Matthew Kuo

I build and break stuff.

How to have effective 1 on 1s with your manager

You and your manager high fiving each other

When I started my first software engineering job out of college, I had no idea what to expect from 1-on-1 meetings. Heck, I didn’t even know 1-on-1s were a common practice where I was working at.

When I asked my manager what we’d talk about in these 1:1s, he replied casually, “Oh, just about anything on your mind.” As a result, my first half a dozen meetings were me just sitting there listening to my manager chitchat about the projects I was working on.

Needless to say, it was an absolute waste of time for both of us.

Ideally, 1-on-1s should enable you and your manager to be more productive and perform at a higher level. If your manager doesn’t automatically schedule 1-on-1 meetings, feel free to take the initiative and schedule them yourself.

This article serves as a non-comprehensive guideline on how to conduct 1-on-1s that will be a productive use of time for you and your manager.

Blocking Issues

An effective manager’s job is not to micro-manage their employees and tell them how to do their jobs. After all, managers hire a bunch of brilliant people (like you!) who are able to learn and figure it out as they go, right 😉?

Rather, a manager’s job is to remove blockers from their team members so that they can be more productive.

These could be anything that prevents you from doing your job. Perhaps your team lacks the necessary manpower and tools to deliver a project. Or maybe you need some more time to complete a project due to complications. Or possibly you filed a ticket against another team that nobody is taking a look at and this is preventing you from continuing your project.

Even if your manager does not have the power to change any of these, at least they will be aware of these issues and will know ahead of time the issues that are preventing their team from reaching its max potential.

Team Processes

Leading a team can be an arduous process and your manager will appreciate your personal opinion about how the team is doing. Let them know what you think is working for the team and not working and if you think there are any improvements that can be made to overall processes (e.g. code reviews, meetings, sprint planning, ops, etc.).

If you do have improvement ideas, attempt to demonstrate your leadership skills by showing your manager how you could implement them. This will show your manager that you’re willing to actively participate in improving your team – you’re not just sitting around complaining and waiting for other people to fix issues for you.

Ask and Give Feedback

Your manager is likely going to provide you feedback on your performance (or lack thereof 😜). However, wouldn’t it show how gung-ho and serious about improving yourself you are if you actively ask for it instead of waiting for it to be delivered?

Take constructive feedback gracefully. If your manager makes notes of any growth areas, be sure to note it down. Bonus points if you can comment on action items for how you intend to improve in those areas. That way, in your next 1:1 meeting, you can mention the steps you took to improve and how much of an awesome budding engineer you are!

Providing constructive face to face feedback for your manager might be a bit daunting at first. In general, people don’t always take criticism well. Knowing how to dish out constructive criticism in a tasteful manner is an invaluable skill in your career.

Not-so-constructive feedback

Not-so-constructive feedback

I find that a simple and useful technique is to first mention an achievement or praise and then follow up with the criticism. Something like “I like how concise and to-the-point your meetings are, but perhaps you could provide some documentation beforehand so the team has more context to what is going on.” Use hedge words to soften the impact of your critique.

Career Goals and Promotions

A manager’s job is also to groom and grow their team members so that they will be able to take on more responsibility when the appropriate time comes.

Been consistently getting positive feedback from you manager regarding your performance during your 1-on-1s? Great! Now is the time to approach the topic of projects and skillsets that you need to develop to take your career to the next level. Discuss with your manager which projects you can take on that could help you secure a promotion.

Even if you’re content with your current status within your company, ask for projects that interest you more and are inline with the type of work you want to do. Are there any skills you’d like to deepen your skills in or obtain additional training?

What Not to Talk About

Although most of the manager’s I’ve had were pretty open to chat about practically anything, remember that your manager is your colleague and not your therapist. Although friendly banter is okay, try to keep it professional and work related.

Also, unless you have blocking issues, avoid talking about the progress of the projects you’re working on. Your manager should already have visibility on your progress through daily stand up meetings or a scrum board. Otherwise, e-mail them a status update every week on what you’re up to. Talking about project progress is not an effective use of your 1-on-1 meeting.

You Scratch My Back I’ll Scratch Yours

Monkeys scratching each other's backs

Make sure both you and your manager leave the meeting with a list of action items from what was discussed during the meeting. If your manager doesn’t take notes, take the notes yourself and send it to them via e-mail after the meeting! Then, in your next meeting, you can talk about your progress on the action items.

The 1-on-1 is a great time to build trust and assist your manager so that in turn, they will seek to accommodate and aid you. Remember than an effective 1-on-1 is a two way street. If done right, 1-on-1s will allow both you and your manager to be better at doing your jobs and give you and leg up in advancing your career.

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