Some notes about one-on-ones

Published in engineering management on November 30, 2015 last edited on June 15, 2022

A few premises:

  • Before I started having regular one-on-one meetings, I was very sceptical.
  • Nowadays, I consider one-on-ones one of the most powerful tools I have to to help my direct reports.
  • Don’t take this article as a set of rules, I’m just sharing my opinion and what I learned about the matter in the past few years.

In my experience, the following are the key factors to successful one-on-one meetings:

  • How often you meet with our direct reports.
  • How you handle meeting outcomes.
  • How to plan the meeting are three key factors.

Once I started thinking about these consciously, my ability to run one on ones improved significantly.

Before I get to them, let me share the guiding principle behind all of them: this meeting is not for the manager.

One on ones are the best way to help your direct reports as long as they get to use the meeting as they see fit.

This is crucial. Everything I discuss follows from this principle.

The frequency #

As I said, I believe these meetings are not for the manager.

If you truly believe this, you don’t get to choose the frequency. If you’re doing it for your reports, they choose.

My only requirement is an upper bound: not less than once per month. It can be once per month, once per week, every day or whatever. It does not really matter; what does matter is that I am not the one who needs the meeting.

You also never want to skip a one-on-one meeting. The reason is two-fold:

  • You want to create a habit. And repetition is key.
  • You can’t go a good job as a manager if your direct reports don’t trust you. Skipping what most people consider their most important meeting is the best way to reduce that trust.

How to plan a one-on-one #

I don’t really plan them. At least not in the canonical sense of creating my own agenda of things I want to discuss.

My primary function in this meeting is listening so that kind of agenda wouldn’t work anyway.

It’s tool for my direct reports so I ask them how they want to use the meeting.

We want to get to a point where both parties look forward to the meeting. It’s a meeting to clarify doubts, misunderstandings. It’s helpful.

We can talk about things that aren’t strictly related to work if we feel like. Work isn’t always about work.

While it’s true I don’t go into the meeting with an agenda, I got into the habit of having a living document where me and my direct reports can put notes about our recurrent meetings.

I started using this document for practical reasons. A simple way to share information and keep the conversation alive. Over time though, it proved very useful for meeting outcomes. Perfect segue into the next paragraph.

The outcomes #

This is what requires the most care.

The outcome of one-on-ones is a direct consequence of the topics you discuss.

It can be very different things. Things like the following are all valid outcomes:

  • Let’s figure out together how to decrease bugs.
  • Please tell me next time I get angry and I don’t notice so I can improve.
  • I will help you setup project X with person Y because you both can benefit from the experience.

It can be pretty much anything. The only thing that really matters though if that you follow up on what you agreed on.

This is one of the most delicate aspects of one-on-ones. As they’re intimate meetings (after all, they only involve two people), there’s a someone augmented expectation of trust that comes with them.

If you tell a direct report “I’m going to do X for you” during a one-on-one, they’re going to remember that so you better follow up on it. I can’t stress this point enough.

Everyone is different #

If you keep one-on-ones as free-form as possible, you’ll see a very interesting phenomenon: each person will use the meeting in a different way.

You’ll see some themes being developed more than others depending on the person.

If the experience varies a lot, you’re doing it right.

People are different:

You don’t want to treat everyone the same way. You want to be equally fair with everyone.

Some need to focus on technical matters, others on communication, collaboration. That’s the point. It’s their meeting, let them choose what to do it.

When I emailed the draft of this article to a friend, their first reaction was: “From what you’ve just described, your idea of one-on-ones looks like 2 people grabbing a coffee and having a chat, which I seriously believe is good! But how can you not lose the “meeting-ness”?”.

That is a good question.

I do think these meetings should feel informal, somewhat different from the rest of the meetings you have.

If you stand by the principle that you shouldn’t be driving these meetings, then they will be more formal with some people and “exactly like going for a coffee” with other people.

Let your direct reports go wherever they want to go with them. You’ll love the results.