Use 1-on-1 Effectively to Manage Up: A List

Adler @ 2023-09-08

What is manage up?

Here is a good explanation but to sum up: Managing Up is working with your manager to achieve a better result in the performance review and making better progress in the career path. You would help adjust your manager’s expectations, fill context, and improve the quality of communications.

Why manage up?

It’s the manager’s job to know you, but if the manager is not doing their job well (or missing anything), it’s the members that are not getting the benefit through the process. For example, members won’t get enough challenges because managers do not aware that the members are expecting more difficult tasks. Or, the evaluation result does not make sense because members forget to not let managers know certain blockers.

It’s not only for the job. It’s for the members' long-term careers as well. Members can get great benefits by learning how organizations work and how to make progress in a company through communicating with the managers.

Most importantly, your manager does not know everything. They are only humans, This helps bi-directionally.

There are many ways to do managing up, so the following only focuses on using 1-on-1 to achieve this.

How to use 1-on-1 to manage up?

Periodical 1-on-1 is a good place to communicate with your managers, but few members use this time well. It’s going to be very beneficial for members to do preparations and lead the discussions.

The following are some items I suggest for each stage when communicating with the managers:

Things to align at the beginning (when joining the company)

  • How do the compensation and evaluation work?
    • It’s here, but let the manager know if you have difficulties connecting it with your day-to-day tasks.
    • This is also a must-know if you would like to have a good performance review.

Things to align first, and revisit often

For the following list, I would suggest revisiting them at least once a quarter.

  • Figure out what’s the best frequency for doing 1-on-1: Find the best frequency for both the manager and the member. The frequency should not create too many interruptions to members, but provide sufficient communications in order to provide transparency and build trust. A recommended frequency is 30 minutes to 1 hour weekly. I personally prefer 1 hour fortnightly.
  • mid- or long-term career goals
    • It’s important to clarify career goals. I would suggest having at least one goal to achieve. It’s ok if you don’t have a goal right now. Think of something that’s half-concrete. For example, “becoming a good developer”, and start from there to discuss with your manager. It has to start from somewhere to make it more concrete in the future.
    • The company has many resources to help members achieve their goals. There might be resource limitations such as engineering ladder or assignment priority, but your manager will keep your goals in mind and try to find if there are resources.

How to use each 1-on-1 effectively

For the following section, I would suggest going through all items before the meeting and seeing if there is anything the manager should know. It’s ok to skip some items.

  • Communicate blockers, explain how hard a job is
    • Be active in talking about the blockers. You would like your manager to perceive problems early so that they are not talked about only at the last minute, which affects the general project progress and the performance review, and most importantly, a learning opportunity. This communication has to be done as soon as possible, especially
    • Some other related topics:
    • explain technical debts that the manager might now even know exist.
    • describe how the manager can help to improve the situation.
  • Status update
    • it’s not very ideal to stick to this topic for very long, but it would be great to prepare a simple list of what you’re working on, especially those which are not synced during any public meetings like sprint planning or kaizen meetings.
    • talk about extra work that you’re doing outside of your current job description
    • reflections
    • what has been going well
    • what has been not going well: this does not have to be something “resolve-able”. you can simply talk about things that are frustrating for you. Through explanation, you might actually. come up with a solution (it happened to me sometimes).
  • Asking for feedback on specific projects or progress
    • it’s usually hard to ask for general feedback so it has to be specific. It’s hard for managers and members to answer questions such as “do you have any feedback for me?” so it needs to be specific. Once a project ends or reaches a milestone, it would be a good time to ask for feedback, such as “about project X, do you have any feedback about how I do things, the schedule, and the outcome?”
    • it’s the manager’s job to give feedback, but we wouldn’t give feedback on every single item. it’s better to initiate by the members if you want feedback on specific items or projects.
    • when receiving feedback, it’s ok if the manager does not have an immediate answer (i’m just finding an excuse for myself), keep pushing and one day the manager will be able to give feedback
    • the questions don’t have to be “feedback”. it can be:
    • what do you think about X?
    • do you think this Y task can be done better?
    • do you have any concerns about the Z project?
    • should I do more about X?
  • Escalate (not limiting to 1-on-1) items to managers or TL
    • when running into issues that you don’t know how to proceed with, or you have been stuck in the issues for too long, escalate.
  • Ask for context
    • what’s our team’s objective right now and how does it fit in the company’s roadmap
    • how is my work related to the team’s direction
  • Give feedback
    • to the manager
    • to the team
    • to other team members
  • Change of plans and assignments
    • confirm whether that’s ok for the OKR or expectations
  • Expectations update within the Q
    • If there’s any change in assignments, check if the current performance can meet those expectations.

The 1-on-1 Template for Member

  • Status update
    • what’s been going well
    • what’s been not going well (e.g. blockers, concerns, issues)
    • anything that the manager is not aware of
  • Difficulties of the current tasks
  • anything you would like feedback on (e.g. tasks, decisions, progress)
  • confirming current performance vs expectations
  • Anything you would like your manager to change (e.g. communication style or any part you would like to have more attention on)