The One on One

January 29, 2017
managing

If you are a manager of software developers and you are not having individual and private one-on-one meetings with your reports, you are missing out on a rich vein of information. It may seem like it takes a lot of your time, but think of it as your opportunity to get data about what is going right with your team, what is going wrong, and what are the non-company issues that this employee is struggling with? Where are there gaps in their knowledge of their job that could easily be addressed?

Every developer has his or her own ideas about what’s going right and wrong, they may have ideas as to how the team can operate more efficiently, at higher quality, and they may be able to spot a problem before it has time to grow into a major disaster. They likely have a different perspective than their peers, but without talking to them about it, not only will you not be able to describe the whole elephant by combining each person’s perspective, you won’t know there’s anything worth finding there at all. You might be blindsided when your team fails to meet a deadline, or when suddenly some employees find other jobs, citing dissatisfaction with their work or the team.

Individual

Some of the feedback useful to you will be how the individual feels about his or her peers on the team or the management, or even you. In a group setting, no one wants to be the first person to say something negative, especially if others do not perceive the same problem. It feels like they sticking their neck out and it is too much pressure.

This is true especially if the employee is new and hasn’t yet developed trust with their co-workers. Yet, this new employee is often the source of the richest amount of feedback because you have the opportunity to see your own company from the outside, with a fresh perspective. Someone who has been with the company for a while may have stopped asking why things are done a certain way and have just accepted that they are. Maybe the company has collectively forgotten why processes are in place and the original constraint that led to the process no longer applies.

It’s also important to note that in a group setting, if everyone is saying something positive, by abstaining from towing the line, the person who abstains risks appearing as if they have said something negative, when they don’t feel that way.

The social pressure of group dynamics prevent gaining the best insight into the team. Individual feedback provides the most detail.

Private

Not only should the one-on-one be between two individuals, it should be private. I’ve seen software that can be used for an employee to submit a one-one-one report, but why would the employee trust where that report goes? It’s the same for email. The employee may have things to say that are important, but that they fear for legal reasons. They can’t submit a written document that could be archived and become part of the permanent record.

Privacy allows trust between you and your report and that is where you are going to gain the more valuable perspective. Privacy allows you to build trust with your report.

What a one-on-one is not

A one-on-one doesn’t have to be an unbound meeting. While a one-on-one is an invaluable tool, it doesn’t mean that all of your time has to be taken up in the day. You might have some employees that like to talk or consider the one-on-one to be a place for them to vet every single gripe. Value your own time. Keep a one-on-one focused and brief (30 minutes is great) and ask for a bare-bones agenda so you can bring the discussion back on track by asserting that “we want to make sure we can cover everything”.

A one-on-one isn’t a commitment to implement suggestions. In fact, it might be that your report might want to run an idea by you as a test to see if the group might like it. Give them honest, useful feedback about the idea. With your report’s permission, gather these suggestions and bring them up in a communication with the team.

A one-on-one isn’t a therapy session. It’s great for maintaining a trusted, friendly relationship with your report, but if they start asking of you, recommendations for things for which you are not qualified, you might need to steer them toward a professional, who is trained to handle that kind of situation.

Timing considerations

A one-on-one meeting every 2 weeks for a 12 hour is likely to be enough time for you and your report to have new thoughts to share, and for you to detect any downward turns with how they view their job. I’ve had good success with this in the past. If you send out an email in advance asking for a general list of topics they want to cover, you might discover there is no need for a meeting (which is also fine).

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