Effective one on ones

September 15, 2018
10 min read
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The time was coming, he was almost here. I looked back on the decisions I'd made throughout my life that had lead me to this point. What could I have done differently? Oh if there was only more time! I heard a creek of the floor behind me. He was here, this was about to happen. My first one on one.

The nerves I felt before my first one on one were, with hindsight, quite irrational. It was just a casual catch up with my boss, nothing to be nervous about. But I was nervous. Why? Well, mostly due to the uncertainty of what such a meeting entailed. Would I have a list of everything I'm doing wrong laid out before me? Was I about to have my imposter syndrome fears confirmed?

Then I got a few one on ones under my belt, and I realised it wasn't so bad! I started looking forward to them. A time to talk, a time to reflect and a time to plan. It became a great block of time where I was able to step away from the daily hustle and really look at where I'd been and where I was going. This was greatly helped by the fact that I had a great team leader who knew a thing or two about making these catch ups go so well.

Since that first one on one, I've had hundreds since, both with my team leader and as a team leader myself with my own team members. I've found that there are several things you can do, regardless of whether your the leader or not, to make your one on ones more effective.

So, what is a one on one?

"So, I was reading this blog article the other day, and the guy was talking about wetting his pants because he was nervous about something called a one on one", said an imagined future reader of this article, who I like to think will be called Batman. "I guess he was talking about some kind of fight that was about to take place? I suppose I best be going to find the Joker, because it's about time for our 'one on one'."

Batman has a point. I've referred to the term "one on one" no less than 7 times already, and not once have I stated what it is. But sorry Batman, unless you're looking to help the Joker grow in his career, you're misusing the term.

A one on one, at it's core, is an informal catch up between a team lead and a member of their team. I say 'informal catch up' because that's how I like to have them run, but it's not unheard of to see them being made more formal (like by having each participant have to wear a tuxedo or a ballroom gown). It's like a shorter and more casual version of a more traditional yearly review process.

So at it's core, it's a private conversation between a team lead and a member of their team to help share feedback, reflect on how things are going and plan for the future.

Start by making it regular

It was end of year review time. I was walking in to my catch up with a quiet confidence. I'd managed to tick off everything agreed on with my boss at my half yearly review, and now it was time to bask in the glory of praise for a job well done. Only, that's not quite how it went. As it turns out, the goal post had moved somewhat. Some of the things that were important 6 months ago hardly mattered any more. I could feel the sweat dripping from my brow, nervous swallows coming in waves. How on earth had I not managed to know all this? If only there was a way to have found all this out sooner!

Effective one on ones begin by making them regular. Leaving too large a gap between catch ups is a sure way for feedback to be left unshared and for leaders and their team to fall out of sync with each other. You can easily see this happen in organisations where the only time an employee sits down with their boss, to talk about how they're doing, is as part the yearly annual review. Goals that were discussed at a previous sit down have now become stale and mis-aligned with both the business and employee themself.

Setting a regular time to catch up means that feedback can be given and received in a timely manner. This means that any proposed course corrections are minor, and any problems can be dealt with at the spot fire level, before they escalate to anything more serious.

Keep it casual

Part of the nervousness I felt before my first one on one was my worry that I should have prepared rigourous notes on my personal performance, much like I would do for a half yearly review. Traditionally preparing these notes had taken me a large amount of time, and I'd had my one on one meeting sprung on me with only days to plan! It was around then I'd started considering wearing sweat bands to work to help keep me dry in these moments of stress.

Making these catch ups casual helps to create a friendlier environment, where people are more open with each other. Feedback given and received in a casual setting is often easier to digest, and therefore more likely to be useful. Going to a meeting room in the office can work, but it might not be ideal, as the office 'vibe' will follow you in there. A place that is typically associated with casuallness is ideal. This could be a lunch room, game room, cafe, or even a pleasant walk in the great outdoors (those exercise endorphins can really top it all off!).

Give feedback, ask for feedback

One of the key components of a one on one is the sharing of feedback. I say sharing, because it should be a two way street. A team lead is providing feedback to a member of their team, and the team member is providing feedback to their leader. The two way sharing of feedback is important.

As a leader, it's your job to provide meaningfuly feedback to team members to help them improve. This should be a combination of what they're doing well, and what they could be doing better at. It's useful to write your thoughts down during the time between one on ones, as memory in the moment can sometimes be lacking. This will prove most useful when giving feedback on something you'd like to see improved, as you'll be able to cite past examples of what you're talking about.

As a team member, it's useful to provide feedback to your team lead for much the same reasons. Share what you think they're doing well at, what they could do better at, and cite examples if you can! This can be massively useful, as it ultimately helps them to be a better leader to you.

Be sure to make the feedback useful. Be specific, be immediate, tie it to goals, ensure it's actionable and use the right language. In order to save some words in this article, I'll direct your attention to The Six Qualities Of Good Feedback if you'd like to learn more.

Ask for feedback about other team members

As a team lead, you're not going to see everything that goes on within your team. Unless, of course, you're part of some secret government spy agency. When you don't have the power of a Get Smart agent behind you, the next best thing can be to ask for feedback about other people on the team.

Ideally, you're team is comfortable enough with each other to share this feedback directly. But often that isn't the case. If it's useful feedback, start with looking at ways to get them to share it directly with each other. This should be a reasonable asking for positive feedback; "That new bat suit looks great Batman, it really helps keep criminals at bay". But can often be more difficult for 'negative' feedback; "The nipples on your new bat suit were a terrible idea, no criminal will take you seriously now, just look at Dr. Freeze, he shows no respect!". Start by talking it through and see if you can get them to share it directly. If that doesn't look to be an option, ask if they're okay with you sharing it with the other party. If that's okay, you can incorporate it in to their next one on one.

Reflect and plan

Reflecting on the past and planning for the future are a big part of creating alignment. It helps to keep the team member aligned with the goals of the company, and the team lead aligned with the goals of the team member.

Start by talking about how things have been going. This can be since the last one on one, since the start of the year, or since breakfast. This is a good opportunity to talk about what's been going well, what hasn't been working well, and to review any previously discussed goals. Once you've had a time to reflect, it's now time to plan. Talk about what you want to be doing going forward, and look at setting some S.M.A.R.T. goals if it makes sense. The scope of the plan can be grand, years out, but try to create actionable goals that can be worked on in the imediate future.

Get to know each other

Being an effective team leader means knowing your team. Knowing what their interests are, their values, and what's going on in their life will greatly enable you to give the support and assistance that great team leaders provide.

Once you have a reasonable relationship with your team, you'll be able to tailor your feedback and ideas for growing them to their personal needs. Julie might be really good at something and always be given that to work on, but deep down she might really want to branch out and work with something new. John might be having a bit of a hard time at home, and needs a bit more flexibility in his daily schedule to help sort things out. If you don't know your team well at a personal level, you might never discover these things, and therefore never be able to truly help your team be the best it can be.

Where do I start?

The first step is to set some time asside on a regular basis. Anything between 2 weeks to 1 month is a good place to start. For someone new to the company, or for someone quite junior, weekly catch ups can prove useful. Anything longer than a month between catch ups is likely too long, as you'll miss out of many of the benefits discussed above.

It would also be useful to explain to your team what the purpose of a one on one is, so as they don't get the cold sweats like I did before my first one! Point them to this article, or talk it through with them before you send out the calendar invitation.

One on ones are a key ingredient to being an effective team leader. They enable you to better direct your attention to where it's needed, and to create an environment in the team that everyone loves to work in. So what are you waiting for? Get to it!