Improving 1:1s During A Stressful Time

Rita J. King
January 10, 2021

If you are in a leadership position with direct reports who may be experiencing stress from COVID and societal upheaval, 1:1s are more important than ever. But how do you approach them now?

If you are in a leadership position with direct reports who may be experiencing stress from COVID and societal upheaval, 1:1s are more important than ever. But how do you approach them now?

To do this exercise, we will use the Culture Map tool created by Dr. Simon Sagmeister of The Culture Institute in Zurich. Science House is the exclusive North American Culture Map licensee, and we love it because of how quickly it makes invisible dynamics visible. Typically we use it to map teams, organizations and entire companies. But as individuals go through this exercise, they feel themselves attracted to certain dynamics and repelled by others.

As you watch the video linked below, jot down the dynamics you feel are most dominant in yourself, and those you feel may be the least dominant. This exercise is intended as a back of the envelope sketch, not a polished self-assessment. Remember, we all have blind spots and might not see ourselves as accurately as we think we do. Try to be as honest with yourself as you can be. This is just a starting point for ways you can think about these dynamics and your own leadership abilities. You’re the only one who will see these results, even if your direct reports soon notice greater benefit from your 1:1s.

Here is a short video for an introduction to the seven dynamics in Culture Map. After watching and making notes, use the guide below to improve your 1:1s.


Purple creates a sense of security and belonging but minimizes critical thinking.

Dominant: If you chose Purple as one of your dominant dynamics, you are a leader who enjoys creating a sense of security for your direct reports. You may have colors or symbols everyone can identify with. You are comfortable giving orders and expect people to follow them because they trust you. But be aware, this also means your direct reports may not think critically because they know they aren’t expected to, and they may miss a better way to do what you asked of them because they are eager to follow orders to the letter. In a 1:1, you might consider sussing out whether your direct reports feel stifled sometimes, not knowing how to bring new ideas forward even when they should. If you are Purple but have critical thinkers on your team, they are likely frustrated.

Small: If Purple is one of your smallest dynamics, you are probably not comfortable creating a sense of security or giving commands even when you know something needs to get done. Your team might want more guidance from you. Ask direct reports whether they feel they get enough clarity from you when something needs to get done. They may not feel secure as part of the team. Ask them what gives them a sense of belonging in the group and assess whether you might need to do a bit more of that.


Red is all about pace. Too much Red, you might be moving fast and breaking things, including morale. Too little, and you might be getting crushed by your competition and frustrating your customers.

Dominant: If Red is one of your dominant dynamics, your direct reports may feel as if they are standing in the wreckage of a tornado after they meet with you. Now they have to clean up the mess, again. On a Purple dominated team, people follow leaders because they trust them. On a Red dominated team, it could be because they fear them. Red leaders often feel as if they are simply keeping things moving. Fast. The problem is, lots of people can work really hard on the wrong problem, and then be too burned out to think about high value work, or too slammed to do anything other than “put out fires.” But what if you, the Red dominated leader, are the fire? In your 1:1s, ask your direct reports if they feel burned out by the pace of work.

Small: If Red is one of your smallest dynamics, your team might take way too long to get things done and it might be because you aren’t setting the pace at a reasonable clip. A lack of Red can come across as a lack of leadership, especially for people who need to feel a sense of urgency to stay motivated and engaged. If this hits close to home for you, try focusing on deadlines, even if the work is delivered in an agile, iterative way. Ask your direct reports if they feel work is moving quickly enough to meet goals on time.


Blue is the color of process, order and hierarchy. In a regulated industry, there are rules. But how you innovate around them is a major factor in success.

Dominant: If you chose Blue as a dominant color for your leadership style, you may be stern about the org chart being respected, or your team members “dotting every i and crossing every t.” You like to check boxes and associate detailed documentation with quality. A great question for a dominant Blue leader to ask in a 1:1 is, if you could make any improvement to any of our processes, what would it be?

