One-on-one meetings (1:1s for short) is probably the most underrated tool for the engineering manager, yet it’s one of the most powerful. When I still had a normal job, I never had 1:1s. My managers were always terribly busy, jumping from planes to meetings, and thought that if I had any troubles, I would call them. So when it was my time to manage teams, I started doing the same. Irregular discussions that were always postponed because of some other meetings. It was bad. Some team members’ morale started to go down, some left unexpectedly. Worst, during the few 1:1s I was respecting, team members were only telling what they thought I wanted to hear and not the reality.
Regular 1:1s are like oil changes; if you skip them, plan to get stranded on the side of the highway at the worst possible time - Marc Hedlund, former VP of Engineering at Stripe
What are 1:1s?
A 1:1 is not a status meeting. You should hear about status during daily stand-ups where everything is shared in front of the whole team (except for exceptions that can happen just after the stand up). It’s also not an opportunity to transfer your priorities or that new idea you had. A 1:1 is a dedicated space in your calendar so each person reporting to you can ask in-depth questions, receive coaching on their strengths and weaknesses, and provide feedback, things they wouldn’t be able to do in a public space or at a team meeting.
You should always start your 1:1 with “how are you?” (check out this link for 200 questions to ask during your 1:1s).
Of course, there are different styles of 1:1s but, in the end, they’re an opportunity to build trust with your team members and help them grow within the organization.
When to do 1:1s?
Ideally weekly. Of course, if you have senior people in your team that you’ve known for a long time, you could organize bi-weekly 1:1s but even senior people could need weekly 1:1s when going through a tough project for example. Start by allocating 15 minutes time slots for the weekly 1:1s and be ready to have longer ones if needed. But never, ever, cancel 1:1s! There are always urgencies (some would say urgencies are the new business as usual), but the message you’re sending when postponing a 1:1 is that everything else is more important than you (trust me on this one, I’ve been there).
How to deal with awkward 1:1s?
So you decide to start doing 1:1s, you announce it during your team meeting, you schedule the sessions, and the first one is with Sandrine, one of the most skilled developers in your team. So Sandrine comes in, sits down and… says nothing. When you ask her if everything is well, she says yes and nothing more 😅 This situation can happen but don’t think it’s the norm. Most people, even software developers, welcome opportunities to speak frankly, get critical feedback and coaching. But when confronted with a team member that doesn’t seem interested in 1:1, you have 2 options. The first one is to ask her what is her preferred way of communicating and getting feedback. Maybe she prefers asynchronous communication so she has the time to think and digest information. The other option is to be comfortable with her silence and use this time to ask her questions about her motivations, what worked for her recently, what are her blocking points. Most probably you won’t get many answers during the first session so don’t quit on her at this point. Be patient because it takes time to create a trusting communication environment.
So, are you ready to start your first 1:1s? If not, what’s stopping you?