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.

Privacy for Private Problems
You also need one-on-ones to manage private issues. The people in your organizations have families and private lives. They have spouses or significant others, children, parents, homes, pets, and other responsibilities outside of work. Sometimes they need time to manage their lives outside of work. I’ve learned of wonderful and tragic events in one-on-ones.

One woman told me she had an upset stomach for months. She’d gone to specialist after specialist over a period of a couple of months.

In our regular one-on-one, she told me she was taking the entire Friday off for a battery of tests to see what was wrong. She just couldn’t take it anymore and needed to get to the bottom of the problem. I wished her well, and told her the company and I were behind her.

She left me a voicemail on Friday night telling me she was six and a half months pregnant. Her husband left me a voicemail on Sunday night telling me she had delivered a daughter and that both the mom and daughter were fine. He sounded shell-shocked.

In another one-on-one, a developer told me he was taking off Tuesday and Thursday afternoons indefinitely. I asked if he could explain why. “No,” he said, as he started to cry. I pushed my tissues across the desk. “What are these for?” he asked.

“You are crying,” I explained.

“I am? No way.” He protested.

“Yes, you are. You might want to use a tissue. If you don’t want to tell me more, that’s OK. But I think there’s something serious going on in your life, and you might need more help than a box of tissues.

“We have an Employee Assistance Program that might help, even if you don’t want my help. I’ll leave for a few minutes if you like. You can compose yourself, and when I return, we can talk about it, or maybe you can go to HR, or you can go back to work.

“I can clear your Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for a couple of weeks. But sooner or later the team is going to wonder. I’m going to have to tell somebody something, so, I’d rather you tell me now and we can figure out what to say.”

I left for a few minutes. When I returned, he was back under control. His wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was going for chemo on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for six weeks and then they were going to see how the cancer was doing.

“I can work with this. We don’t have to touch your vacation or anything. We can make sure you are on full salary. I can make this work.”

“You can?” He sounded incredulous.

“Sure, this is why they pay me the Big Bucks.”

No one is going to tell you the big things in their lives in public. No one. The big things could be wonderful such as taking time off for a child’s prom. It could be supporting a spouse through cancer treatments. But everyone needs private time with a responsible manager.

One-on-Ones Help You Develop a Peer-to-Peer Relationship, Not a Maternal or Paternal Relationship
The managerial relationship in a one-on-one is more of a mentoring or coaching relationship. The manager represents the organization to the employee. This is not a parent-child relationship; this is a peer-to-peer relationship.

I have learned from “my” employees. I put quotes around my because they aren’t mine. They are employees of the organization. They don’t belong to me. They are human beings who are affiliated with me. My status in the organization doesn’t depend on how many people I “have.”

What does matter to me is that all the people in my group are performing at their maximum capability. If I can enhance their capability, if I can leverage their work, then I have performed my job as a manager. That says to me I need to serve my staff.

One-on-ones Allow the Manager to Serve
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, in their book Break all the Rules, have data that says that the best predictor of an employee’s likelihood of staying in a position is the relationship with his or her manager. After that, comes having friends at work.

When you have one-on-ones with your staff, you can build that trusting relationship with them. You can see if people have friends. You can serve your staff by helping them—if they want help—with career development, coaching, and mentoring. You can provide feedback if you catch people doing something great and if you notice them doing something not so great. And, you know what people are working on, so you can manage the project portfolio and know when it’s time to hire people.

You can be a servant leader. Not so bad for twenty minutes once a week, eh?

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

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

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.