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Welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developers podcast. If you are a software developer or technology leader looking to stay on top of the latest news in the software development world, or just want to learn actionable tactics to improve your day-to-day job performance, this podcast is for you.

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51. Why bother with 1-on-1 meetings?

Today we’ll be talking about how to have effective one on one meetings and why you should bother having them. There’s nothing worse than a manager cornering you at the coffee station and saying, “We need to talk”. One on one meetings are scary enough, but the truth is they don’t have to be if they are initiated and conducted right. One on one’s are a vital way to get to know your team, check in with their individual needs and aspirations and give constructive feedback without the pressure of a group. But how do you go about them? In this episode, we share some of our own bad experiences with one on one’s and how you can turn them around for the better.

We discuss why very team should have the opportunity, as well as a safe space, to have one on one’s to help build rapport with your fellow developers. By the end of this episode you’ll have some key tips and strategies for conducting successful one on one’s that will ultimately strengthen your team and business.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • What does a one-on-one meeting really entail?
  • Find out why a one on one is important to have.
  • Learn why one on one’s are the time for managers to listen.
  • The importance of getting to know people in a different context.
  • Reasons to have a one on one versus a group meeting.
  • Discover how not to behave in a one on one meeting.
  • Why you should schedule and set a framework for one on one’s.
  • Find out what the panelists find useful from having one on one’s.
  • Using one on one’s to discover how engaged employees are in their work.
  • Agendas to follow that make for effective one on one’s.
  • What’s on your mind? The value of asking open-ended questions.
  • Unveiling the secret weapon of the silence...
  • Learn more about where a one on one ideally should take place.
  • Creating a safe environment for constructive criticism.
  • Why weird stock rooms are not ideal locations for one on one’s.
  • Teach & Learns: Feedback on Slim, Slim Jims and Hamil.
  • And much more!

Transcript for Episode 51. Why bother with 1-on-1 meetings?

[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsey Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today:

[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.

[0:00:10.8] MN: And our producer.

[0:00:12.0] WJ: William Jeffreys.

[0:00:14.4] MN: Today we’ll be talking about effective one on one’s. Why bother having them? One on one’s are scary, we’ll talk about why you should have them, some bad experiences and how you can turn them for the better.

[0:00:26.5] DA: Yeah, I guess that is kind of scary just locking yourself in a room with another human being. It’s very intimate.

[0:00:33.2] MN: “Hey, you have a second? You want to catch up? Let’s talk about something”.

[0:00:36.9] DA: “This is going to be bad, right? What did I do now?” I guess that’s kind of an example of a bad one on one, right? When you don’t have one very frequently and then all of a sudden it’s like, “We need to talk”. Gosh.

[0:00:50.1] MN: Yeah. Before we begin, let’s try to define what is a one on one besides the “Hey, let’s talk”, what entails a one on one and then we could talk about some bad experiences and then some good ones.

[0:01:03.1] WJ: There are three people there, wait, no.

[0:01:06.4] MN: Yeah, it’s totally mad.

[0:01:06.9] DA: I mean, there are a lot of Dilbert cartoons on this like trying to find some good articles on this when we were writing the one for the episode. Found so many Dilbert cartoons like about management and what it means to have a relationship with your manager. I guess like a one on one is just a reoccurring meeting that occurs regularly, that you can have an open discussion with your manager. I think everything else is like up to you guys to decide what that is, right?

[0:01:39.3] WJ: What is a good for it? Why have one?

[0:01:42.3] MN: Well, I guess like, to have them frequent is important and like to have a touch base on the individual you want to catch up with is a particular good reason for me to have a one on one. Kind of like a litmus test of “Hey, how’s it going or I have some feedback for you.” You know that there is a scheduled opportunity for this to happen and just because we have this doesn’t mean it’s going to be all bad news. But we have this space to converse and have those things.

[0:02:13.0] WJ: It’s going to be mostly bad news.

[0:02:14.7] MN: Yeah, mostly bad news, you know, it’s got those sprigs of good in the end there. Just like, no, that is an example of a bad one, right? If the manager has this one on one and it’s just talking to you all the time and telling you what went wrong, all these other things.

