I started my first real programming job when I was 19. It was a small company, and there were five people in total. I had a great time there, writing code that today would make me cringe, but learning every day, and simply getting stuff done. At some point, the two founders told me they wanted to have an annual appraisal with me, and my first reaction was: “What is that supposed to be good for? Isn’t this just an esoteric way of wasting time?” When you are 19 or 20, you just want to code, and move forward.
Some ten years later, in another company, it was the opposite: In the two years I spent there, I hardly had any one-on-one conversation with my boss other than when I handed in my resignation, pretty much. When I think about it now, I was in a Bored People Quit kind of situation, but I noticed it pretty late. My employer failed to notice it entirely, until they could not do anything any more. They might have noticed that something was up had there been regular talking.
What is this one-on-one thing?
In the US and also other countries, one-on-ones seem to have been a common thing for years, but on my Germany-based jobs, I haven’t come across them until less than a year ago. I think they are still not super-common here, in a lot of businesses. So I was slightly confused when more and more people in my company suddenly started talking about them like it was the most natural thing to do, and like they had always been there. If you are in a similar situation, and wondering what all the fuss is about, here are some quick facts:
- One-on-ones are basically the “regular talking” that was missing in my second situation described above.
- You meet with one of your direct reports for usually 30 to 60 minutes.
- These conversations happen at regular intervals, e.g., every week, every two weeks, or once a month.
- Both of you have a say in what gets discussed.
That’s basically it, in a nutshell. Convinced? If you have never seen good 1:1s, chances are that you are not. “Twice a month with everyone? Seriously?” What’s the big deal with this 1:1 thing that makes people waste so much time on it? Why do experienced managers call the 1:1 meeting the best communication tool in their management toolbox?
The signals that you send
In think the most important thing about fixed meetings at a reliable schedule is that the employee knows she is appreciated and will be heard. This is the signal that you send by seriously sticking to your 1:1 meetings like a ritual. This is her time, and her issues will be addressed. Whenever there is something that is on her mind, she will never have to wait too long until she can talk about it with her manager.
I cannot overstate this fact, because, how do you want to manage people and create a good work environment for them if you do not know what is going on in their heads? Maybe they have a private challenge to overcome, which they are willing to share with you. Maybe something happened in their team which really upset them, and you were not around when this happened, so you have no clue. Maybe a teammate’s output is not good, and they don’t want to point fingers, but they still would like to be asked how things are going in the team. Maybe an employee’s work has become repetitive and she is bored, or she has otherwise lost her motivation. These are things you want to know about as a manager.
I don’t need this
You might wonder: “But I am very approachable, and pretty close with all my people. If somebody wants to share something with me, they will do it. I don’t need a formal meeting for that.” If this is actually the case, then congratulations. This might well be the ideal situation. However, a lot of us work in companies where you are not best friends with everyone, and you don’t know what is going on in every single employee’s life. Maybe you have 15 direct reports. Shouldn’t be, but it happens. Can you, at any point, tell for each of these 15 people how satisfied they are, and what is going on in these 15 little brains? Software developers are not always the most outgoing people, and they can see that you are terribly busy, so they might not want to bother you with their problems. Happens for sure.
Also, if your office consists mainly of open space, an employee who wants to talk to you about something sensitive might hesitate to do so, because she does not want the conversation to be overheard by her colleagues. Moreover, a lot of people don’t want to bother their boss “randomly”: “Who am I to force my boss away from his desk to a meeting room, just to talk about this issue of mine that is not even that urgent? Everybody else would see it, too, and wonder what is going on. I don’t want to make a fuss.” And so, they postpone bringing up a relatively minor issue, until it becomes a real issue, and eventually a big problem. If 1:1s are the rule for everyone, and nothing special at all, then this indefinite problem avoidance will not happen, and you can defuse situations early, before they become dangerous. As Michael Lopp (a.k.a. Rands) eloquently puts it:
“A 1:1 is your chance to perform weekly preventive maintenance while also understanding the health of your team. A 1:1 is a place to listen for what they aren’t saying.”
I repeat: “Listen for what they aren’t saying.” So even during the 1:1 discussion, you cannot expect to receive unfiltered, objective facts from your employee, but you have to attentively “listen between the lines”, if you will.
Things to talk about
What is it, then, that you talk about during a 1:1? How do you start? In his well-known article The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster, Rands recommends to start with a simple “How are you?”. A colleague of mine uses “What is on your mind?”, which I find even better. The point of both is that they are open-ended questions that encourage your employee to give an answer that contains at least something you can build on. In a lot of cases, you will be able to read the other’s mood from that answer already, and notice if something is bugging her or not. Let’s open a 1:1 with Sheila:
You: “How are you?”
Sheila: Pauses, draws a long breath, looks at the ceiling. Then, looking at you with a grimace: “I’m fine. All good.”
That is probably not the whole truth, because Sheila took a while to respond, and seems to choose her words carefully. Her facial expression does not match her words. Something seems to be on her mind. You look at Sheila and wait, until she gives up her reluctance.
Sheila: “It’s just that, ever since we introduced the new workflow steps, things have become much more complicated. You have to get green light from five different people before you can get anything done.”
At this point, you have your topic for the next couple of minutes, at least. Apparently, there is something about the work process that Sheila does not agree with. So you listen to her concerns, and check if you can and should do something about it. This is how the “vent” type of 1:1s can begin to unfold, according to Rands’ classification.
Some people will be very ready to tell you all the details of their current project, how things are going, and what they did over the last couple of days. If this is the case, the 1:1 becomes a mere status report. This is fine - as long as it tells you more than you can get out of your issue tracker, version control tool, or Wiki. Marcus Blankenship even centers his 1:1s around an employee’s timesheet and has them recount their week at the beginning of the meeting.
