Behind Closed Doors recommends that you have frequent one-on-ones with your team members: it says that

One-on-one meetings provide managers an opportunity to ascertain status, solve problems, and provide positive and corrective feedback.

Which I was a bit dubious about: daily standups provide a mechanism for me to get status from my team members every morning and for them to raise problems that I can solve, and having one-on-ones just to give “positive and corrective feedback” didn’t sit well with me. Still, I respected the authors, and thought that it was a good book in general, so, a year and a half or so ago, I decided to give it a try. (Incidentally, I still respect the authors and still think it’s a good book!)

I planned to have them once a month; they happened for about three months, and then petered out, and nobody seemed to miss them.

A few months later, though, I realized that I have one-on-ones with my boss every week and rather enjoy them: what’s the difference here? Part of the difference is that he doesn’t have a daily standup for his team, so there really is more room for getting weekly status updates. But I didn’t think that was the whole story: in particular, what I most liked about the one-on-ones was getting a chance to talk about matters that didn’t seem to fit into other interactions we had. (Sometimes issues that one of us had, sometimes just talking at random about this and that.)

Looking back at my team’s earlier one-on-ones with this in mind, then, it seemed like there were two differences. One is that I’d tried to have a goal for each one-on-one; another is that they only happened once a month, instead of once a week. I suspect that these differences are related: the less frequent something is, the more of an occasion it is, hence the more pressure there is to make something of it.

Having said that, I didn’t feel like there was much of a reason to have one-on-ones with my team members every week. But every two weeks, with no set agenda (except for rare exceptions), seemed like a good fit. That’s frequent enough for them to be routine and to fit in on a repeating schedule in my calendar, and it means that I rarely have anything specific that I want to talk about in the meetings, which reinforces their informal nature.

We’ve been doing this for several months now; I like the results. We usually find something to chat about; and, if we really don’t have anything to say, it’s fine if it only lasts five minutes! Not infrequently, it turns out that we really do have something to talk to that we wouldn’t have talked about without the excuse of a one-on-one, which means that issues are less likely to build up. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we had huge buried minefields before.) On a few occasions, something big has come up; on one occasion, it’s been useful that I had scheduled opportunities to talk to team members individually, so I could sound people out on an issue that we’d had a hard time dealing with collectively without blowing it up out of proportion.

So: I am a fan of one-on-ones, but not for the reasons given in the book. Don’t get me wrong, if you aren’t getting status updates regularly through other mechanisms, then by all means talk about that in your one-on-ones, but there’s also real value in just having a regular opportunity to chat. And schedule them more frequently than you think would be necessary, frequent enough that they’re not an event and that there’s never any pressure to find something suitably weighty to chat about.

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