Conducting good 1:1s

As a manager you’ll spend a lot of time doing 1:1s, here’s how you can do them well -

Schedule the meetings yourself

You work for your team, not the other way around. Take the time to schedule 1:1s with your reports yourself. While you are doing that, pick a time that works for both of you. You may love getting these out of the way bright and early, but they may also be most productive during that time. If you are not sure about what time works best, just ask them, they’ll see that you really care about their time.

Set the right expectations

Make it explicit that this is their meeting. That means they get to decide what will be discussed, not whatever random topic pops up in your head at that time. Many junior devs struggle to coming up with good topics, guide them by asking leading questions like -

  • What is the biggest surprise about what you thought your current role would be like vs what it ended up being?
  • How do you find working with your team? Is there any relationship there that can be improved?
  • Is there anything right now that is slowing you down or blocking you?

If you/your report are new to the team, spend the first few 1:1s just getting to know them better. Find out what their journey has been like, what setbacks have they had, what motivates them, what their ambitions are, etc. What you learn in these conversations will help build a good rapport and pay off big time when you need to have difficult conversations.

Do your own prep

1:1s are not a place for a status update, yet many of them end as one. Before the meeting, go through the last project update, look at the Jira board, test the latest build and read what was discussed in the project Slack channel.

Being prepared saves you time understanding a problem and gives you the context to suggest appropriate solutions. It also helps demonstrate that you are not running around clueless and actually know what’s going on. I chuckle to myself every time I see one of my reports get pleasantly surprised when I ask them a very specific question about something they thought I was “too busy” to be aware of. Don’t overdo this though, unless you want to come as a micro-manager.

Share talking points in advance

If there are any topics that you want to discuss in the 1:1, share them ahead of time. At Shopify, we use Fellow for this, but a simple Google doc shared between the two of you is good enough. Encourage them to do the same for their topics.

Once a month, review the goals that you’ve set for them and the progress they’ve made so far. Add this as talking point ahead of time so that they come prepared. If you do this well, the end of the cycle reviews go off much smoother.

Show up on time

Nothing tells a report that you don’t value them than showing up late to your 1:1s. I know you’re very busy and dealing with major fires, but it doesn’t matter. Let me repeat, it doesn’t matter.

If it’s time for your 1:1 and someone keeps rambling, let them know that you have another meeting and leave them to continue rambling until they are kicked out by the next set of people who need that room. If you really can’t avoid it, let your report know as early as possible so that they don’t end up waiting for you.

Don’t talk, listen

A 1:1 is your chance to get a peek into what’s really going on in your team. Is that critical project really on track, or is the team just putting on a brave face to try and meet an unrealistic deadline? Are people actually getting along or they just play nice when you are in the pod? Talking feels nice, but every time you talk, you lose the opportunity to learn something.

Every once in a while, a team member will come prepared to rant about something that’s bothering them. This is good, it means that they genuinely care and are not just hanging around until their stock vests.

The best thing to do in such cases is to just make eye contact, nod and shut up. Let them vent until they run out of things to say. Once they are done, ask questions if you need more detail and find out the other side of the story (there’s always another side). Only then you should attempt to solve the problem.

Be fully present

Close your laptop, put your phone in silent mode, turn off notifications and listen to what your team member is saying. No one likes it when the other person picks up their phone and starts typing in the middle of a conversation.

Use a paper notebook to take notes or if you really prefer doing it on your laptop, make sure you tell them that you are taking notes and not replying to other people on Slack.

Don’t speak in managementese

There’s nothing engineers hate more than telling their manager about a problem and getting a long-winded response in managementese. What’s managementese you ask? It’s phrases like -

  • “Can you CIRCLE BACK with her…”
  • “I want to DOUBLE CLICK on that and…”

Just talk like a normal person with your engineers and save managementese for when you are talking to other managers.

Note down action items and share them

Add the things you both have identified as action items to your shared Google doc along with who is supposed to work on them. Add due dates, if required, if they are time-sensitive. This way, there is no scope for ambiguity or confusion.

Actually do the things that you promised

Make time to work on your action items and share the status with them. You expect them to do the same, so it’s only fair that you do it too. Set an example for your team and it’ll be much easier to get them to follow you.

Ask for feedback

After doing a few 1:1s this way, ask for feedback. Are they finding these meetings useful? Would it be better to meet more frequently or less? Anything that can be done better? Many engineers won’t tell you until you ask because they want to keep their boss happy.