I was recently in a one-on-one with a tech lead when we began talking about how his team was doing. His team had recently added one member and lost another, so the chemistry of the team was a topic that was on our minds. He mentioned how he felt the team was coming together, and I found myself asking a question that I’ve been reaching for a lot lately: “What are your signals?”

What Are Your Signals?

I find myself asking the question time and again because I find that the question opens up the conversation in so many ways. At its surface, it allows us to get to a deeper level. It anchors the conversation in a sentiment, which is great for a one-on-one, and begins to explore what is causing the feeling. By asking for the signals, I also want the person I manage to know that I’m there with them. I’m agreeing, for now at least, that the team is coming together, and now I want to talk about what’s driving him to that conclusion.

The question also allows me to find out if my report and I are looking at the same things. If the engineer is looking at something I don’t want or think our team should value, it’s a great chance to coach them away from that signal. If I feel the signal is particularly valuable, I have the opportunity to give positive reinforcement. Often, the conversation will lead to us exchanging signals with each of us growing our own set of tells.

Lastly, with any question I regularly ask in a one-on-one, I’m hoping to establish a pattern. If I ask an engineer what signals she has for a particular feeling or sentiment, I hope they continue to ask themselves the same question the next time they have a gut feeling. The more solid that engineer feels in the “why” behind their feeling, the faster we get to talk about that in our own one-on-one.

“What are your signals?” is a question you can ask regardless of whether the feeling is a positive or negative one. I’ve found myself asking it in a number of scenarios recently.

  • “The team doesn’t seem excited lately.”
  • “I think our new member is really hitting their stride.”
  • “Things feel more stressful lately.”

Keep the question in your backpocket. Bring it out the next time you want to go deeper in a one-on-one. Enjoy your conversation, and I hope you get to learn something new!