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How to Structure an Effective One-on-One

Personal Growth
Meetings

16 June, 2021

Ringo Tsang
Ringo Tsang

Engineering Manager at Postman

Ringo Tsang, Engineering Manager at Survey Monkey, outlines how to structure an effective one-on-one that will ensure active participation by his less talkative reports.

Problem

It happens that most people on my team are introverts who are not very talkative. So to get the conversation going, I would do most of the talking. But this is not what one-on-ones should look like. One-on-ones should be all about the reports and them doing the talking.

However, people are different, and many need to feel safe and guided to be able to engage themselves in conversation with another person. To ensure their active participation and make most of our one-on-ones, I came up with a structure that would encourage my reports to open up and talk more.

Actions taken

I created a three-part, well-structured agenda that I would share with all my reports before a meeting.

During the first part of a meeting, we would focus on giving and receiving feedback. I would open every session with a brief retrospective of the last meeting. By doing so, I would create a feedback loop (“How did you like the last one-on-one?”) that would allow me to continue with feedback. Positive or negative, it doesn’t matter as long as we are honest, have good intentions, and my reports feel safe to share their vulnerabilities with me.

Then, we would move to the second part, where we would discuss anything that happened during that week. To ice break a conversation, I would ask my reports to tell me what was the best and most challenging thing of the week. I would also ask them if there was something I could do to make it easier for them. This is the time to talk about everything and anything and hear their opinions on various proposals or announced changes. For example, the company recently announced the possibility of going back to the office starting later in summer. I would like to hear what they have to say about the idea and if they need my help with relocation, childcare, or else.

Finally, we would discuss tasks and projects they are working on, but from the perspective of their career growth. More specific project discussions should take place outside of one-on-ones. However, if this is something connected with acquiring new skills or improving their competencies, I would be eager to hear how I could help.

Though I came up with a rather fixed structure, I would be glad to improve it and would rely on my reports’ feedback for that. I would be open to hearing their suggestions, such as spending more time on providing/delivering feedback or career coaching. In addition, I would ask candidly about the direction our one-on-one should take to be more meaningful to them. Little tweaks here and there, week after week, could have a snowball effect and result in great improvement.

Lessons learned

  • People are different, and one-on-ones should be personalized to address each individual’s specific needs and aspirations. I would rely on feedback to customize one-on-ones and tailor them to fit different individuals on my team.
  • My team is leaning toward the introvert side, which is why I have to be the one asking all those questions. If they were more of a talkative, gregarious type, I could let them take the conversation in the direction they wanted. But the current team setup requires that I steer the discussion and be responsible for the interaction. For example, if awkward silence takes too long, a simple “What’s on your mind” would be a great silence-cracker that would encourage them to engage in a conversation.
  • Sometimes one-on-ones don’t end up being much actionable. That is perfectly fine as long as they help build trust and connect a manager and their reports. Talking about family or hobbies or what a person would like to do in ten years from now can be vital for building relationships. And my main goal is to build a relationship with my reports and get to know them better. Only then can I help them grow. Sometimes their growth is closely knit with their daily work; sometimes, they want to discuss their long-term goals. As their manager, be attentive and open to help them regardless of their career plan.

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