[0:02:34.6] WJ: Yeah, that’s a huge red flag, if your manager is spending the whole time talking and you’re not spending any time talking and your manager’s not spending any time listening.

[0:02:42.6] DA: Right, I think this is the key thing, it’s time to listen and get some rapport but that involves an exchange of information.

[0:02:53.2] MN: Yeah, because you know, the communication should go both ways for both individuals and this doesn’t always have to be a manager-manageree relationship, it could also be a one on one within two developers. Well, if one developer is doing all the talking and not listening or not reacting to the things that the other individual said then it’s just like bad communication altogether.

[0:03:16.9] DA: Yeah, it’s kind of nice to take some time and just build a rapport with people and get to know them in a different context than in front of the computer screen.

[0:03:25.5] WJ: Why not do that in groups?

[0:03:28.5] MN: You know? I personally feel like you shouldn’t do it in a group if the event that you have to give like, I don’t want to use the word sensitive feedback but like critical feedback, you don’t want to have an audience when you do that.

It’s just like, it may put someone on the spot for that particular piece of feedback, that would be much more effective if it was a one on one.

[0:03:48.1] DA: I feel like people have different communication styles too, you know, some people may just be quieter in a larger group. If you want to actually engage with them then you might need to take steps to build the meeting around that engagement style that they have.

For example, like some people might want to have an outline about what kind of things you’re going to be talking about, so it’s not like really nerve wracking, you know. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t have your thoughts prepared ahead of time.

[0:04:20.2] WJ: Yeah, I think that’s a common trait in introverts. A desire to spend time ahead of time looking at the agenda and preparing your thoughts and then they end up being much more effective in the meeting because the extroverts actually don’t mind not preparing at all.

[0:04:36.1] MN: That’s a particular framework that a lot of one on one’s can do and often times, unfortunately, the manager or the person who was leading the one on one may not follow a formula which can make the other person very tense.

[0:04:50.3] WJ: I have definitely been in the situation before where you do not realize that the person you’re having the one on one just really needs an agenda and it’s like, why?

[0:05:04.3] DA: What are some other bad things besides like not having an agenda?

[0:05:08.0] MN: This is probably more manager specific but asking only yes or no questions can be a bad practice because you don’t get the chance for the individual to explain with open ended questions when you want to figure out like a solution to a problem.

“Did you think this piece was hard?” “No”. That’s it. Rather than saying, “What about that particular piece of code made it more difficult for you?” Then they could go –

[0:05:36.5] DA: “Did you enjoy that difficulty, is there like some color you can add to that?” I don’t know, there are hard things in my life that I enjoy because, I’m like, getting something out of it. There are hard things in my life that I don’t enjoy because I’m not getting anything out of it. There’s a lot of color that you can add by just having an open-ended question.

[0:05:57.9] MN: Right, I think for a manager to kind of get those thoughts and then you know, in an expressive way that isn’t just a yes or no, it’s much more beneficial to the manager to apply to the team.

[0:06:11.6] DA: What if you know, you’re in the middle of doing something that’s like pretty critical and you don’t have that much time to have a meeting right now and your manager is like “No, you got to get in here, we need to have this meeting right now”.

[0:06:26.9] MN: That would be kind of alarming, it’s like, what is it that’s – even if you explain that situation makes my hair rise because it’s like, “What did I do wrong that I have to stop what I’m doing to listen to what’s going on?” You know you’re about to get abraded or something, I don’t know.

[0:06:43.5] WJ: I know what you did last summer…

[0:06:44.9] MN: Yeah, exactly. “Yo, we need to talk right now”. That’s pretty scary.

[0:06:50.9] DA: Yeah, your head’s not going to be in it then too because you have something else that you’re working on that’s important as well. I guess it’s good to set the time set aside and dedicate like, “This is your time to interact with me”. But you know, if this isn’t the most important thing for you right now then there’s a space for some understanding with that.

[0:07:13.0] MN: Right. Yeah, so you mentioned before, part of the planning, if you don’t bring a framework to the meeting, the least you could do is have it scheduled so that it doesn’t come abruptly or critically like that.