Small: If your Blue is small, it may mean you don’t have enough rules in place, even simple ones, that people can follow to keep their work on track. One of the most important leadership functions, aside from making decisions and constant learning, is making sure direct reports understand constraints in what they are being asked to do. A failure to identify constraints can lead to people perceiving small obstacles as gigantic. Another big problem this can cause as more orgs become agile is understanding exactly what a “self-organized team” is supposed to organize around. 1:1s are a good opportunity for you to start focusing on constraints and necessary processes to keep work moving forward.


Orange is flexibility, agile work, and entrepreneurial focus on high value.

Dominant: If your leadership style includes a lot of Orange, you are very flexible, open to new ideas, and willing to drop work if a higher value focus emerges as a new priority. This can leave direct reports feeling a sense of whiplash. In 1:1s, take the opportunity to communicate the business value of why changes are being made, and be as clear as you can about how each person’s work contributes to those goals, even as things change. Doing this can also help clarify why one opportunity is better than another, even if you think you already know.

Small: If your Orange is small, you may get easily frustrated when things change and you may communicate this to your direct reports in the form of complaining about changes being foisted on all of you “from on high.” As a manager or director, you are responsible for translating strategy into execution. If you are confused about why a direction or priority changed, seek clarity rather than passing your frustration along to your own team. A good habit for 1:1s is to shift into clear communication around what you learned when you sought clarity around changing priorities, and what it means for the team.


Green is harmony, consensus, and every voice being heard.

Dominant: If your Green is dominant, you may have a lot of people in your meetings smiling and nodding even when they disagree. Working remotely, your meetings might have so many people in them that you have to scroll through pages of faces on video chat just to see them all. You like to “keep people in the loop.” In your zeal for peace and harmony, you might be undermining the need to engage in productive conflict, so necessary for progress. I’ve written about this topic a few times, including here and here. In your 1:1s, start introducing more candor so people can share their thoughts about work barriers. This dynamic is particularly critical to understand now as companies and society get serious about systemic injustice.

Small: If your Green is small, people on your team may feel you are yelling at them if you do something as simple as use bullet points in an email. Try starting off by humanizing the conversation even if everything in you wants to focus on business right away. Ask about the person’s well being. This is extremely important for everyone right now, with stress from COVID, remote work, social injustice and violence. No matter what your Culture Map profile is, we can all take the time to do more of this.


Yellow is about learning, scientific thinking, and data-driven decisions.

Dominant: A dominant Yellow leader is more concerned with facts instead of feelings, and spreadsheets over opinions. This approach is best when driven by curiosity and the scientific method, but it can also lead to analysis paralysis. A good question to ask in 1:1s is: Have we taken the research far enough? Are we ready to make a decision? Is there anything else I need to know before making a decision?

Small: If your Yellow is small, you might not be learning enough before making decisions. A good question to ask in 1:1s is: What else do we need to learn about this topic before moving forward? Do we have any blind spots?


Aqua is the color of the big picture and the health of the ecosystem.

Dominant: If you have a dominant Aqua leadership style, you may be very focused on strategy and less so on execution, and your opportunity lies in aligning these so your team understands how their contributions enhance the enterprise and serve both your workforce and customers. A good question to ask is: How do you perceive your efforts contributing to the company’s goals? Do you think we are moving in the right direction? What indications do we have that our customers and workforce are satisfied with what we deliver? Are there any new technologies or trends we should be exploring but aren’t?

Small: If your Aqua is small, you might be focused on details at the peril of the big picture. If this sounds like you, ask your direct reports to describe their impressions of the big picture and how your team contributes to those goals. If you are surprised by disparities in the answers, start to bring strategy and execution into greater alignment through learning and clear communication.

I recently wrote about inclusion through the prism of Culture Map and I recommend reading this post as well. Keep in mind that all of the dynamics above should be considered through a lens of professionalism an humanity at a time when people are extremely polarized and stressed.

If you are a leader interested in discussing the possibility of a free initial Culture Map consultation to think about your organization’s current and desired future state and how to move in that direction starting now, contact me here. We use this tool to assess meetings as well, and make recommendations to enhance purpose and clarity to achieve business goals in a streamlined way, with less stress.

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