Upwards Status Updates

An inevitability when conducting 1:1s is providing status updates. It’s a safe default; if there isn’t a set agenda or a set of immediate problems to solve, and neither party is up for diving deep into career discussions, a mechanical fallback is to talk about what you’re working on. Or, if you’re managing others, what your team is working on.

Opinions differ on exactly how much depth to get into with these updates, or if they’re even valuable in the context of a 1:1. Chances are, if you’re an engineer, the status of your work is reflected in a project tracker somewhere. And if you’re a manager, you’re likely tasked with communicating with your peers or broadcasting outwards, so those updates already reflect your current state of affairs. Sometimes, perhaps in search of something to talk about, managers dig into the details anyway, to see whether they can help or at least offer an alternate perspective.

It’s a small, but sometimes fraught aspect of managing upwards—to your boss or boss’s boss, up the chain of command. I ran a Plato Circle1 last year on this topic. I brought my own experiences of working for inexperienced and experienced executives, within both large and small companies, junior to mid-level to senior roles alike. That was thrown in alongside anecdotes from others in the circle, and together we compared notes across teams and companies and their dispersed management cultures.

No, there’s no single, universal answer.

But, a good starting point is to first understand how your manager takes in information. Much like the effort required to understand how your reports work and to adjust your style to fit their personalities, it’s worth getting to know how your manager works so your approach can be complementary. If your boss only absorbs status updates via meetings, it’d be a mistake to assume that they’d get what they need from your company-wide team summaries.

Beyond that, a tactical technique I’ve employed, with some amount of efficacy, is to assume a desired end state is autonomy, and work backward from that assumption. Nobody frames their role as a one-minute manager, but my default is to focus on blocking decisions and issues as if I only needed a minute of their attention.

To that end, how I generally present my updates, in rough order of my preference in presenting them to my bosses:

  • We encountered and fixed a situation. It’s an FYI, for you to share with others if they ever ask you about it and you want to be able to represent your organization.
  • Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, we’re currently fixing it. This is closer to what a “traditional” status update sounds like, providing a snapshot of our agreed-upon solution mid-implementation.
  • Here’s the problem, we don’t know how to fix it; please help us figure it out. Most managers are supportive and want to help solve problems, and explicitly asking is much better than sweeping issues under the rug. Of course, if I go down this route, I’m also likely committing to my boss’s recommended course of action.
  • There’s a situation, I’ll let you know how it goes later. This framing is similar to the second technique, but with a major difference in not specifying a time and priority. From experience, I run a real risk of letting the problem fester without appropriate attention until it’s too late.

Of course, this only works if you’ve earned the space for autonomy, by establishing trust beforehand.

  1. They’re constructed as peer-to-peer discussions, with hosts acting as moderators.

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