[0:07:24.9] DA: Yeah, I love having reoccurring meetings because finding time for a meeting is one of my least favorite things in my life I don’t like doing. It’s just so much easier if like the meeting just happens naturally which I guess is why people like having sprints because there’s a rhythm to it.

[0:07:43.8] WJ: What do you personally find useful about your one on one’s?

[0:07:47.1] MN: What I find useful about the one on one. If it’s a reoccurring meeting, as Dave mentioned, is the space to allow one another to share feedback. I think that that’s like really important and building rapport and understanding other individuals is being able to have the space to share feedback that happened throughout the week or throughout today and get your thoughts and share your thoughts with someone else and see what they feel and think and respond to that.

I find that very useful because suppose I wanted to change the way your hub branches are named and I make that change without asking anyone because I’m used to doing it in a certain way. I would expect in the one on one for someone to write that out. “Hey, you have been writing your branches this way, we’ve been doing it this way, do you mind like following the conventions”. “Snap, I didn’t know there was a convention, I’m sorry, we’ll do that”.

“That convention is actually much clearer than what I had in mind”. To have that space, that opportunity to share thoughts about the work that I’ve been doing and that I’ve been contributing is good for me because then I’m able to continue doing good stuff and stop doing bad stuff. There you go.

[0:08:54.1] DA: Yeah, those are a lot of words. I agree, I think for me, in a similar vein, I really enjoy having some time to have an exchange with someone that’s like really focused and you know, something that we can kind of gain some clarity around different things that we may not have time to talk about in the day to day.

[0:09:19.3] WJ: I think that they’re effective for certain conversations that you wouldn’t want to have in public, in addition to feedback. Like asking for a raise for example. It’s nice to have a regular touch point with your manager where you can say like, “I’d like a promotion” or you know.

[0:09:34.9] DA: I’m imagining this in a manager with all of his rapports where someone’s just like, “Give me more money!”

[0:09:42.5] WJ: It starts a chant. “More money! More money! More money!”

[0:09:47.2] DA: That went well.

[0:09:50.6] WJ: I also think one on one’s are an effective moment to really get a sense of how a person is viewing, or if you manage someone, having some time set aside to find out how engaged they are with their work is really useful. Because it’s a thing that it’s easy to take for granted and just assume that because the person isn’t complaining and because they’re getting their work done and they seem fine that everything is actually fine, but when people start to become unhappy enough to want to leave.

It’s usually a gradual process of disengagement where you know, they start to feel like they’re not making a ton of progress or you know, they feel like they don’t have enough autonomy in their work, or they’re just like not really clear on what their role is anymore.

Things start to get sloppy and start to fall apart and they may still be doing a good job but if you have a one on one with them, an opportunity to really dig in what their professional goals are, what their aspirations are, you know, what feedback they have, not just for you but for the company and for the role that they’re in. I think you can short-circuit that process and avoid attrition.

[0:10:59.8] DA: Yeah, I guess a lot of that stuff that you’re talking about is like kind of squishier, it’s like none technical, not really measurable, it’s more like “How are you feeling, like how is the general sense of your journey in this company, in this career?” Which is good. You know, not everything has to be measurable.

[0:11:20.3] MN: Yeah, you can’t learn that from poor request comments or like comments on a piece of code like you would get that information from a one on one. It’s nothing that gets overlooked often because you know, “Bobby’s not complaining.”

“He’s having an okay time, he’s churning out code and things are great” but it’s possible that Bobby may not be engaged in the work that he or she is currently doing and it just doesn’t – they end up leaving for those reasons.

[0:11:57.6] DA: Yeah, I guess you touched on it as well but there is like kind of, the here and now of like what’s happening, what progress are you making? And then there’s the longer term picture of goals that you’re setting and your career and where we’re trying to go with things.

That’s an important thing to have some time set aside to do and one on ones are definitely more fit for that than a group setting.

[0:12:23.1] WJ: Yeah, I think part of the responsibility of the manager is to make sure that their employees are happy enough that they stay in employed. I think the one on one is a really powerful tool for doing that.