I assume Marcus would agree that you get a lot more out of a face-to-face report than out of a brief, factual, bullet-point-like written version of the same thing. Face-to-face, you can pick up moods, nuances, and allusions, and use them to read between the lines. According to Marcus, reviewing the work that was done in this way gives you a good impression of your employee’s skill level, her understanding or misunderstanding of priorities, problem areas that need attention, etc.
However, at least once in a while, the 1:1 should be about more than the status of current projects. Rands again:
“A 1:1 is an opportunity to learn something new amidst the grind of daily business.”
Specifically, it is an opportunity to learn something new about your employee. I would even consider this a pretty good measure of success for a 1:1: If you learn something substantial about your employee that you did not know before, the 1:1 was a success. For example, it is extremely important to know what motivates somebody. Questions that can start a discussion around motivation are:
- What keeps you here? Why do you come to work every day?
- On a Sunday night, are you looking forward to going to work on Monday? Why or why not?
- Would you say you are motivated most by structure, by acknowledgement, or by stimulus (i.e., challenges)?
- What is the best acknowledgement you have ever received? What made it so good?
- How can I help you best?
The answers to these questions can teach you something about how to manage this person. Do you have to give more praise and show that you notice her work? Should you check in on her frequently, or get out of her way and just let her run? Every person is different, and what works well for one person does not necessarily work well for another. So don’t expect to manage everybody in exactly the same way and be successful with it.
Knowing how to best treat your people right now is one thing, but occasionally, you should turn your attention towards your employee’s future. Alexander Grosse suggests having two different kinds of 1:1s: One is labelled “day-to-day”, and the other “long-term”. “Day-to-day” can be all about status reporting and current projects, but “long-term” should be about personal and/or career development. Personally, I have not yet tried having two different kinds of 1:1s, but I know some colleagues of mine do it, and like the concept.
Questions that can help you start a conversation about your employee’s current or future development are:
- Where do you want to be in this organization in 6 months/2 years?
- What are your future growth goals, your career goals?
- Are there any particular skills you want to learn?
- Are there some specific challenges you want to experience?
- What do you think your strengths are?
- Which activities have come natural to you in the past?
- How would you define success in your current role?
- Which part of your current role do you enjoy the most? Why?
- Which part of your current role are you struggling with? What does this tell you about your skills, knowledge, and talent? What can we do to manage around this?
- What would be the perfect role for you? Imagine you are in that role. It’s 3p.m. on a Thursday. What are you doing? Why would you like it so much?
I quoted a lot of these questions from First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (see this article for some great recruiting advice from that book), and some from Alexander’s article, as well.
Unlike Alexander Grosse, Buckingham and Coffman recommend to scatter these career discovery questions throughout the whole year, instead of having dedicated sessions for them. Personally, I prefer this approach, because career discovery and development of personal goals are long, gradual processes for most. The above questions can help stimulate and encourage a thinking process in your employee, but I feel that a dedicated long-term session every month could be awkward for some employees: “Damn, today I have to come up with stories about my future again, even though I am no smarter about it than last month.” Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference, and it is your job to find out which approach suits your employees (and you, of course) best.
Tap your people’s knowledge and judgement
Finally, if you really do have the feeling that everything is crystal clear between you, your employee, and his future, ask for his opinion on a hard problem that you have been thinking about lately. This is a bit selfish, because the 1:1 should be about him, but it might be better than spending your entire time on status updates. Examples could be:
- “I am not sure our job ads are attracting the right people. What do you think? Do you have an idea how to improve this particular one here?”
- “Do you have the feeling we are using our time efficiently? What do you think about the meeting load that comes with our process? Do you have any suggestions?”
- “Do you think we could make better technology choices for our next project?”
Often, your employees have good ideas, but have not quite verbalized them yet, or, in the haste of daily business, have had no time to think thoroughly about them. Yet, these ideas can become a very valuable resource if you know how to leverage it. Providing time and space for thinking and discussing is a good start.
As you gain experience, you will learn to switch between the different modes a 1:1 can take: The status update, the vent, career discovery, talent discovery, idea juggling, and anything in between. Moreover, here are some practices that I recommend:
- Have a repeating calendar entry instead of doing ad-hoc scheduling. This is a commitment to make, but if you do not do it, the temptation to skip or postpone a meeting can be high. Or, some other appointment is suddenly scheduled where your next 1:1 should be. If you are not sure about the right interval, and generally unsure if you really want to do this, then start small: Pick one or two of your employees and try it out with them, first.
- Related to the previous point: There is no law that governs that you must have the same time interval with all your people. If you notice that Helen does not seem to value your bi-weekly meetings, and there is no reason against it, ask her if every four weeks would suit her better. Conversely, if you keep running out of time because there is always such a lot to discuss, then you might want to think about shortening the intervals with her.
- Take notes during the meetings, and put them in a document that you and your employee, but nobody else, can access. This way, you create a rich history of your conversations that can serve as a valuable resource for reflection and development. The document should contain goals, agreements, feedback that was given, etc.
A word on cancellations
Finally, a word of warning: If sticking to your 1:1 schedule sends the signal that the employee is appreciated and any issues she might have are taken seriously, which signal do you think cancelling a 1:1 sends? People might take it in different ways, but if it goes without any explanation, the employee will not know if you are upset with him, if you have bad news you do not want to share, if you think that he is not worth the time, or if you think everything is fine and there is just no need to talk. All these ideas might spin inside of your employee’s head, and distract him from work. Of course, in the real world, there are urgent situations and appointment conflicts, and it will happen that you have to reschedule or even cancel a 1:1. But if you do, it’s best to talk to the employee in person before doing so, tell him the reason, and apologize. This way, he will still have the feeling that he and your 1:1 matter to you.
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