Argh! Another week of planning and being ready for a one-on-one meeting with your manager just for it to be canceled — sometimes at the last minute. There are all kinds of reasons for canceled one-on-ones. It could be an indirect result of the newfound remote work situation many managers (especially new managers) have found themselves in. It could be that they’re overwhelmed. Or, it could be that they simply forget about it and double-schedule themselves. Whatever the reason, no matter how understandable, it’s still an issue. No one should be consistently canceling meetings with someone else sans explanation and a reasonable effort to reschedule. If your manager has been on a streak of canceling one-on-one meetings, here are a few things to think through in order to best respond to a tricky and delicate situation.
If you’ve done some Googling and found results that say that canceled one-on-ones are a sign that you’re getting fired, don’t fret. We all tend to take things that happen to us personally, but chances are this isn’t the case here. Especially if your manager has been swamped with new duties or direct reports since the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the situation might actually be a positive one. Perhaps your manager canceled one-on-one’s with you because they know that they can count on you to get things done with little to no supervision from them. They might be focused on the other members of your team who need much more direction and hand holding than you do. The bottom line is to not assume the worst.
Once you’ve gotten away from convincing yourself that you’re going to be fired, start thinking through the function and value of a 1:1 meeting with your manager. Why did you schedule these meetings in the first place? What do you usually accomplish in them? Why does it matter to you that the meetings happen? Is it because they help reduce roadblocks to your work? Are one-on-one’s a critical part of your path to promotion? There’s no wrong answer here. The goal of this exercise is to understand what exactly is valuable about these meetings and why. Maybe thinking through this will lead you to realize that the meetings themselves aren’t actually that valuable, but the constant cancellation of them leads to you feeling under-valued. Maybe you’re realizing that what you used to cover in your one-on-one meetings is not getting done a different way while working remotely. Perhaps you’re realizing just how critical these meetings are and how much trouble canceling them creates for you and your goals. The point of this is to get a solid understanding of what you need and why in order to move forward towards a solution.
Should you decide that the one-on-one meetings you have with your manager are valuable to you and the work that you do, there are a few things you can do to get the point across. First, try responding to canceled one-on-ones more authentically if that’s something you haven’t been doing before. When your manager cancels a meeting and you respond with “no problem!” each time, it’s going to be hard (read: impossible) for your manager to know that you’re not ok with it. Instead, try responding with something like “I can certainly reschedule, but I could really use your support on x, y, and z this week. Can we get together later this week or are you ok with me delaying this work until we are able to meet again?”
This way you’re communicating that you do still have needs for them to meet and that their cancellations are impacting your ability to get your work done in the meantime. For some managers, especially the highly emotionally intelligent ones, this should be enough of a hint that constant cancellations aren’t a good thing. Some managers might need it spelled out more directly, though, and that’s ok. Remember to lead with empathy by explaining that you know your manager has a lot going on and that you’re comfortable doing all you can without their direction. But, sometimes you do need their help or input, and canceled one-on-one’s have been making that hard to come by.
The key, though, is figuring out a solution that will get your needs met without interfering with everything your manager has going on. After working through the thought exercise above, maybe you’ve realized that you don’t really need a formal one-on-one after all. Perhaps just short, ad hoc meetings on Slack or in the hallway will do. Maybe you’ve realized that you can decrease the frequency of your one-on-one meetings. Whatever the specific solution, the goal is to find a way forward where your needs are met that isn’t necessarily constrained to the form of a one-on-one meeting.