Why I love good 1:1s

These days, I’ve been reflecting. Reflecting on the status of the world, research, and many other things. On the work side, I’ve been reflecting on how to properly run teams and how to make people be heard. I’m no expert on this and, while I do have some management and leadership experience, I have lots of things to learn. I have managed/lead 3 teams now of various sizes. My first experience with managing a team was a disaster: I failed in every way. But I’ve learned to do better. Here, I’ll like to share things that I’ve learned, books and advice that have helped me, and how to add diversity and inclusion into managing. What I will mostly like to focus in this blog post are 1:1s and why they are a central core to any team dynamic. I’ll be talking about my experience over the years as a member of the software community. Recently, I led (in a small way) a team of people that I absolutely loved. So here some of my reflections.

1:1s

We all know that 1:1s are, we all have had them. But sometimes we don’t know what a good 1:1 is. For me, 1:1s are an opportunity to learn what are the successes, challenges and needs of a person. It is not a status update or reporting. It is the most vital process that a manager/lead must always held.

I had once a manager/lead that wanted to cancel all their 1:1s in the team, or to reduce them to 15 minutes. They had too many other things to do and other important meetings to attend. I also had a leader that canceled all of our 1:1s. This leader first started by canceling our 1:1 by sending a note over chat; then, they cancel them by sending an email; then, they cancel by clicking ‘no’ to the video invitation; and, then, they just removed it with no notification from the calendar. These two examples, at least for me, are a big mistake. What these two examples said to me was: “I, as a manager/lead, do not value your work, and see no use in talking to you”.

1:1s are perhaps the most important meeting one can have in order to understand the health and the needs of a team. You cannot understand what a person needs from second-hand telling, assumptions or gossip. You need to go to the source to understand any need. And, yet, 1:1s are the types of meetings that are more likely to be canceled.

Perhaps, the reason why they get canceled is that there is a misunderstanding of what they are for. 1:1s are not status or report meetings. Status can be the introduction or the framing, but not the core of the meeting. A healthy 1:1 is strategic: they must be valuable conversations.

1:1s are about moving information in such a way that that communication becomes helpful. If you, as a manager, expect to go to a 1:1 and that an employee just recites what they have been doing all week, then that meeting is useless. It is useless for the employee as not help has been given, it is just a repetition of a task. This is also the reason why I hate status reports.

From “Managing Humans” by Michael Lopp:

“My belief is that e-mail-based status reports are one of the clearest and best signs of managerial incompetence and laziness. There are always compelling reasons why you need to generate these weekly e-mails. We’re big enough that we need to cross-pollinate. It’s just 15 minutes of your time.

Bullshit. The presence of rigid, e-mail-based status reports comes down to control, a lack of imagination, and a lack of trust in the organization.

I want you to count the number of collaboration tools you use on a daily basis to do your job—not including e-mail. If you’re a software engineer, I’m guessing it’s a combination of version control, bug tracking, wikis, CRM, Slack, and/or project management software. All of these tools already automatically generate a significant amount of status regarding what has tactically gone down each week.

When someone—my boss or someone who outranks me—asks for a status report, my first thought is, “I’m already generating piles of status on these various tools; why not just look at those?”

Well, there’s a lot of noise in those tools. So write a report that takes out the noise—collaboration tools are built around reporting. The status information is out there. In what managerial textbook does it say it’s a good idea to distribute the task of figuring out what is going on to the people who are performing the work? That’s, like, your job.

Well, what I really want is your high-level assessment of the week. Three things that are working, three things that aren’t, and what we’re going to do about it. OK, now we’re talking. I can do a strategic assessment of the week, but why don’t we just put that at the beginning of the one-on-one? That way when you have questions (and you will), we can have a big fat debate.

But I’d like to have a record I can review later. Super, feel free to write down anything we talk about.

Yes, status reports are a hot button for me. I’ve written hundreds of them and each time I’ve begun one, I start by thinking, “Why in the world do I feel like I’m performing an unnecessary act?” Status reports usually show up because a distant executive feels out of touch with part of his or her organization, and they believe getting everyone to efficiently document their week is going to help. It doesn’t. E-mailed status reports say one thing to 90 percent of the people who write them: “You don’t value my time.””

I whole-heartedly agree with the quoted text. When I go to 1:1s with people I mentor/lead/manage, I usually come prepared. I already know they have been working on x feature because I reviewed the PR or saw it. I already know they are interested in working on x because they said so in a team meeting or in a chat. I have ways to find the information of what they have been doing by looking at jira tickets, attending project meetings, reading git commits, opening the slides of their presentations, and more. And, even if I don’t have all the information, I trust my colleagues to do the right work. I don’t need to micromanage anyone and I don’t need them to repeat statuses for me. Those statuses found on jiras or more, though, provide me with valuable information to discuss in our 1:1.