[0:12:35.1] MN: I think one thing that I’ve used one on one’s in my ten years at Stride is to kind of be able to have a space where we can discuss what just happened and that could be both negative and positive. For whatever reason, I felt like I was disrespected for whatever reason.

I could definitely ask for someone to go into Rome and then we’ll have a discussion like “Hey, you know, I personally felt attacked because of XY and Z and I just want to let you know that I feel unhappy about the way that I was just treated in front of the entire team” and stuff like that.

Being able to hash out particular problems that you may have with your teammates is like definitely a thumbs up because the more you can kind of point to a problem and see what kind of solutions you could get out of it, the more rapport you get with that individual.

I found that very helpful to be able to talk to someone about something that just happened, like the earlier you can give the feedback, the better. I think in the discussion that Dave mentioned where things are critical and you need to stop what you’re doing, like that is extreme.

“Hey, when you have a second, can I catch up with you for five minutes and try to keep it five minutes”. There’s another thing, don’t say five minutes and then keep it for 30. Try to find the amount of time where you want to keep the feedback short and concise, depending on the amount of time that you have because the other individual may not have more than five minutes.

[0:14:01.2] WJ: Yeah, or, if you have serious feedback, don’t ask for five minutes because talking can’t be that fast.

[0:14:09.0] DA: At least five minutes.

[0:14:10.9] MN: Five minutes.

[0:14:11.9] WJ: Then you just like have enough time to make the other person feel shitty and no time for them to respond or process at all.

[0:14:18.8] DA: Man, yeah, just drop a bomb. “That’s the feedback, see you”. “I feel so much better”.

[0:14:28.2] MN: I think when the engineering team gets comfortable with having to get kind of like pulled aside and it doesn’t always have to be negative, you can pull someone aside and say “Hey, I just want to let you know, that was great stuff that you did back there”.

“The feature that you rolled out to deploy was amazing and there were no hiccups, great freaking job”. Stuff like that. The more the engineering team gets comfortable with having one on ones with other individuals, I think the better the feedback cycle exist with the team and then the team grows and becomes better too.

[0:14:58.2] DA: Yeah, definitely.

[0:14:59.7] MN: Does anyone have any agendas that they follow when having a one on one that makes it effective?

[0:15:06.3] WJ: Yeah, I’ve tried a couple of different things. There is a great blog post, I forget the name of it, it’s like “The Seven Questions Of Successful Coaching” or something catchy like that. I read it a while ago. I think he made a book out of it.

He outlines a bunch of – well, he outlined seven good questions, my favorite is, “So what’s on your mind?” I use that one a lot because what I found is that people actually have the thing that they want to talk about in their head, they just don’t feel comfortable bringing it up and pretty much every other question that you give them is going to lead them to talk about something that fits into your question.

But if you ask “What’s on your mind?” You get what is actually on their minds.

[0:15:55.4] DA: Yeah, since we’ve been doing one on one’s at our current clients. Since you’re leading the team currently, one thing that you do that I think is really great but I also hate is that like you ask a question and then just let it sit. You just leave the question hanging and it’s like, “Yes this is for you. I am not going to lead you in any direction on this”.

[0:16:21.7] WJ: It’s amazing like there is an interview technique. If you are willing to power through the silence, you can get another person to fill it and like a lot of times it’s what people need in order to actually say what they really need to say.

[0:16:34.6] DA: That’s a superpower.

[0:16:36.4] WJ: Yeah.

[0:16:36.9] MN: Dealing with the silence or like just being quiet and then having the other person jump in and actually tell you what’s on their mind? Is that how it works?

[0:16:47.4] WJ: It’s like, “What’s on your mind?” and the other person is like, “Nothing” and then you just fucking wait.

[0:16:52.6] MN: Ah you just –

[0:16:54.5] WJ: I am just going to sit here and look at you expectantly and eventually, you are going to say something other than nothing. I mean it’s a game of chicken eventually that will break.

[0:17:03.4] MN: Yeah.

[0:17:03.8] DA: Unless you just segway into like a meditation session.

[0:17:08.7] MN: There you go.

