How to Win at One-On-Ones

July 13, 2018

One-on-ones have become a standard part of our culture here at Workiva, but beyond the concept of an employee meeting with his or her manager, one-on-ones are not well defined. They can have many different expressions depending on the personalities involved, employee needs, and each other's stage of career. This article will hopefully shed some light on adding value to these meetings.

What if we didn't have one-on-ones?

One of the most powerful ways that I can describe the benefits and value of the one-on-one meeting is from my experience working in an environment without them.

For the first 11 years of my career, I worked in a classic environment that had at most one regularly scheduled manager meeting a year, which was the yearly review. This consisted of a 15-minute conversation, which was mostly a pat on the back and a thumbs up message. I entered this meeting with a combination of curiosity and dread. Having completely switched to a career outside my college studies, I was full of insecurities best described as impostor syndrome. When the meeting was over, I left feeling like I was no closer to having any sense of closure on the outstanding concerns and struggles I faced. The worst part was that it would be a year until I might have that chance again.

In retrospect, I could have asked for more meetings, but there was no precedent for that. So I did what humans do—I used the next most available thing to answer my questions: my peers. There was definitely valuable things to learn in those conversations, but in the end, my peers were not going to challenge me, hold me accountable, and give me constructive feedback in the way my manager could.

How do I maximize my one-on-one?

The answer to this question can be extremely varied depending on your strengths, weaknesses, role within the company, and other factors of your career journey. I could list and describe areas like feedback from others, company direction, career progression, interpersonal issues, etc., but I would like to make this more simple.

It is common in our world to complain about some aspect of your job. Some people complain to their friends at a happy hour, some to their spouses after a day of work, and any number of other outlets. Venting can be an effective way to relieve stress, but other than that, it will not fundamentally change anything. What if you could vent to your manager? What if by venting to your manager you were able to make positive change toward the areas of frustration? In order for this to occur, you will need to establish trust.

What I am trying to convey is the fact that being able to reach a level of comfort in communication with your manager will set the stage for far richer discussions.

Consider level 1 communication as being comfortable enough to bring up frustrations you have about the workplace.

Level 2 communication would be the ability to give constructive feedback to your manager about how they are doing. While we may desire unidirectional patterns in our code, we desire bidirectional feedback in our workplace. Good managers love feedback—it is the most effective tool for knowing what is and is not working. Let's all level up!

Why does all this trust stuff matter?

If you were to look at any operating group out there—for example, business, sports, or military, etc.—and ask them what areas they could improve, they will likely mention communication. With trust we can reduce inaccuracy and noise in our communication. Spotify calls it a high-trust environment. We have had our best success when working well as a team. Your manager is a gateway to unlocking the best ways for you to work within that team. It might mean looking out for opportunities, mitigating what may be a stressful situation, or finding ways to let your skills more effectively enhance the entire team.

Trust will help streamline communication. It will allow you to stop taking the long way around to make your point—which will save time and also strengthen the clarity of the message.

Trust => Better communication => Improvement => Efficiency => Getting things done => Job Satisfaction => ...you get the point

What types of things should we talk about?

First off, you should not consider one-on-ones to be a simple status meeting. If you are simply conveying the progress of all the efforts you are working on, then this is likely a waste of time as there are already pre-established channels for that.

Use your meetings to strategize the next steps in your career. Your manager can be a gateway to help you navigate through the complicated path of your career. Expressing your goals will help your manager provide direction for you. A company has many moving parts that constantly change over time. Your manager can use his or her knowledge of these moving parts to help guide you by making shifts when necessary to keep you progressing toward your goals.

Establish ongoing themes for your conversations. Maybe you have a hard time speaking in a group environment or feel overwhelmed when asked to help with a new codebase? Once you identify themes, you can use these to cycle back on in meetings, see progress, be held accountable, and feel like you are actively working on the area.

Be curious. Ask questions. Is there anything you have always wanted to know? Are you confused at why a decision was made? As problem-solvers, our brains instinctively want to understand everything. When things in the company seem puzzling, ask for an explanation. You can then stop speculating about the unknown and move forward.

What if things still feel awkward?

The truth of humans is that all personalities do not connect equally. Maybe your one-on-one conversations feel robotic and forced. That is common early on and usually will get better, but not always. Don't despair though—the truth is we all have something to learn from each other. You may not have the most natural conversations, but that does not mean that you cannot gain insight, provide feedback, and work together to improve. Every manager I have worked with has taught me a great deal, but it has been in different ways. It is on your manager to respond, challenge, and make sure communication is occurring, but it is on you to make sure you are actively utilizing him or her as a resource.

In closing

We have committed to the process of one-on-ones at Workiva and strive to make the bestuse of them that we can. Share helpful practices with your peers and managers. Ask questions, strive for trust, and never stop challenging yourself.