End Every One on One the Same Way

I think about communication a lot!

It’s such a huge, and hard, and important topic for anyone trying to become a better leader. Especially in 2016, as the ideas of “management” and “leadership” become murkier and more difficult to nail down, and the tools we use to communicate with one another are exploding in number (if not quality) – it’s always on my mind.

One of the principal tools in my toolbox is the one on one. Yes, I have written about them before. Here are two posts in the same vein:

Communicating with a Remote Team: One on Ones
If You’re Not Preparing for Your One on Ones You’re Wasting Everyone’s Time

I was happy to see that I’m not alone in my meditation on communication – Mercer recently wrote a piece for the Kayako blog, How to Invite and Acknowledge Feedback as a Manager, where she wrote:

Ask for feedback at every opportunity

At the end of every one-on-one that I have with someone on my team, I ask if they have anything they want to talk about. I also ask if the structure of the one-on-one was effective or if there are any improvements we should make.

This resonates with me! In the last six months or so, I’ve started asking the same series of questions at the end of every one on one, with every member of my team.

I understand how that might sound like a satirization of the classic soulless manager. Really? You ask the exact same questions, every week? 

There are two reasons why asking the same questions every week is an approach that works really well for me:

1.) The questions, and their answers, are important and worth checking in on regularly. 

2.) Having the same questions makes a consistent space in the conversation and in the mind for both participants.

Like anything, I’ve gone through a number of iterations, additions and subtractions, to get to the ideal set of questions for me. I expect it’s a little long (it can take more time than I’d prefer to get through them sometimes). The questions I’ve landed on, as being important enough to cover every single week, are:

A.) Has anyone at Automattic, on our team or otherwise, done anything this week that you’ve really appreciated? (If the answer is “Yes,” I follow up with, “Have you told them?)
B.) Do you have any feedback, positive or negative, for me?
C.) What’s the most important thing for me to be working on over the next week?

Let’s break these down; why are they important, and important enough to repeat every week? Also worth noting is that the repetition itself bears value. There are second order effects to asking the same questions over and over.

Question A is, honestly, mostly important for those second order effects. The goal here is to create a mindset of habitual appreciation, both for me and for the folks on my team. Little moments of shared appreciation can go a long way toward staying happy – and, selfishly, I want people to tell me when I do something they appreciate. Creating an atmosphere where that kind of thought is shared freely is important.

Question B is another manifestation of my obsession with feedback. You can read more about the advent and iterations of The Leadback Survey in these posts:

Remote Leadership: Figuring Out Feedback
Leadership, Feedback, and Ego

This is, again, a question that is important because I deeply value the answer, but also because it guarantees that everyone on my team knows, no matter how busy a week we’re having, no matter what else we discuss during our one on one, I have set aside some time, protected a few minutes of my week, just to get their feedback.

Creating a space for feedback to occur is sort of like fleshing out your LinkedIn profile – if you wait until you need that tool, it’s too late. If you wait until you’re in a crisis of leadership, the fire is too hot for folks who’ve never provided you feedback before to start speaking frankly. Making that space early and protecting that time is key. So, I make it a habit.

Question C is again, important for both the answer and the second order effects. As a team lead it can be very easy to lose sight of what’s important to the folks on your team; you belong to your own team, and have larger organizational pieces that occupy your mind and your time; taking a part of every one on one to get more closely calibrated to what my team sees as the important pieces of my job helps me to stay grounded, to ensure that not only am I helping align them to the bigger company work, but to give them a chance to align me to the reality of their day, of their work.

One surprising piece is that the answers to that question can sometimes be shockingly consistent across the team. Collusion is one possible explanation, but I think shared experience is a better one.

When I say that having the same questions makes a consistent space in the conversation and in the mind for both participants, what I mean is this; if you and I have a conversation every week, and we close that conversation with the same set of questions every week, then those questions become part of our personal landscape in a way that ad hoc questions do not.

If we discuss appreciation, and feedback, and what’s important for me as a lead to work on, and we discuss it every single week, then those questions and those topics are going to start to color the way we perceive our working world; we’ll both be looking for things to appreciate, ways to provide feedback, whether or not what I’m working on is important.

It also ensures that these things aren’t lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday work life; if I know that I will have a moment to receive feedback from everyone on my team during our one on ones, then there’s less pressure on me to squeeze feedback requests elsewhere into my week.

All of this is a long way of saying, Mercer got it right. This is one example of the way that I try to build feedback and process into my one on ones. It works for me; it might work for you.


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