because a lot of times – I’m sure this is going to be familiar to your listeners, whether they’re managers or not – a lot of times, one on ones become this disjointed, sort of ‘let’s talk about what tasks have to get done, and we’re both really relieved when it’s over early’. And if you and I have a good relationship, it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Are you good?” “I’m good.” “Okay. Anything you need from me?” “No.” “Okay, great. I’m giving you back your hour.” You have to make use of that hour. It’s time that you’ve carved out to really get some of the next level stuff out there.

And I think one of the really important pieces for managers to understand is that not only do you have a responsibility to do this, but you have a right to do it without interference from other factors like data being extracted or HR wanting to know exactly what it is that you’re talking about in your one on ones or what the trouble spots are. This is really for you to keep track of the narrative that’s being built over time. And as you hold your one on ones in a more or less standard way from person to person, you realize that the nuance of different people’s experience can come out when you’re keeping the topic standard across the board, standard for each person, and standard for your entire team so that your bias can get checked in saying, “Well, I think this person’s great. They know I think I’m great. I get along with them. Therefore, I’m not exchanging information with them. That’s fine. We’re good.” Bias will creep in because the only information you have in that regard is that you actually like this person. So when it comes time to write performance evaluations, you write a favorable performance review that is more rooted in how much you like that person as opposed to how well they’re doing their job. And so, we’re trying to demonstrate to managers that if you keep your one on ones more or less standard, your own bias doesn’t have as much of a chance to get that strong hold.

JENNIFER: That makes sense. One thing that this is making me wonder whether managers use a tool or not. Maybe they are using a tool, but they are somehow missing one of those key areas. Maybe they’re not checking in on time off or they’re not checking in on how someone is feeling about the work that they’re doing. Are there any signs that managers should be looking for that would indicate to them that they’re not getting the information they need in specific areas?

NICOLE: Yeah, I think there are a couple of tips for managers in this regard. And there are signs that are obvious, like the person keeps coming in frustrated. And so you’ve written down that this person is frustrated. That’s a sign. But what it doesn’t get at is what’s underneath the sign. And so, one of the things I like to train managers to do is ask really good pointed questions. For example, let’s say you and I have had three one on ones. I’ve noted that you’re frustrated. Every time I looked at the data in my Digamo app and it says, “Yes, she’s really frustrated. She has been for the last three times,” or at least you’ve perceived her to be frustrated because all it’s really measuring is your perception. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. So then I should ask you, “Hey, I have experienced you being really frustrated in our last three one on ones. First of all, am I right? And second of all, what do you think is going on? Can you share with me why the frustration?” Well, one of three things happens. Either the person says, “No, I’m fine.” And then there’s not much more you can do because there’s no truth serum that you’ve opened up a door for people to tell you what’s up. Two, they’ll say, “Yeah, I am frustrated and here’s why.” Or three, this is really important. “Oh, no. I’m not frustrated at all. I’ve actually been quite happy. Why would you think that I was frustrated?” And that’s one of the things that managers and their direct reports never get at, where bias really ends up having a stronghold. Bias really creeps in. And especially when we have demographic difference between managers and direct reports, styles of communication, everything from facial expressions and tone of voice can get misread in both directions without anybody pausing to check in and say, “Are my assumptions correct?”

And so to be able to ask really good questions like that is the hallmark of a good manager, like, “Hey, I’m getting worried because I’ve experienced you to be less engaged over the last couple of months. I looked over my notes and you’ve used words like bored. You’ve said ‘I don’t care’ several times and I’ve noted that. I’m worried I’m going to lose you. What’s up?” That’s really what we’re hoping happens with this app, is that it prompts managers to ask the questions that are underlying what managers think they’re witnessing. And make sure that they’re (a) right, and then (b) that they know why this is happening.

And there’s just a lot of data and research to back this up as a concept about why we actually lose people, we lose talented people from jobs. It isn’t often about performance. It’s much more about communication. It’s much more about whether or not managers are creating psychologically safe spaces for people to dissent, to ask questions, to express dissatisfaction with something. Have we made it psychologically safe for them to do that so that you can get the right information? And if you follow this map of one on ones, we assert because we’ve been using this ourselves for a very long time, we assert that you will learn things about your direct reports that you would have otherwise missed.

JENNIFER: What should the manager do if they’re asking questions and they get a lot of ‘I’m fine’ back, therefore they’re not able to get any useful information?

NICOLE: I think it’s important to note that direct reports to their prerogative to not share feelings if they don’t feel like sharing feelings. If I have a manager and this manager is like, “But are you really okay? Are you really okay?” That’s just going to make me mad. And I really don’t want to talk about it. So the thing we can tell managers to do is leave a door open. So if I keep saying to my manager, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” then the manager needs to pick up on the idea that this person either isn’t ready to share with you, is not a very sharing kind of feeling type of person, or something else is going on. But what you can do is leave a door open and you say, “Listen, if at any point you want to revisit this because you’d like to share things with me, I just want to let you know, that door is always open and you just bring it to these one on ones, because I really want to support you in making sure that work is a place where you can thrive.” And then you can’t do more than that. Like I said, there’s no truth serum that you can demand from somebody, but you’ve left the door open and that, whether or not a direct report avails themselves of that opportunity, you have created more psychological safety or at least the conditions for more psychological safety when you say that door is open.

