Lead Dev Async AMA Recap: getting buy-in

Kicking off the new Lead Dev program, Async AMA, was terrific! I was floored by how many people took the time to go back and watch my talk, and then engage on the Lead Dev Slack. Several folks mentioned that they watched my talk more than once! 😱 I was surprised and immensely grateful.

The quality of engagement in the AMA was outstanding. Developers and engineering managers alike asked thoughtful, detailed questions.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, I wanted to offer a recap of the conversation. I’m going to do this in a series of posts to spread it out, since there were so many great questions and I really took the time to give detailed answers.

On each post, I’ll paraphrase question, but I’ll provide the same answer I gave the Lead Dev community. I hope it helps!

First up, let’s talk about a topic that has come up more than once for me over the years: getting buy-in, or how to convince your colleagues, higher-ups, or manager that 1:1s are a good idea.


Getting Buy-In

I’m a manager and senior engineer who believes 1:1 are instrumental for individual growth and achieving team goals, but my colleagues in leadership don’t think holding 1:1s are valuable. They say, “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me.” How do I convince them of the importance of 1:1s?

Let’s talk about “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me” and how this approach almost certainly guarantees you’re not going to hear critical information from the folks most equipped to tell you: your direct reports.

First, “if there’s a problem, they’ll tell me”… when? Think about it from the perspective of your report. You’re a manager, and they’ve seen your packed schedule: you’ve already got so many meetings it looks like someone spilled paint on your Google Calendar. If you’re not making time for scheduled, anticipated meetings with those who report to you, you’re putting the burden on your report to somehow find time with you. That challenge can be enough of a barrier to entry that they might not even bother… and that means you’re not going to hear about the problem.

Second, think of the power dynamic. “If there’s a problem, they’ll tell me…” But, are you sure they even feel like they can? While I’m beloved by past bosses for my ability to “speak truth to power”, a lot of folks don’t have my chutzpah. Whether it’s from a cultural norm (“tall poppies”), personality, or personal boundary, it can be very hard for someone to approach “the boss” with a concern. And if they’re a marginalized person, they’re always doing the math in their head of how much they have to lose if they bring it up—and if that’s really the battle they want to fight. You’re not doing anything to enhance transparency or communication in your organization by leaving it all on your direct report to bring the issue to you. In fact, it may even be harmful, as again, you’re not actually hearing about the problem.

So as we can see from just these two examples, the “if there’s a problem…” attitude, while pervasive, is super flimsy. It sounds like it might just be… an excuse. And so then I want to dig even deeper and ask… why is the manager making excuses? Is it that they don’t see the value? Is it that they don’t want to make the time investment? Is it that they don’t get support from their own boss?

Or are they afraid?

In my experience, as I cover in my talk, a lot of managers are reluctant to do 1:1s because they know a 1:1, done well, is a place where they’ll hear the difficult stuff it’s hard to talk about. It’s a place to be deliberate, thoughtful, and show that you’re up for the challenge of supporting and leading. It’s where you hear how your direct report wants to grow, how the last project really went, what’s been frustrating them at work recently, and YES, how you could be a better boss for them.

This can be scary for some managers. It means facing the fear of the unknown: what are they going to say? The fear of discomfort: what if they say something that makes me feel terrible? The fear of being vulnerable: what if they start talking about their work and it becomes rapidly obvious that I have no idea what I’m doing, don’t even know what they’re doing, and heck, have no clue how to troubleshoot that Kafka cluster?!

It can be hard to hear or face these things. But managers shouldn’t let fear rule, or use excuses to cover it up. As leaders we have a tremendous opportunity to support individuals, teams, and organizations. We owe it to them to do the hard work of facing the discomfort and growing through it. Our direct reports don’t expect us to be perfect. They do expect us to show up and try our best every day for them.

Finally, I’ll say this: sometimes ya just gotta lead by example. Once upon a time a peer manager leading another team told me they didn’t have time to do 1:1s. It only took them about six weeks of seeing how big of a difference 1:1s made on my team that they were able to find the time on their calendar to make 1:1s a priority. 😉

What do you think? How would you answer that question? How have you advocated for the practice of 1:1s? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Check back in for the next question in the recap series! We’ll dive in to how to approach discussing non-work related topics that a direct report brings up.