My name is Alex and I’m a software engineer. Given the stereotypes about people in my line of work, what I’m about to say next may come as a shock… but, I actually don’t mind meetings. I even look forward to my weekly one-on-one with my manager.
Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of the advice written about managing engineers comes from the point-of-view of an experienced manager, and is based on what has worked for them. As an individually-contributing software engineer, I thought I would turn the tables and write about what has worked for me over the last five years when it comes to manager one-on-ones.
Different managers, different styles
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a different manager for each year of my career so far, and with that, a wide range of experiences with different management styles. Some one-on-ones were rigidly structured, others conversational; some were weekly, some bi-weekly, and one… non-existent.
Through (almost) all of these, one factor remained constant: these meetings were consistently face-to-face. A few of my peers in the past have lamented over the futility of their one-on-one, wishing that instead of sitting down to talk with their manager they could just email a status report and reclaim that valuable time to write a few more lines of code, close one more ticket, or test one more bugfix. I empathize with that feeling, nothing feels better than that dopamine rush of a job well done. But not everything that is happening with you and your team can be communicated in an email. Even if you’re a manager with a remote or distributed team, getting that face-to-face time with your direct reports over a video call is going to provide so much more clarity around how your team is actually doing than any status report.
One-on-ones: The good, the bad, and the pointless
I enjoy building that human connection with my manager. One of my previous managers preferred that I come to our one-on-one having filled out a worksheet that we’d address together line-by-line. While they preferred that framework, I initially felt like it was a waste of time, as the sheet’s contents would rarely change each week. (Sometimes, the sheet was warm to the touch, having just been filled out and printed five minutes before the meeting.) While it was great as a conversation starter, the worksheet itself could really only capture generalized feelings. It was the conversations we had after we went through it where I felt that the nuances of how I was feeling about my work were truly communicated.
Similarly, I’ve been in one-on-ones where there was little to no structure or consistency at all. I’d enter my manager’s office, sit down, and the ultimate conversation-starting question was asked: “What’s up?”. We’d only discuss what was at the top of either of our minds and forgo pieces that either of us might have been uncomfortable about bringing up or simply forgotten about. These meetings rarely lasted more than five minutes, and unless I was the one to bring topics to the meeting, I frequently left feeling like it truly was a waste of time. I felt like I could trust my manager if I needed to have something addressed, but I also never felt like they truly understood the big picture of me and my work.
Over time, I grew to appreciate that worksheet for what it was — a tool to drive the conversation forward and ensure and important topics were consistently addressed. But that worksheet alone couldn’t run the one-on-one. It would have been less than useless to fill out the worksheet alone each week and email it to my manager, just to have him address the issues I brought up asynchronously. There was no way anyone could fill that sheet in with enough detail to communicate everything that was happening. Likewise, if we didn’t have that structure in place, we’d be spending that time spinning our wheels and missing out on the opportunity to talk about topics that truly mattered.
Managers: Be prepared and consistent
I think it’s important for managers to recognize the value of having tools to add structure to their one-on-ones. What works for one may not work for all, but I think every person can appreciate the consistency of knowing what to expect out of their time with their manager.
If I was to run my ideal one-on-one, I’d start with that worksheet. I’d create a form with questions that I want to make sure are addressed each meeting, and that reflect what I value in my manager-employee relationship. Here are a few examples of questions I would include:
- How do you feel about your current work-life balance?
- Do you feel you have everything you need to do the work assigned to you?
- How challenged do you feel by your work right now?
- What opportunities do you see for yourself or the company?
- What can I do better to help you?
When I was asked these questions, they usually led to a very enriching and positive experience in my one-on-ones, especially regarding opportunities. The worksheet would only be a guide though, and I would make sure that my reports knew that. There should be thought put into the answers to the sheet, but the real meat of the meeting is in the conversation that those answers spark.
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