Here’s Your Guide to Holding Effective One-on-Ones

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Feb 21, 2018

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 22 of the 800 articles posted in 2018. You can find the complete list here.


One of the most under-appreciated tools of any manager’s toolkit is the one-on-one meeting. It’s a regular time for you to connect with each person reporting to you, get a sense of what they’re working on, where their priorities are, any obstacles that are in their way, share information they need to know, and (most importantly!) develop a relationship with them grounded in trust.

This meeting is the most important meeting you have with each person who reports to you and, in a very real way, dictates one of the most critical parts of the employee experience: How they feel about you, their boss.

In most cases, the boss is our conduit for the organization at large. Have a great boss, you’ll think the organization cares about you. Have a not-so-great one, and you’ll be writing a potential negative Glassdoor review in your head on a pretty consistent basis.

Your one-on-one meetings are a profound opportunity to send a clear message to the people reporting up to you. If everything we do at work sends a message to others, think about the messages you’re sending to you team members in regard to the one-on-one:

  • If you just show up and wing it week after week, with nothing to tell them or report back, what message does that send? It means you don’t think putting effort or energy into them is important.
  • If you regularly cancel your one-on-ones when things get busy, that means you won’t make time for them.
  • If you spend the entire meeting talking about what you’re doing, or interrupting them when they try to speak up, that means you don’t care about what they have to say or contribute.
  • If you mostly criticize their ideas and efforts, without giving much positive feedback for the things that are going well, that means that nothing they ever do will be good enough.

These may seem to be framed in an extreme way but that, friends, is just how the human brain works. And if those are the perceptions that your team members are walking away with, you’re going to have problems related to morale, productivity, and quality of work on your hands.

On the other hand, what if you show up every week prepared with an agenda, spend time giving them your full attention without interruption, openly and transparently share information you know across the organization, answer their questions without judgement, consider their ideas, and give them tons of positive recognition for the good work they’re doing? That’s going to paint a very different picture in their minds about how much the organization cares about them. Their effort will follow suit.

So, don’t dismiss the one-on-one meetings. You’ve got to get these right. And it doesn’t take a ton of effort to do so – just a plan and a commitment to doing things consistently.

Make them weekly

The question I get asked most often is about frequency. Should they be once a week? Every two weeks? Once a month? What’s best practice?

For my money, a weekly one-on-one meeting is always your best bet. There are a few reasons for this:

  • It keeps everyone informed. Office gossip starts when communication is not clear, consistent, and transparent. Having individual time every week ensures the consistency piece.
  • It enhances accountability. If your team members know that you’re going to ask them about their progress each week, they’re more likely to make progress rather than waiting until a day or two before to start the next step of a project.
  • A lot can change in a week! Having the time regularly blocked on your calendar makes sure you have it set aside for when you need to connect.
  • We live in an instant gratification society, where any piece of information we want is available to us at a moment’s notice just by pulling out our cell phone. That makes more frequent communication even more important.
  • Finally, every employee should have the peace of mind to know that their boss makes individual face-time a priority. If their boss doesn’t care about them, then why should they give you their best every day?

So there’s lots of great reasons to keep it once a week. But here’s the most common objection I hear:

I don’t have the time for weekly one-on-one meetings with all of my employees.

And my response is simple: We find time for things we care about and deem important. So find the time. If you can’t give everyone reporting to you 30 minutes each week, then one of these statements is true:

  • You’re managing too many people;
  • You’re not delegating enough of your own work down to free up your time;
  • You just don’t care.

The most important job you have as a manager is to take care of the people reporting to you so that they can perform to the best of their abilities. Your one-on-one meeting is critical to that. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time to figure it out.

On board? Great. Here’s how you run a really amazing one-on-one meeting.

Utilize a consistent agenda

Consistency is your best friend when it comes to the one-on-one meeting. It lets your team know exactly what to expect each time so that they can prepare accordingly. It also sets you up to prep efficiently, not only prior to the chat but throughout the week. As items come up that you know members of your team need to know, just make a quick note to add it to the agenda.