And it’s really important to note that along demographic difference and specifically, let’s say you have a white man who’s a manager and a black woman who’s his direct report. There are several demographic differences there that are really key. And the white man who’s the manager has to know that he isn’t going to just get trust necessarily from day one because we’ve inherited some really unsavory stuff and dynamics from the world at large that make it completely understandable why a black woman in the workplace doesn’t automatically trust him as her manager. And so, what he needs to know – and I train managers on this a lot, white men often – is you have to say you’re going to do something, then you have to do it over and over and over again. You have to make good on your word. And trust takes a long time. There’s really interesting research out of UC, Berkeley about the gap, especially between racial difference and trust. And there is no greater gap that has been measured by this research beyond that of black folks and white folks. Gender aside, age aside, socioeconomics aside, we have inherited in our workplaces a lot of mistrust and distrust along racial difference that plays out in the manager direct report relationship. And so, you have to know that building trust over time both ways, it just requires patience and it requires understanding that oftentimes things can be personal, but they’re not always personal. We are dealing with a world that treats us very differently based on the packages we’re traveling in. And if you’re a manager and you’re not aware of that, you’re going to miss a lot of really key information from your direct reports.


NICOLE: I know. Just a little bit of heavy information for your listeners.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Here’s a very practical question. Can you give an example or dig in a little bit more on what it means to show up consistently for your report and what building trust looks like?

NICOLE: Yeah. It’s something that we’re working on. My team and I are working on really diligently to try and build the model that demonstrates to people what trust is. So what the research tells us is that – let’s talk about a very specific kind of trust. We’re talking about trust at work. And what you need is some social trust. You need to know right at a fundamental level that if I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it over and over and over again. I’m good to my word. I’m good for my words so that if I’m your manager and I say, “I’m going to remove that block from you, I’m going to get that information for you so that you can do your job,” I do that. It’s a small act, but it is that act of consistently saying what you’re going to do and then doing it that lays the groundwork.

There are two other axes that we’re working with right now, which are, number one, cultural competency, meaning you have to understand things like race and gender dynamics at work. Not just those, but you have to understand how our increasingly diverse workforce presents dynamics that you have to be aware of as a good manager, so that you can help folks navigate around them and you can navigate around them yourself, so that you can actually glean the benefits of diversity on your team rather than just act like once everyone shows up, we’re all the same and that’s that, because that’s not going to work. So, cultural competency is you getting fluent in what are the dynamics that we’re working against? And how do I find that information? I often give people the book by Ijeoma Oluo, so you want to talk about race as their first foray into understanding what cultural competency looks like.

On the other axis is integrity, which includes things like doing what I say I’m going to do, but it also includes things like standing up to unfairness. Does my boss have my back? If I went to my manager and I said, “I was treated really poorly on the other side of the company,” is my manager’s reaction going to be to have my back and to be concerned and get to the bottom of it? Or is my manager’s reaction going to be to sort of like brush it off or gaslight me or do these other things? That’s a lack of integrity. Because what we often have to do as managers is – I don’t want to use the word protect, but I do think that there is a type of shielding that you do for your direct reports so that they can do their job well. And advocating for your direct reports, where if a decision is coming down from some leadership above you and you go, “That’s really going to adversely affect my team,” I expect that you, as my manager, will push back and go, “Hey, that’s going to really adversely affect my team.” And so your direct reports want to know that you would do that. Win or lose. You may lose the argument, but they want to know that you stand up for them when something is about to impact them adversely. They want to know that you’re advocating for them when it comes time to evaluate compensation. Are you advocating for fair pay across the board or are you advocating for equity? Are you advocating for more transparency? They want to know that that’s what you’re doing. And that’s the integrity axis.

So if you have consistency in your behavior, if you have cultural competency and if you have integrity, these are the things that your direct reports are going to pick up on that actually create the conditions for psychological safety. And what that looks like isn’t that you as a manager are an expert in race relations in the 21st century. What it does look like is your direct reports see you putting time in to learn about this dynamic, to say things like, “I read this really interesting book. I read this really interesting article about how gender roles play out in meetings. And I’d really love for everybody on the team to read it. And we’re going to spend 10 minutes talking about it at the beginning of our next meeting to make sure that we’re not falling into these traps.” That’s your direct reports. I mean, yeah, you might make some of them mad. But I’ll tell you what. This is the way that workplaces are going. This is the future of management, not how we’ve always done things.

JENNIFER: I really like how it’s not just about reading the book as a manager, but also about incorporating it into the workplace and applying it. So, showing that you’re not just reading and armchair thinking about it, but you’re also interacting with it and determined to bring all of the equality and justice that you are reading about into the domain of your influence.

