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Building a psychologically-safe team will lead to better software delivered faster.

In my previous article we discussed the table-stakes for 1:1s. You’re there and on time, dedicating 45 minutes every week, and giving your direct report your undivided attention as you discuss the stuff that matters.

Today the goal is to talk about how we can evaluate 1:1s. How do we know they’re going well? How can we tell if they’re off track? With the best practices of the first article as our groundwork, we can now look deeper at 1:1s in practice and consider where and how we might need to make adjustments.

Let’s take a look.

Three signs that it's going well

On a team with a healthy culture, you’ll notice three signs. First, communication is flowing and you’re hearing your direct report tell you the tough stuff in their own words; this helps you get ahead of issues. Second, you’ve got the right attitude: this is their time. Third, you’re giving and receiving timely feedback, and following up in a way that shows you care. Let’s reflect on each in depth.

Sign one: Communication is flowing... and you’re hearing the tough stuff

Psychologically-safe teams ship better software, faster. And I believe in the positive feedback loop that shipping useful software creates. Leaders need to remember that a healthy culture where communication flows (à la Westrum’s Generative team) is critical to helping your engineers ship.

When engineers feel safe to try things and fail, they’ll go for it. When they feel safe to share difficult things and be heard, they’ll talk. They need to feel safe to open up to you in their 1:1s, to share what’s really frustrating them, or how that project really went. They need to feel safe to be themselves. If 1:1s are informal meetings, but you’re actually talking about what matters with specifics, that’s a good sign.

Sign two: You’ve got the right attitude – this is their time

In the previous article, I made a case for why 45 minutes, and I focused on how it’s about making sure you have enough time to have a meaningful conversation and to note follow-up items.

Some managers make the mistake of coming into the 1:1 with a list of items they want to discuss and an agenda. But remember: this is their time. This is the 45 minutes of 40 hours that you give back to your direct report. Enter the space with a willingness to hear and accept feedback, even difficult personal feedback. Encourage your direct report to set the agenda, to come to you with items to discuss, and be open to what comes up – even if it’s hard. Say it out loud: 'this is your time'.

1:1s are their time and on some teams, their only weekly time just with you. It may be the most important chance you get this week to hear what’s really going on from the person most equipped to tell you. Make the most of it.

Sign three: You’re giving feedback and following up

One of the reasons 1:1s can be so powerful is because they allow you to see growth or trends over time from taking meaningful notes and following up with feedback.

At one company where I introduced the practice of 1:1s as a director, we were able to considerably reduce our formal evaluation meetings because we started delivering feedback in a timely manner in 1:1s. When you don’t wait for 3 to 6 months, or heaven forbid a year to give an employee feedback, it’s better for them and for your whole team. We all know timely feedback is best. Use the 1:1 to give it.

This point may seem to conflict with the point above about having the right attitude. But understand that there’s room for both, in balance. While your direct report should bring items to discuss and you should remain open to really hearing them, you can also use the safe and supportive space you’ve created with the 1:1 to broach difficult topics and deliver feedback.

Three signs it's going off the rails

If your report is canceling on you, never bringing you the tough stuff, or consistently treating your time together as a status report then you may be misaligned. Let’s talk about these issues in depth and outline strategies to get your 1:1s on track.

Sign one: they’re canceling on you.

Table-stakes for 1:1s are you putting the meeting on their calendar, weekly, and showing up on time. But what happens when your report is always late or canceling on you?

This could be a sign that they don’t see the point of the meetings or understand their value. Consider dedicating some time with your direct report to talk about the purpose of 1:1s and how you want to use them. Say that you want it to be a safe and supportive place where they can talk about what really matters. Explicitly invite them to give you feedback.

When I onboard a new direct report, I set up a separate meeting with them where I talk about my philosophy of 1:1s. I’ve been doing this for over three years and I’ve found it helps jumpstart the practice by clearly laying out my expectations for how we’ll use this time.

If 1:1s are a new or a struggling practice in your org, it might also be worth dedicating some team training time (like a lunch and learn) to talk about why as an org you are prioritizing 1:1s between managers and direct reports.

Sign two: They’re all smiles

One of the reasons 1:1s are so effective is because they help you identify issues early. But if your direct report is all smiles, you’re not getting that benefit.

Why aren’t they talking about their challenges? First, are you asking them? It’s important to come right out and ask, what was hard about this week? Where are you struggling? What sucks about work right now?

Please keep in mind that especially in the early days of your relationship, direct reports can struggle to open up or share difficult feedback. This is normal! It takes time to build trust. And many of us have worked on teams where we haven’t received consistent support and feedback. By showing up weekly with the right attitude, you’ll slowly prove that you’re really what you say you are. Your direct report will know they’re safe to tell you how they really feel, and not just what they think you want to hear. Trust will grow.

Sign three: It’s a status report

So let’s say you’ve got the right attitude, that this is their time – but they’re still treating the 1:1 as a status report by using the time to update you on their projects.

Examine your language. Have you made it clear that this is not a time for status reports, and that they shouldn’t feel like they have to use this time to prove their work to you? They may especially feel this pressure if your team is moving to remote work for the first time, and if this is the only solo time they get with you in a given week. Say out loud that this is not the case.

And even great managers can slip up and ask questions during a 1:1 about items that could easily be verified elsewhere e.g. by checking JIRA or Github issues. Try to minimize this so you don’t put your direct report in a position where they feel like they have to answer these kinds of easily-discoverable status questions. They’ll answer because they’ll feel like they have to which won’t feel good and it’ll undermine trust.

If you’re embarking on your 1:1 journey or hoping to enliven an existing practice, I hope these articles give you both the foundation for excellence and ideas on how to evaluate your work together.