[0:17:09.6] DA: “All right we are just not going to talk. We’re just going to sit here and have a one on one at like a higher plane”.

[0:17:17.4] WJ: There is another agenda that has a little more structure to it that I have been using lately like it starts off with, “Have you had any big wins since we met last?” Which is nice because it puts the person in the mindset. If you regularly ask that question like every two weeks you get that question, people will start to look for the things that are going well, which is a powerful change in mindset and there is a lot of research and the feel of psychology that shows that they are going to have positive effects in the workplace and then –

[0:17:44.6] DA: So, everyone is just out there with their minds primed for winning.

[0:17:49.6] WJ: Yeah, it’s like, “Okay, well so could I turn this into a win that I could bring up on my next one on one?”

[0:17:55.3] DA: Yeah, I guess like a more neutral way to ask that question which should be like, “How productive were you this week?” But then it’s just like you are looking for a measurement less than money.

[0:18:06.6] WJ: Seven productivity units.

[0:18:09.4] DA: Points, all those points.

[0:18:11.6] WJ: Hit a new high score.

[0:18:13.3] MN: There you go.

[0:18:14.8] WJ: So then I ask about if the person has any updates or if I have any updates for the person. There is a little segment for that and then I ask if there are any roadblocks or concerns, like some kind of a problem that they might want to bring up and then toward professional development and then lastly end with some kind of a question to just sort of mix things up. It’s different every time. You can try and help the person shape their role better by asking something like:

“If you could do one thing in your job less what would it be?” Or you could ask a question that try and prompt some feedback for you as a manager like, “What’s one thing that your last manager did that you like that I don’t do?” I find that if you just straight up point blank ask somebody like, “Hey, can I have some constructive feedback?” They will absolutely never give you an answer. Absolutely never but if you can kind of trick them into it, like give them some plausible deniability.

Like, “Oh I didn’t really mean that I was giving you constructive. I didn’t mean you were doing something wrong, I just meant that this is a thing that my other manager did that I thought was good”.

[0:19:16.2] DA: Right, yeah. I was thinking about that all about today like the best way to give some kind of feedback. It’s not like you’re doing it wrong, it’s like, “Oh there could be a better way” like “Let me show you this wonderful thing that happened”.

[0:19:30.1] WJ: It’s not just hard to give feedback, it’s also hard to make the space safe enough that someone else feels comfortable giving it to you.

[0:19:38.5] MN: So kind of tricking them to give you that feedback.

[0:19:42.1] WJ: Or at least giving them permission somehow like, “What’s one thing that you would do differently if you were me?”

[0:19:50.8] MN: “The raises. Give me raises”.

[0:19:54.5] DA: “Just money, yeah”. What about the location for the one on one, is that important?

[0:19:59.4] WJ: Good question.

[0:20:00.7] MN: It depends, I think it depends on the relationship that you have with the individual. If it is going to be really quick, you can probably be like, “Hey I’m going to grab some water, do you want to catch up with me real quick?” Or if it’s scheduled then it’s definitely – it is usually a coffee shop or lunch. Food is always a good thing.

[0:20:19.9] WJ: You don’t want to do it in front of their parents, you know?

[0:20:24.0] MN: This is a one on one with your family.

[0:20:28.3] DA: Yeah, I was just thinking about different one on one’s that I’ve had like coffee shops and lunch is good because you have something that you can chew on, so maybe deaden the secret weapon of the silence. People will have some time to digest and think of things and on the opposite or in the middle end there is just a private room in the office and the very opposite end is that weird stock room that we keep on having to go to.

[0:20:56.1] WJ: Yeah so awful. Yeah more like trying to do a one on one at couches, on couches like near other people’s desks and you’re like, “Can they hear me? Are they listening”. Or just doing it at your desk, like an open floor plan, this makes no sense.

[0:21:14.8] DA: Or like in the coffee shop that’s close to the office.

[0:21:18.9] WJ: Or like a loud bar and you’re like, “Did you say I’m a what?”

[0:21:23.2] MN: Yeah, you want to make sure you guys are able to listen to one another and not have to worry if someone else is listening to you. I think that is the really important thing.