I usually write down the things I want to discuss in the 1:1s. They involve either coding together a solution, discussing the comments on a PR, figuring our together how to run a meeting, finding the strategy to move some work forward, and more. And, more importantly, they also involve finding opportunities. If a person casually says on chat or in a meeting that they are interested in x project, then, I usually try to dig more. How interested are they? Is there a paper around that project they would be interested in that I can share? Is there a person I can introduce them to? Is there a conference they can attend?

A 1:1 is also the place for me to share information that they might not know. This might include the strategy of a project or the overall goals of a new line of projects that are coming. This is very important because in the absence of information, people start making up this information. And, worse, if they feel threatened, they make up information that amplifies their worst fears. So, it is important to state information clearly, especially, strategic one.

1:1 should be about creating meaningful conversations. And sometimes, it becomes a vent. Something went wrong and people needed to vent. That is ok, the job here is to listen and not to advice (yet). Let the vent pass, and then you can start finding solutions. But, if you don’t listen first, people will think you are not taking them seriously or that you are just there to shut them down. I have had these conversations and I have had to stay silent watching someone take it all out of their chest. But only when the vent is finished, one can start talking, because only then is all out. I have also vented in the past to managers and I think we all have had.

The worst kind of 1:1 is, as Lopp says, the Disaster.

“Here are some tips on recognizing and handling the Disaster:

• The person you’re talking to isn’t him- or herself. As you’re sitting there weathering the Disaster, remember that you are experiencing an anomaly—a bizarre emotional version of the person that only shows up when they’re on the edge. The person you’re familiar with will show up . . . eventually.
• Shut up. Really. Your primary job during the Disaster is to defuse, and you start defusing by contributing absolutely nothing. If you’re a logical, reasonable management type, you’ll be tempted to ask clarifying questions—to try to shape the problem. Don’t. Be quiet. Let the emotion pass. Here’s why . . .
• It’s not about the issue anymore. You’re no longer experiencing the problem. You’re experiencing the employee’s emotional baggage regarding the problem. Sure, there’s the core issue, but that’s not what you’re currently observing. You’re seeing the extreme negative reaction to the issue, and that’s the first order of business.”

A disaster, though, is the result of poor management. “When your employee believes totally losing their shit is a productive strategy, it’s because they believe it’s the only option left for making anything change” (Lopp). And, most of the times, they believe is the last option they have.

I have had two memorable disaster 1:1s. On the first, I failed to listen and I failed to see my mistake. The employee resigned and I felt terrible. I later apologized (not once, but at least five times on different occasions) and now we are good friends. On the second, I listened and provided support. I couldn’t solve his problem: getting a much-deserved raise, because it was out of my control. But I tried, and showed him how much I tried. A disaster 1:1 can be recovered, but one needs to listen and provide actual support. A disaster is usually the result of miscommunication, so: “when communications are down, listen hard, repeat everything, and assume nothing” (Lopp).

1:1s are also the time to understand what someone wants, what is their core motivation. Do they want to lead? Do they want to be a team player? Do they want to only do technical work? Not all people are you, and you will need to learn who they are. A good way I use for this is to understand what kind of jokes they like, what makes them tickle. This usually allows me to start understanding them, and makes for a great way to break any tension.

1:1s are also a place to understand the health of a team. If people are not talking about their important matters on their 1:1s, then, they don’t trust you. If you don’t actually listen to them, cancel their 1:1s, micromanage their work, and provide no support, people will not trust you. And people need to trust you.

It is also very important to believe whomever you are managing. This doesn’t mean believing them blindly; but if they brought up a topic up in a 1:1 (a meeting that can be scary), then they actually felt like they needed to say something. Don’t treat it lightly and do believe them. This is especially important when talking about diversity and inclusion.

I remember once I had the experience of having an idea and that a male member took credit for it. This is particularly important for me as a woman, as women are less recognized for the work they do and their contributions are usually diminished. I brought this to the attention of a manager who didn’t believe me and provided no support. There was no response plan and no prevention of recurrence. I lost my trust in that manager. Listen in 1:1s, understand your inner biases, seek to see other points of view, and take seriously instances where inclusion is being diminished.

I actually really like managing because I like people and I’ve loved everyone I have mentored/lead/managed. I also see it as mental chess: trying to figure out what the next steps will be. But it is not an easy job: “my definition of a great manager is someone with whom you can make a connection no matter where you sit in the organization chart” (Lopp).

Things I personally value in managers (and that I try to do when mentoring or leading):

• Someone that knows what I’m doing, trusts that I do it well and that helps me if I get stuck.
• Someone that does not hold my academic titles against me, and that knows that I’m technically capable (because women are often regarded as less technically capable than men).
• Someone that listens carefully, and specially listens to what I’m asking help for. Many times, one asks for help on one thing and it is assumed to be another.
• Someone that values inclusion, mental-health help, and diversity.
• Someone that works on their inner biases and learns about systematic discrimination.
• Someone that celebrates wins with me.
• Someone that tries to understand team members beyond work.
• Someone that finds a way to give feedback that I feel comfortable with.