Tips for Better 1-to-1s

Published at May 6, 2019 ·  7 min read

As time scheduled between you and your manager to talk about you and your career, one-to-ones can be very powerful tool for career growth. Here a few tips on how to make the most out of them.

Set the schedule

When I first started as a Developer, it was uncommon to get regular time with my line manager. Once a year appraisal time would come. Finally, a chance to get some feedback and work out where I can improve for then next year, and maybe even find out if I’m due a bonus or pay rise. This model is quite common.

There are, however, multiple difficulties with this approach.

  1. Remembering the achievements or struggles of the last year can be difficult. It can be easy to miss something.
  2. Trying to guess what work is coming up in the next year can be tricky (or even impossible). This makes it hard to decide what objectives to set.
  3. On a similar note, what happens to objectives if the business changes direction half-way through the year?
  4. If you start heading in the wrong direction, it could be a whole year before you get the feedback necessary to steer you back on course.

Once the role of Principal Developer, and the idea of leaders as coaches, was introduced we started having much more regular meetings with our line managers. Today, as a Principal Developer myself, I try and have one-to-ones with my reports as often as they like. This way I can give them more constant, and therefore probably more relevant, feedback throughout the year. These are mostly done on a two-weekly schedule, but could be weekly, monthly, whatever works for you.

If you aren’t getting regular catch-ups or you feel they should be more regular, then there’s no harm in asking your manager for a more regular schedule. Personally, I’d be very receptive of someone asking me for more regular one-to-ones. It shows that you really care about your own development and are serious about working on reaching whatever competencies or objectives have been set for you.

Lastly, don’t be fobbed off with something like “you’re doing so well, I don’t think we really need to have these meetings so regularly”. It can still be good to get regular feedback no matter how well you are doing. If you want to keep them regular then don’t be afraid to say so.

Start with small talk

Small talk. groan. A lot of people don’t like small talk (myself very much included), but I’ve started to accept it as a useful tool for kicking off these meetings. Here’s a few good reasons for starting the meeting off with a simple “how’s it going?”:

  1. Helps build a rapport between you and your manager, helping to build trust and make delivering feedback easier.
  2. Helps your manager understand what’s going on in your world. E.g. are you having car trouble, or have urgent family commitments? A last minute holiday request to sort it out is easier to accept if known about in advance.
  3. If there’s a particular burning issue on your mind (or your bosses), then a simple “what’s on your mind?” could be all it takes to start off the conversation and get right to the crux of the matter.

Set the agenda

It’s that time again, you were halfway through solving a complicated problem and get interrupted by a meeting notification or a prod from your manager - it’s time for your 1-to-1. But career development is the last thing on your mind. So what do you talk about?

When I do a 1-to-1 with someone I’ll try and come armed with the following (in priority order):

  1. Positive feedback on something done since the last meeting.
  2. 2 or 3 other topics or feedback, maybe relating to current work or how the team is getting on.
  3. A reminder of comments from your last appraisal to check on progress.
  4. Your personal development plan, or current objectives.
  5. Any personal challenges on my mind I’d like to gather thoughts on or get other people involved with.

But my challenge to everyone I have a 1-to-1 with is this:

Don’t let me talk about any of that!

My number 1 priority is to listen to you. All of the above are just conversation starters. We will both get much more out of the meeting if you come prepared with your own list of topics to talk about.

What to talk about

It’s important to state that these meetings should definitely not be a status report. Whether it be daily stand-ups or making tasks visible, your boss should already know what’s going on. One-to-ones should be about career progression and feedback, not “why isn’t x complete?”.

So, if it’s good to try and set an agenda yourself, and it’s not a status report, then what should you talk about?

Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Ask for feedback on a recent piece of work. Even if you usually get feedback from your manager in these meetings, it might not be what you’re really interested in, or they may have simply forgotten something.
  2. Mention something you’ve been particularly proud of recently. There may be opportunities to build on it.
  3. As well as your own development, ask how you can help coach others around you.
  4. What training is available and how can you get the most out of it?
  5. Give feedback to your manager. What could they do differently to better help you?

Keeping track of topics

Even with weekly meetings, you’d be surprised how often you still get the odd moment where you know there was something bothering you or there was this brilliant idea or bit of feedback - but you just can’t remember it.

An idea I found on the Atlassian blog, was to try and use private Trello boards (of course!) as a place to put topics for the next 1-to-1 meeting. I’ve tried this with a couple of people and had varying results. Mostly, when I checked the board before a 1-to-1, the column for the team member’s topics was still empty - even if mine was full! It seems that even a jazzy tool isn’t enough to get people in to the habit of thinking about topics beforehand.

You need to find what works for you and your schedule. Maybe keep a stack of post-it notes next to your keyboard, or a notebook. Maybe schedule 15 minutes in your calendar beforehand to think about the past week. Come up with a method of filling the agenda and stick to it. A small amount of effort each week to make sure you have meaningful conversations in your 1-to-1s will have enormous benefits in the long run.

Behavioural feedback is hard

Quite often role competencies may be broken down in to the technical “hard” skills you need to do your job and the behavioural “soft” skills. One-to-ones can be great for receiving feedback on “soft” skills, as they can give you more targeted, timely feedback. However, behavioural feedback can also be the hardest to both give and receive during a meeting.

Often when behaviours are challenged, the natural reaction can be very similar to a fight/flight situation. Some people take it as an attack and argue against it, while others can go defensive and withdraw from the conversation (quiet, unresponsive, arms crossed). All of this can make for an unpleasant meeting, and our natural reaction (on both sides of the meeting) is to try and avoid these scenarios.

If you do have some behavioural competencies you want to work on, or get feedback for, then you may have to initiate the conversation. Then be prepared to be challenged by what comes next. Try and actively listen to what is being said, and try not to react. It can be difficult to verbalise thoughts on these issues, so try and think about what your manager is really saying. Remember, unless they are a terrible boss, they are only trying to help.


Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas on how to get more out of these meetings. If you have any of your own ideas or experiences, then let me know.

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