Some notes about one-on-ones

Published in engineering management on November 30, 2015 last edited on April 28, 2022

One-on-one meetings is a very interesting topic and, as always, everyone has an opinion. I do too and I’m going to share it, so please don’t take this as a set of rules. It sums up what I learned about the matter in the past few years.

Two premises to start with:

  • I was very sceptical about one-on-one at first.
  • I now consider one-on-ones one of the most powerful tools a manager can use to help their team.

There are a lot of questions to answer about one-on-ones. The frequency, the outcomes, how to plan the meeting. Before I get to those points, I would like to highlight what I think is the most important aspect of one-on-ones: this meeting is not for the manager. It is a very powerful tool as long as the people you’re having one-on-ones with use the meeting for their own needs. This is absolutely crucial, the rest of the discussion makes no sense otherwise.

Now the details:

  • How to plan a one-on-one

    I personally don’t really plan them. As I said above, I consider them a tool for the person “on the other side” of the meeting. I ask them how they want to use the meeting. We want to get it to a point we both consider it a way to make happier working together. It’s a meeting to clarify doubts, misunderstandings. We can talk about things that aren’t strictly related to work if we feel like. Sometimes work isn’t about work.

  • The frequency

    Once again, these meetings are not for you, the manager. You don’t get to choose the frequency. My only rule is an upper bound: not less than once per month. Now, 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.

  • The outcomes

    This is the most dangerous part. You definitely don’t want to use the meeting to set up or review expectations. If you feel those things matter to you, set up a meeting on the specific matter. The outcome of one-on-ones is a direct consequence of the topics you get to discuss during the meeting. It can be very different things. It can be something like “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”, “let’s work with X on Y because you both can benefit from the experience”. Again, it can be anything.

Generally, I explain those things I have just explained here during the first one-on-one I have with people that join my team. And then I take it from there. If you keep it 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 and you don’t want to treat them all in the same way. You want to be equally fair with all of them. Some need to focus on tech things, others on soft skills. And that’s the core of my point. It’s their meeting, let them choose what to do with it.

When I sent the first draft of this article to a friend via email, his 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 actually a good point. The idea you may get here is: I think these meetings should be very informal. The core point will anyway remain the same: you shouldn’t be driving a one-on-one. It will be more formal with some people and “exactly like going for a coffee” with other people. Making it serious and official makes it boring too. You have to let the other person go where they want to go. You’ll love the results.