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10 ways to improve one on ones – learned the hard way

One on ones can be both the most frightening and the highest value meeting for a team member and manager. Done well, they can be the best way to dive into specific issues, provide guidance, help with personal and career growth, and give feedback, all in a short time. Used poorly, they just become status update meetings with no lessons learned or action items to take as next steps. Though it can be terrifying, especially for introverted by nature engineers turned manager, being open, honest, and candid is the only way to get the best value from these meetings.

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As a manager, I’ve been running regular one on ones with my team members for a bit over five years now and have learned a lot on the way. When I began, I tended to come in with my own agenda, dominate the conversation, and use the time mainly for updates on projects. This is the exact wrong thing to do for a successful manager. It took time and training to learn these lessons, and it can still often be hard to force myself and team members away from simple updates, especially when projects are critical. However, I’ve come to learn that there’s more long term value and benefit in using these meetings for identifying pain points, discussing growth and learning, and ensuring that work assignments and projects actually line up with individual goals and provide the right opportunities.

Over the course of this time, I’ve learned a bit more about some techniques that help guide these discussions in the right direction and help focus on the right areas. I am by no means perfect at these, I still periodically slip into update mode if a project needs deep attention and often times realize I should have asked something different or gone deeper on a particular area after the meeting. Still, these tips might help improve your own one on ones, whether you are an individual contributor or a manager.

1. Listen. Hopefully this is the most obvious point, but effective managers listen rather than talk during one on ones. Managers should guide the conversation to help it stay productive, but in general should be speaking far less than half the time. Too many managers like the sound of their own voices and use these meetings as personal soap boxes, talking just about the entire time. It’s easy to fall into this trap with quiet team members too, but successfully guiding them to share their thoughts and opinions is a much more effective approach for team and personal growth.

2. Have an agenda, but be willing to toss it out. Always come prepared to a one on one with topics you’d like to discuss, questions to ask, and any feedback. However, it’s important to remain flexible. If another topic comes up and the conversation is rich and useful, don’t be afraid to throw out the other topics and dive deep on one. I also like to encourage team members to share their questions and feedback with me more in real time anyway as waiting for a one on one often means less fidelity and clarity of information the longer it’s been since the question or feedback was relevant. One on ones shouldn’t be the only time managers talk with their team members.

3. Don’t problem solve. This tends to be extremely difficult for me, coming from an individual engineering position, I like to be able to solve problems, especially technical ones. My first instinct is always to try to give answers or point people at specific solutions when they are encountering an issue. While this direction can be helpful to discover new options, it’s counterproductive as it steals the opportunity to learn and develop from the individual. Effective managers don’t just solve problems, they put the individual on the right path to solve it themselves.

4. Ask about challenges and what to do. Rather than jumping into a solution, good managers help individuals solve the problem on their own. Often this can be as simple as asking what the person is considering or if they know of any similar solutions. Often times the individual actually knows what to do, they just needed to talk through it. Other times they may not know the solution, but they’ll realize they have seen something similar before or that someone they know may be knowledgeable and they’ll figure out the next steps on their own. This is the best possible result as it builds the habit of finding the right resources own their own and encourages learning and development.

5. Discuss goal progress and opportunity. Don’t focus on project status updates. Instead, discuss the challenges being faced and what they’ve enjoyed or learned so far on the project. This should focus on skills being developed, things that have been learned, and self-reflection on what could be done more effectively in the future. This should always focus in on progress toward team and individual goals rather than project completion. Framing it this way will help show that the manager actually cares about development over individual projects and also helps ensure the individual is always growing. It’s also a good way to see if work should be re-assigned or changed to provide the right opportunities for an individual.

6. Align projects to goals. If this check in on goals shows that an individual isn’t getting the right opportunities to grow and make progress on their goals, this is a good time to address that. Projects can be re-assigned or distributed or goals can be changed so that team members are actually receiving those opportunities. It may also be a time to add additional stretch goals to a project so that the individual can demonstrate a new or different skill and work on the development of it.

7. Build trust. One on ones are also the perfect time to build trust. Trust comes from many different places and is far easier to break than to build. One on ones are an effective time to build trust through active listening, taking feedback, and taking action on areas that can help an individual develop. While it’s not a good idea to spend the entire one on one talking about weekend plans, I do like to use the time to check in on personal non-work related things to build rapport trust as well as to strengthen relationships with team members. Team members who know their manager knows them and has their back can do incredible things with exceptional results.

8. Ask about team interactions. The entire one on one doesn’t need to be focused on the individual either. I also like to periodically check in on how team members feel about the team and interactions within the team. This is a good way to uncover any issues slowly building within the team that may not be obvious. It can also lead to positive interactions that can result in identifying mentors for team members if they seem to be learning a lot from a particular individual.

9. Get feedback. Just as important as giving feedback and direction is receiving it. It can be all too easy to forget or neglect to spend time on this as a manager in a one on one. Often times individuals aren’t comfortable with giving feedback up, especially if the trust hasn’t been built up yet. Rather than asking if there is feedback, ask for what feedback there is, or for one thing that could improve the individual’s day, work, or productivity. This will lead to actionable feedback much more often.

10. Take action. Ensure that there is time at the end of the one on one to summarize the discussion and that there are action items. Both of these should come from the individual, not the manager. If they identify next steps on their own, they are more likely to feel ownership for them and see them through than if they feel assigned from the manager. A good way to do this is to ask for one thing that each person can do before the next one on one to take action on the areas discussed. Make sure to check back in on this the next time and always take quick action on things the individual has asked for to continually build trust.

Approached as a meeting for building trust, diving into goals and growth, and as a meeting the team member owns, one on ones can become much more productive and useful than a manager-dominated status update meeting. Guided this way, individuals will have higher trust in their manager, feel more involved in their own development and growth, feel more ownership over the team’s direction, and will likely begin to surprise managers with their own productivity. While making a switch to this type of one on one isn’t easy, once managers have had a few successful rounds of it, it quickly becomes obvious how it improves the normal one on one routine. Take these tips now and your one on ones will quickly become your favorite meetings of the week!