NICOLE: That’s right. And I think one of the myths that we’ve told managers for a long time is like if you just get people to complete their tasks, you’re a good manager. And that’s less and less true. I think there was a time, especially in American business, when that was the norm and it still is the norm in a lot of industries. But it is not where we’re going. For the first time, we’re going to have four generations in the workplace. We currently do. We have boomers. We have Gen X. That’s me. We’ve got millennials and we’ve got rising Gen Z who are now coming in in their early 20’s. Gen Z is going, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Let me just explain pronouns to you.” And demanding something that isn’t a new phenomenon, but for the first time is expected as table stakes at work. They’ve always been gender fluid folks. There’s always been trans folks. But there hasn’t been a critical mass to come in and go, “Uh-oh. You misgender me? That’s on you.” So this is where we’re going.

And sometimes I’ll have clients who say, “I don’t agree with all that gender pronoun stuff.” And I have to tell them, “It doesn’t matter if you agree with it, you will lose talent if you don’t behave in this way. I can’t regulate what’s in your head. But I can tell you that if you normalize people introducing themselves and their pronouns at the same time, you are creating an environment where more people from a greater number of backgrounds can do good work.” That’s just true. So, that’s where we are.

JENNIFER: I think we’ve got time for one more question. What do you do as a manager when you mess up? Let’s say you’re working hard on building trust. But for some reason, you get stuck on the pronouns thing and you say something unfortunate about pronouns. How do you rebuild trust? And how do you get back to where you were?

NICOLE: One of the things that I teach managers to do is they have to learn how to apologize. Everybody needs to learn how to apologize and probably relearn how to apologize, because here’s what usually happens. Let’s say I’ve misgendered you and you tell me, “That’s not my pronoun. My pronoun is something else.” What generally happens is the person who aggrieved the other goes, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. Of course I know that. I was just tired. I was distracted. I just came out of a meeting where we were.” And they back into this effusive apology that further burdens the person who’s already been aggrieved. Now, this person is burdened with forgiving you or telling you it’s okay, even though it’s really not or helping you unwind from your embarrassment. And so, I teach managers to take the L, the loss. You’ve got to be a gracious loser. You got to be a gracious winner. You lost on this one.

And so what you do is you look the person in the eye and you say, “I am sorry, that won’t happen again.” And you graciously walk away and go debrief it with somebody else. You go to your friend and go, “I cannot believe I just misgendered this person. I’m really embarrassed. I knew the right pronoun and the wrong one came out of my mouth.” Go handle your feelings elsewhere because you did that with that person today. You’re probably the fifth or tenth person who’s done that with that person on that day. And it already took enough emotional energy to correct you. There is no more that that person needs to do. And so, learning how to unwind from the moment is the first step in rebuilding trust.

The next step is you got to do the work to make sure you don’t make the mistake again. And instead of coming back and being like, “Oh, I just keep getting you confused with so-and-so over and over again,” here’s one dynamic that black women will tell you over and over again in the workplace. “There are two black women in our office and we consistently get called the other person’s name.” And I think there are folks who haven’t had that experience who are shocked that it happens. And then if you dig down a little deeper, you go, “But you know it happens, right?” And folks go, “Yeah, I did that the other day and I was mortified.” You have to know how to apologize and then go do the work to make sure you don’t make that mistake again. And demonstrate that you’ve done the work by calling the person the right name, using the right pronoun, studying photos of people so that you know who’s who. I mean, whatever it takes, you have to put the brainwork in to rebuild the [synapse] that caused you to make the mistake in the first place. And this is where things go horribly wrong in workplaces. And people dig themselves in deeper and deeper holes until the trust has really been worn away instead of going, “I’m sorry. I messed up. Won’t happen again.” Rebuild the trust by doing the work to make sure you don’t do it again.

JENNIFER: Got it. Nicole, I can’t believe we’re already at the end of our time.

NICOLE: I know! This is fantastic. Thank you so much for your questions and for having me on.

JENNIFER: Yeah, of course. Do you have any final words of advice for our listeners?

NICOLE: I would say give Digamo a try. Of course, it’s free. I welcome you to follow me on Twitter @nmsanchez. I often answer questions on Twitter about management issues. So, you’re welcome to just ping me there.

JENNIFER: Cool. I understand you also answer questions about management on your podcast?

NICOLE: We do. My friend Danilo Campos and I, he’s the code designer and the developer of Digamo. We have a podcast called Impossible to Manage that will be coming back in January. And we talk all about workplace culture and difficult managers and other things you need to know to navigate your way through this capitalist landscape.

JENNIFER: Awesome. Thanks again.

NICOLE: Thank you.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod, and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew.

If you like this episode, please think about leaving us a review on your favorite podcast listening platform. This can make a really big difference in helping other people find and start listening to Storytime with Managers. Thanks so much.

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