Management Myth #4: I Don't Need One-on-Ones


One-on-ones aren’t for status reports. They aren’t just for knowing all the projects. They are for feedback and coaching, and meta-feedback and meta-coaching, and for fine-tuning the organization. If you are a manager and you aren’t using one-on-ones, you are not using the most important management tool you have.

“I know what the people in my group are doing, Johanna. Each and every one of them.”

“But you have twenty-five people in your group, Stan,” I protested.

“And I walk around and see what every single person is doing. I read their checkins, too. I know what they are doing.”

I was working with a client on the organization’s project portfolio, the order of which projects they were going to do when, and which projects they were not going to staff for now. Stan, the engineering director, was convinced he knew exactly who was working on what. I was equally convinced he did not. I had inside information—some of the developers told me they were working on skunkworks projects, projects that people had started out of their initiative to see if they had any value.

One-on-ones are great for career development conversations. And, they are great for coaching and feedback. And, if you have inquisitive, innovative, entrepreneurial leaders in your organization—especially if you subscribe to the 20 percent time idea that Google and Atlassian promote—you need to know what people are working on.

But one-on-ones aren’t for status reports. They aren’t just for knowing all the projects. They are for feedback and coaching, and meta-feedback and meta-coaching, and for fine-tuning the organization. If you are a manager and you aren’t using one-on-ones, you are not using the most important management tool you have.

One-on-Ones Help You See Organizational Status, Not Micromanagement
If you are a manager and you read developers’ check in comments, that smacks of micromanagement to me. But if you ask a developer if he or she has any great ideas for the next release of a new product or the next release that product management or the product owner hasn’t considered, now you are inviting the developer to think strategically. You can substitute tester, business analyst, writer, or anyone else in that sentence.

One of the most valuable conversations I had as a manager was back when I was managing a test group. During a one-on-one, one of the junior testers said, “JR, we are doing this all wrong.”

Disconcerted, I asked, “How so?”

He said, “We are looking at this product in the wrong way. Here, let me show you another way to slice and dice this.” He drew pictures on my whiteboard the way we were testing and then drew more pictures. He was right. We were testing in a way that didn’t expose enough risks.

“Wow, I’m really glad you told me now. But why did you wait until our one-on-one? I wish you’d said something when we kicked off the testing last week.”

“Well, Steve is the senior tester on the project, right?” I nodded and he continued. “I wasn’t sure how he would take it. I’m pretty junior compared to him. I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way. I wanted to run it by you. And, this way, I get to check it with you first.”

It doesn’t matter if you have more traditional or agile teams. When you have people who are aware of the implied hierarchy and need assurance that their ideas are sound, having a one-on-one with a senior person helps. They need the reassurance and the self-esteem that arises from the feedback they receive from bouncing their ideas off someone else.

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

Hi Johanna, I really loved that story. Made a lot of things clear for me and was entertaining at the same time!
Thanks a lot,

May 9, 2012 - 2:02pm
Anonymous's picture

This series is really helpful. I'm hopefully about to move into line management in the next few months and I want to do the best job possible so I really appreciate articles like this one.

May 10, 2012 - 3:12am
Johanna Rothman's picture

Ceri, I am delighted that you are enjoying these articles. I'm writing the next one now!

May 10, 2012 - 7:30am
Anonymous's picture

Great article, Johanna!
I do use my one on ones to gather some status information, mostly about topics that I suspect that employees are reluctant to discuss in our daily stand-ups, particularly around things that are political hot buttons or have potential personality conflicts. For example, "I've been working with Tom about JIRA story 767, but he is really not in alignment with the other customers and he keeps saying that the Product Owner is out of touch and not listening. I just don't know what to do." I try to coach and mentor them and remove roadblocks for them. I don't think I do enough personal development discussions and your article was a great reminder of all of the different things I need to include on our bi-weekly "agenda". As always, you are a big help! Thanks!

May 11, 2012 - 10:28pm
Johanna Rothman's picture

Laura, yes, if someone reluctant to bring up an issue in public, that is an issue for the one-on-one. And the meta-coaching and mentoring you are doing about *how* to talk about an issue is key.

If the meta-coaching is first on the agenda, do that, and then deal with the personal development. You can only do so much every week or two.


May 12, 2012 - 2:47pm

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website,, as well on

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