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One-on-One Meetings: The Most Important Tool For Engineering Team Leader

Dmitry Shvetsov
July 25th, 2020 · 4 min read

This is a chapter Team Lead 101: Manage and Grow Engineering Teams in Small Startups book. Click here to learn more

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

One-on-one (1:1) meetings is an inexpensive yet highly effective tool to build relationships, solve personal issues, drive development, and keep teammates motivated and happy.

A 1:1 meeting is a private meeting with a member of your team for discussing all sorts of questions in person. 

1:1 meeting should not touch on questions about current projects or tasks.

1:1 meeting are great for the following:

  • Revealing personal issues
  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Mentoring your teammates and directing their personal development
  • Finding which processes are working and which aren’t
  • Keeping the person motivated to fulfill their role in the team
  • Addressing personal issues

You have no control over the team when you aren’t receiving feedback, and people are usually hesitant to share their opinions. 1:1 meetings are a tool to reveal internal team issues that prevent people from speaking freely.

Don’t expect grand results from the first 1:1 meeting. Like in every relationship, you need time to build the team’s trust in you and trust in the tool.

It’s not common to be bombarded with personal opinions on your first date. More often, it takes about 3 to 4 meetings over a couple of months before people will start to become open to you. This all depends on people’s personalities.

How you interact in 1:1 meetings is also important. Try to follow these important principles:

  • Be genuinely interested in the person
  • Let them speak
  • Listen actively: ask questions, keep eye contact, nod in agreement, and encourage them to continue

I used to take notes during 1:1 meetings while people were talking. Now I consider this to be a bad practice. It makes the other person think that they’re under interrogation. Instead, jot down notes in a teammate card right after the meeting.

Here is my agenda for 1:1 meetings:

  • Right at the beginning, ask the person if they want to speak about something right away. This will help them to relax, express what is currently bothering them, and unlock their thought process.
  • Explain the aim of the meeting. For me, these meetings are a chance to receive and give feedback and also help each other enjoy our day-to-day interactions and the work we do.
  • Emphasize that what you discuss will remain between you two unless specified otherwise.
  • Exchange feedback. Usually, I give feedback first to give an example of how it should be. Often in the first meeting, teammates feel uncomfortable giving feedback, and this is totally fine. Don’t demand feedback—they need time. You also might find people who love to speak first, in which case allow them to give feedback first.
  • Ask about 6-month and yearly goals. After receiving an answer, ask how you can help them reach those goals.
  • Thank your colleague for the honest feedback and what they shared with you.

In the very first meetings, I love to ask my teammates what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing and what irritates them. I love to ask what they love and hate in programming. I ask them to assess themselves from 0-3 on the tools we use, such as the programming language, frameworks, libraries, practices, and general skills, such as OOP, functional programming, refactoring, code design, architecture, debugging, etc. Answers to these questions allow me to compile initial data for their teammate card.

At 1:1 meetings, you can make some commitments to a teammate—just make sure you deliver on those commitments. To build trust in 1:1 meetings, you should provide direct value to your teammates, and fulfilled commitments will help. Another important aspect is to not expose information that you agree to keep confidential in 1:1 meetings.

For given and received commitments, make sure to specify a time when they should be fulfilled. When it’s your teammate who committed to something, it works best to schedule it with them directly during the meeting. This creates a sense of responsibility.

According to the TinuPulse 2018 report, there are five major reasons why people leave their companies. 1:1 meetings addresses all of them:

  1. Poor management performance. Employees who rate their supervisor’s performance poorly are four times as likely to be job-hunting. In 1:1 meetings, you encourage your peers to give constructive feedback. Use this to improve.
  2. Lack of recognition. Nearly 22 percent of workers who don’t feel recognized when they do great work have interviewed for a different job in the last three months, compared to just 12.4 percent who do feel recognized. In 1:1 meetings, you should alway give positive feedback. If you don’t think you have anything positive to say, why is this person still working with you?
  3. Overworked employees. In a 1:1, you have a chance to notice or ask about the person’s workload and adjust the load.
  4. Company culture is not a priority. The research found that culture has an even bigger impact on an employee’s decision to stay or go than their benefits package. In 1:1 meetings, you can receive feedback about processes in the company and either address them or transfer them to the executive level.
  5. No growth opportunities. It was found that employees who feel they are progressing in their careers are 20 percent more likely to stay at their companies in one year’s time. On the flip side, employees who don’t feel supported in their professional goals are three times more likely to be looking for a new job. In 1:1 meetings, always ask about personal goals. See how you can help your teammates achieve them.

In case if your team remote 1:1 meetings become even valuable. With remote work, the opportunities to notice a change in behavior become much less, and the importance of personal meetings increases.

With 1:1 meetings, I have solved personal and team issues discovered ways to improve, bonded the team, and built personal relationships with each team member. They have helped me to better manage others, ask important questions, and make thoughtful decisions. I see no reason not to use 1:1 meetings if you are in a leadership role.

This is a chapter Team Lead 101: Manage and Grow Engineering Teams in Small Startups book. Click here to learn more

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