Here’s the framework I like to use:

  1. The first part of the meeting is all about your employee. What are they proud of accomplishing in the last week? What are they working on? What do they want to discuss? What’s holding them back from being successful?
  2. The second part of the meeting is about you. What are you working on that they should know about? What conversations have you been a part of that will impact their work? What new items do you need from them? What items are you delegating down to them? If they need to develop new skillsets to take on those assignments, this is also a perfect time to coach them in that direction. You can prep your agenda ahead of the meeting by putting together a quick list of the topics you want to make sure you hit on.

Assuming a 30 minute meeting, this allocates about 15 minutes to them and 15 minutes to you, but don’t be a stickler on a perfect even distribution of time. If they’re on a role and are engaged and excited in their end of the conversation, let them have a bit more time. Those are feelings you want to encourage – it will help them leave the meeting motivated to hit the ground running as soon as they get back to their desk.

All about them

Here’s the thing: As the person in the power position, the very best thing you can do to support your team is put your ego to the side. Everyone has an ego – there’s nothing good or bad about it. But you must think back to your goal here: Create an experience where they are intrinsically motivated to do their best work while still being held accountable to the goals they need to accomplish. That means this meeting has to be about their needs on a deeply psychological level. But you don’t need to be a psychologist to get it right – it’s just about making them feel good when they walk out of the conversation.

The most important thing you can do in your one-on-one meetings is to listen.

In coaching clients in organization, not a week goes by when I don’t hear some version of the following words: You are the only person that listens to me. 

That means that they don’t feel like the one person whom their success relies on – their boss – really listens to a word they say. This could be an inaccurate perception, or it could be that you were legitimately distracted. Either way, it doesn’t help you get their best performance and make them feel good about the relationship you have. This happens for a lot of reasons. You’re busy and focused on your priorities. You have your computer open during meetings and are answering email. You dismiss their ideas too quickly, making them feel as though they weren’t properly considered in the first place.

There’s a time and a place for everything, but these one-on-one meetings are the time and place for you to put everything aside and give them your full attention.

  • Do not have your computer open. Even if you are just using it to take notes, it’s very easy for them to interpret it as you answering email and not really focusing on what they have to say.
  • Face them with open body language. Don’t lean back with your arms crossed – that just makes you seem closed off.
  • Repeat it back. Use active listening techniques to articulate back what they’re communicating to do. “What I heard you say is that you can’t complete this step of the project without support from Johnny Jones in marketing. Did I get that right? Is there anything else you need?” Doing so doesn’t just nip any chances of miscommunication in the bud – it also really emphasizes that you heard what they said.
  • Ask amazing questions. Sometimes, your team members need your help in fully pulling apart different strategies or solutions. Instead of saying, “This is how I would do it,” ask them questions to guide them in the direction you want to go. That will leave them more engaged, instead of in the dreaded position of order-taker.

Make it forward looking

When your employees see that you’re listening to them, you’ll develop the trust required to have them come to you when problems arise or when they need help. That’s a good thing! You want them to feel comfortable coming to you with problems.

When it happens however, you might be inclined to dissect why the problem occurred or give your team member the impression they are in trouble or will get dinged for it on their performance review. Rein it in and focus your attention on how to move forward: “This didn’t go how we wanted it to. What are you going to do about it? How can I help you? What do you need?” If your team members feel they are going to get in trouble, they won’t tell you when things are going wrong. However, if they feel like you’re motivated to support their success that will give both of you the opportunity to come together and brainstorm on the best next steps.

Take notes

Finally, throughout the meeting, you want to make sure you’re taking notes. Since I just told you to turn off your computer, we’re going to do this the old-fashioned way: by writing it down. Taking hand-written notes during a meeting lets your employees see that you are engaged in what’s going on in front of you, and shows them that both you and they are being held accountable. Use a notepad, a journal, whatever works best for you.

If you’re looking for a quick, easy template, download this one I developed specifically to keep track of what’s going on in your one-on-ones.

When the meeting is over, just pop your notes in a specific folder that you’ve set aside for your employee and they’ll be there next week when you prep your agenda. Look back and make note of what items you need to follow-up on or get a status update.

Be present and remember your goal

At the end of the day, these simple tactics allow you to be fully present in the meeting, and focused on your primary goal of supporting your employee’s performance. You may have a lot going on, but run these meetings well and it will be some of the most productive 30 minutes you spend each week. The other things you have going on will be waiting for you when it’s over, and you’ll have an engaged team member ready to help you achieve them.

This was originally published on Zen Workplace.