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Let’s Just Be Honest: We All Hate Our Weekly Manager “Check-ins”

Updated: Aug 1, 2018

Recently I was having a conversation with the CEO of an awesome start-up. I asked him what frustrated him during the week. I was expecting to hear words like 'fundraising,' 'competitors,' 'cash flow,' or even 'employees complaining about not enough La Croix in the office fridge.' Instead he answered with: 'my weekly one-on-one check-ins with my team.' Yikes.

So, to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to start this post with a short quiz.

Please select the answer that best finishes this sentence:

For my one-on-one check-in with my manager every week, I typically:

  1. Cancel the meeting the night before with a breezy email of “Nothing new going on - let’s chat next week!! :)”

  2. Cancel the meeting the night before and hope my manager doesn’t notice that it magically disappeared from her calendar

  3. Make-up a work crisis that I need my manager’s help on and talk about it for the full-hour so that I don’t look unprepared (and my manager feels useful and smart)

  4. Seem really interested in my manager’s dating life / new puppy / weekend plans and hope that time runs out in my meeting.

  5. Hope that my manager has a bunch of stuff he wants to talk about with me.

  6. All of the above.

And the correct answer is....managing up is hard.

As discussed previously, managing up - that is, managing your boss, is a key, but often overlooked part of what it takes for you to be a great manager. The manager weekly meeting (also called the ‘one-on-one’, the ‘check-in’, among other ambiguous and anxiety-provoking terms) is the absolutely perfect example of everything that is challenging about managing up: you don’t really know what you’re supposed to use your boss for, you don’t know who should be leading these types of meetings, you don’t know how much to expose yourself in terms of challenges you’re facing, and you don’t actually know what your manager wants out of you (back to expectation setting!). So friends, today we’re going to talk a little bit about the basic tenets of Managing Up.

But why is managing up an important part of managing your own team or an individual? Well, as a manager, you are now responsible for the development and day-to-day structure of another individual - and poorly managing up can wreak havoc on those you manage. How often do you begrudgingly “task” your team member with something you don’t agree with but what your boss suggests? Or, how often do you not have any rational explanation for a decision that affects your team member other than…’my boss told me to do it’? When you don’t manage up effectively, you run the risk of potentially undermining your own authority in the eyes of your team. It becomes impossible for you to manage down well when you can’t manage up well.

So you know why it’s important – but why is it hard to manage up well? In my very humble opinion, it’s hard to manage your own boss due to two concepts that come crashing together: cognitive load theory and the spotlight effect.

Cognitive Load Theory focuses on how humans process and store information. Lots of new information that comes in increases one’s cognitive load, which in turn reduces the functioning of one’s short-term, working memory. Bluntly, your memory works worse when tons and tons of “stuff” is piled on (everyone has experienced this phenomenon when on the day you have a million things going on, you lose your house keys). And given that the typical CEO gets about 300 emails per day and has to make countless decisions, the cognitive load of a boss is quite high (and thus her short-term memory is compromised).

The Spotlight Effect is one of the more humbling psychological theories (especially for the only-children out there, sorry guys) as it talks about our own egocentrism. Essentially, we think people notice us more than they actually do….but people aren’t noticing us because they are too busy thinking about themselves and thinking that others are noticing them (and the loop continues…). So because we are the centers of our own work universe and think about our work all the time, we have a biased sense of how much our bosses think about us and the work that we are doing.

In short, our boss, manager or supervisor has a hard time mentally juggling multiple things, especially items requiring short-term working memory, and we tend to overweight our own importance in the eyes of others. So, we think our boss thinks about us all the time and thinks about the projects we are working on….but, our boss is not only NOT thinking about us all the time, but is likely mentally swamped and can’t even remember what we are working on.

Given that our bosses have heavy cognitive loads and that we may not be top of mind for them, how do you better manage up? How do you ensure that your boss gets the information she needs while also supporting you to do better at your job?

The Two Most Important Things To Master In Managing Up

1. Own Execution of the Relationship: Take charge of every aspect in the relationship with your boss.

  • Own the tactical aspects of your relationship: come to every meeting with an agenda (better yet – send the agenda in advance), tell her what you want to talk about and drive the meeting, ask for what you need (including constructive feedback) and overly communicate progress, deliverables and timing. Never wait for your boss to ask for an update on a project – proactively provide that information.

  • Own the strategic aspects of your relationship (i.e., own the “thinking”!): anticipate the needs of your manager, and when possible, have your boss react to a set of solutions, not a set of problems you have. Every manager LOVES the conversation with a managee of, “hey boss, I’ve run into problem A, and here are the three options we have to address it – what do you think?”

2. Understand and Adapt to Your Manager: Support your manager’s abilities to be as successful as possible.

  • Understand what your manager needs to be successful and commit to your manager’s success. You’re on the same team as your boss and make sure she knows that. Always have your manager’s back, provide open and constructive feedback to your manager, and learn what she needs to be successful in her role.

  • Figure out how to complement your manager's style, as opposed to expecting to have an identical style as your manager (or expecting your boss to change to adapt to YOU). You’re going to work for a number of different bosses throughout your career, and, as such, learn how to adapt your own style to complement the style of your current boss (i.e. build the ‘skill’ of adaptability!). For example, if your boss is supremely disorganized, don’t spend all of your time bemoaning the fact that he is a hot mess; rather think about how you can bring order and structure to the relationship.

So friends, to be a great manager, you have to get great at managing your own boss. And to do that, you have to help reduce your boss’ cognitive load by being proactive and owning the relationship. And, you have to learn how to be adaptive and complement your manager’s style (and future managers’ styles). And guess what – when you manage up well, you’ll be a role model for your team and they will also learn how to manage up well….which means YOUR cognitive load will be reduced and no one will ever secretly cancel their one-on-one meetings with you.


  1. Managing Up – that is, managing your own boss – is an important but often overlooked part of being a great manager

  2. It’s hard to manage up because we think our bosses spend more time thinking about us than they actually do, and, because of the amount of activities and decisions they have to make, they might even forget what we’re doing.

  3. To manage up well, you first need to own the execution of the relationship which means you should direct and drive every tactical and strategic aspect of the work you do with your boss.

  4. You also need to adapt to your manager’s style – by complementing where your boss falls short, you’ll be an invaluable resource and build a stronger partnership with your boss.

PS: Thank you, Kate Ryder, CEO of Maven Clinic, for the idea about a blog on the dreaded weekly manager one on ones!


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Samantha Mertins
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Totally support the fusion of the cognitive load and spotlight theories! I see this so often with those I manage; I love the recommended approaches to solve this. Thanks for sharing!


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