[0:21:34.2] WJ: You want an environment that doesn’t set up a weird power dynamic. If you have one person in a Herman Miller air on chair behind a $1,000 desk then the other person is like –

[0:21:45.9] MN: On a crate, sitting on a crate. That makes it a little weird.

[0:21:51.5] WJ: You’re doing the power hands triangle.

[0:21:53.8] MN: Exactly, the Illuminati. Yeah, I think power dynamics definitely plays a role on what the feedback will entail and what the relationship was like and the energy in the room would be weird. But I think the number one reason to have one on one just definitely for feedback between two individuals and getting an understanding of the person’s thoughts and figuring out what’s on their mind.

[0:22:21.1] WJ: Well I think the feedback thing is like, I think that comes up a lot particularly when it is like a peer to peer thing, because one on one’s are also super effective for when you are paring with somebody. It’s good to have maybe it is just a 15 minute one on one where you guys go around the block or get coffee. You know, “How is this working?”

[0:22:39.9] DA: The classic like the BO discussion. It’s coming back there for me. I’ve said something, yeah whatever for.

[0:22:49.9] WJ: I think one on one’s can be so much more than that too particularly if you have a manager who takes their job seriously and actually thinks of management as more than one of their primary responsibilities, as opposed to like a thing that they got roped into doing because I think it happens far too often in tech. You get some tech leaders who is really good at programming and somebody’s like, “Well you got so good at this that we have to give you something that you’re worse at”.

[0:23:14.2] MN: They give you some, “You’re so good at programming that you’ve got to be managing people” yeah.

[0:23:18.5] WJ: We’re going to promote you until you are incompetent.

[0:23:21.2] MN: There you go, oh man.

[0:23:23.1] DA: Is that a good thing?

[0:23:25.1] WJ: Is that a good thing?

[0:23:26.3] MN: No, yeah.

[0:23:28.0] WJ: The bitter principal? Oh god. I think this is why we need individual contributor tracks.

[0:23:34.7] DA: Yeah, that’s true.

[0:23:36.5] MN: Cool, so we just had a lengthy discussion on one on one’s, why you should have them and what are some bad examples and what you should avoid. As I mentioned before, every team should have the space and the opportunity to have one on one’s with one another to help with giving and receiving feedback and being able to build rapport with your developers.

[0:23:58.9] DA: Yeah just be excellent to one another.

[0:24:00.6] MN: Yeah, do we have any teach and learns we want to discuss? I have one at the client that I’m in right now. We’re working on some new functionality to the Ruby frontend code base and actually looking into Slim which is a frontend framework that replaces ERB. It’s very similar to Hamill and I haven’t coded in Hamill in a very long time. So to actually use Slim is like amazing.

[0:24:31.2] DA: Hamill is the one with significant white space, is that right?

[0:24:35.1] MN: Yeah and both Slim and Hamill are very similar. They’re like white space sensitive and you don’t have to wrap your HTML elements with less than greater than brackets. You just type the class and then indent and then type some things and then webpages happen, it’s great. Slim is awesome. I just did some reading and found that Slim is actually eight times more performant than Hamill which I thought was pretty impressive. So anyone out there have any Slim experience or any Slim tricks.

[0:25:04.4] WJ: Any slim jims also.

[0:25:05.9] MN: Any slim jims, yeah.

[0:25:07.3] WJ: A little hungry.

[0:25:08.1] MN: I would love to get some feedback on awesome tips on Slim.

[0:25:11.9] DA: Cool.

[0:25:13.2] MN: Awesome, I like to thank our co-host, Dave always a great time.

[0:25:17.8] DA: Thanks man.

[0:25:18.5] MN: And our producer, William, thanks for coming on down.

[0:25:21.0] WJ: Happy to be here.

[0:25:22.1] MN: I’m Michael Nunez, feel free to hit us up at twitter.com/radiofreerabbit and if you haven’t, please subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes.

This is The Rabbit Hole, we’ll see you next time.

Links and Resources:

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter

Dilbert cartoons

“7 Essential Questions All Great Managers Ask Their Employees”

William Jeffries on Twitter

Michael Nunez on Twitter

Stride

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