Over the course of my professional career, I’ve been a part of countless one-on-one meetings, as both manager and employee. While the vast majority went well, it was the ones that didn’t that have actually become the most memorable. I learned many hard but valuable lessons from those not-so-successful one-on-one conversations, some of which I’ve tried to share here.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d love to see you take away from this article, it’s this:
No matter how prepared you are, it’s inevitable that you will face some difficult conversations, some surprises, and the odd uncomfortable moment along the way.
If you work hard to foster positive, trusting relationships with your people over time, and you adhere to the practices covered in this article, you’ll be able to weather those little storms that come.
I’ve written this article for first-time managers, founders and business owners who’ve just hired their first employee(s), and for Human Resources professionals looking for a resource to help them support managers in their organizations. The 1:1 essentials covered here apply whether you’re doing your 1:1 remotely over phone or video, or in-person face-to-face.
The main purpose of a one-on-one (1:1) meeting is to foster positive and productive relationships between you (the manager) and the individual members of your team.
One-on-one meetings are also sometimes referred to as “check-in’s”, “one-with-one’s”, “one to one meetings”.
While the terminology may differ from company to company, the purpose remains the same: one on one meetings are important meetings that provide you and each of your employees with a regularly scheduled forum to come together, communicate, and help each other grow personally and professionally.
Effective 1:1 meetings are a simple but powerful tool that can foster positive relationships with your team members by giving you each the opportunity to:
Share information on everything from project updates to personal feelings and well-being;
Set general job performance expectations, and ensure consistency and alignment of expectations between all team members;
Assess team member engagement and motivation, and understand the personal and/or work elements impacting this;
Reinforce workplace vision and values, to ensure broader culture alignment across the entire organization;
Develop a personal relationship, which can help support the professional relationship;
Identify ways to grow—ways in which you and your employee or direct report can help with their career development and career goals, and
Minimize surprises, particularly negative ones, during formal annual reviews or performance reviews.
It’s important to emphasize that a one-on-one conversation involves two people—you and your team member. Great managers know that communication must go both ways. An effective 1:1 is a bi-directional exchange of information and expectations.
For example, in most 1:1 meetings you’ll probably ask your team member some version of, “How are you doing?”, to get a sense of how they’re feeling about work, life, work/life balance, or whatever—just as human beings. They may ask the same question of you, and it’s important that you share equally to build trust.
Similarly, you may set a certain performance expectation related to the work that they’re doing. In exchange, ask what expectations they have of you as their manager and leader, and how you can support them better.
What Should 1:1’s NOT Be Used For?
In general, you should not rely on a 1:1 as the primary mechanism for performance management, learning, and development, or project and task management. Trying to cram all of these into a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting is simply not practical. It’s really more about employee engagement and making sure your team members are feeling okay about their role and goals at work.
Here are some examples of specific things that should NOT be covered in a 1:1, and should be addressed in their own dedicated meetings:
Urgent performance feedback: if an employee has made a serious error, it’s important to provide feedback in a timely manner and set expectations quickly to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Waiting until your next 1:1 to bring up pressing issues only creates the opportunity for the mistake to happen again.
Job skills training: a one-on-one meeting should not be used as a training session to teach employee-specific skills necessary to do their job. Schedule a separate session where you aren’t rushed for time.
Detailed project status updates: a 1:1 is an appropriate place to get general updates (e.g. are things generally on track/delayed/ahead), but more detailed status updates and discussion (e.g. “we’re behind, how do we get back on schedule”) should be handled in a status report and discussed in a dedicated project meeting.
What A Typical One-on-One Meeting Agenda?
While the specific topics discussed in a 1:1 will vary from meeting to meeting and from one management style to the next, it’s important to create a general structure and meeting agenda that applies to every discussion.
Doing this helps save time, keeps the conversation focused, and gives the employee a sense of comfort because they generally know what to expect. All of this further contributes to making 1:1’s a productive and effective business habit.
You may decide to create a different agenda, but to get you started here is an example of a 30-minute 1:1 meeting agenda (just double the times if it’s 60 minutes). These are the talking points I like to cover in my one on one meetings:
1. Team member check-in (5 minutes)
This is your opportunity to connect on a personal level with your team member. You should ask open-ended questions that create an open listening environment. These types of questions may also open a conversation you hadn’t planned for, but is important to have.
Energy and emotional check-in: check with the employee how they are doing and feeling, what their energy level is like, and anything that’s on the top of their mind. For example, if their energy is low and they’re feeling stressed, this will affect how you approach the rest of the 1:1 conversation.
Personal connection: Follow up on their personal life. Ask how their spouse or children are doing, or express interest in their hobby. This is critical to build rapport and earn trust and sets the stage for the rest of the meeting.
2. Team member work update (10 minutes)
This is where the 1:1 conversation switches over to the work side of things. Remember, if you feel like you’re going into the weeds on something too specific, give them an action item to schedule a separate meeting to discuss.
Previous action items: ask the team member to update you on the status of any action items from the last 1:1 meeting.
Project and goal updates: focus on updates on any important long-term goals, objectives, projects, or tasks that they’ve been assigned.
Obstacles: check if there are any roadblocks they’re running into that are preventing them from completing a particular action, task, or project. How satisfied are they with work, and what is affecting their job satisfaction?
Keep this part of the conversation focused on things that are affecting broad aspects of their work, such as a difficult relationship with another team member, or an inefficient business process.
3. Manager update and future (10 minutes)
Now it’s your turn. Use this part of the conversation to:
Share important information and updates: this could be new company policies, processes, etc., but only those that could have a direct impact on the team member.
Non-urgent performance management: this is an opportunity to set general performance expectations or offer general feedback. Remember that if something is urgent, don’t wait for your weekly or bi-weekly 1:1 to address it.
New goals, objectives, or responsibilities: a 1:1 is a good time to have a discussion about the future. This includes any changes to the team member’s goals and career aspirations, roles, or responsibilities. Make sure to get their thoughts on how to make these changes.
Offer support: ask how you can better support them in their work, removing obstacles, etc.
4. Flextime (5 minutes)
As with any meeting, always allocate a small chunk of time to allow for a deeper discussion on a particularly important topic, summarize any key action items, or simply end the meeting early!
What Are Some Example One-on-One Meeting Questions?
Here is a few one on one meeting questions that I would ask during the part of the meeting where we get an update on the team member’s work.
How was your progress on the actions we discussed in the last meeting?
What is top-of-mind for you right now at work?
Where are you at with the X project / Y task / Z goal?
What obstacles or barriers to success/completion are you running into?
Are you on track to meet your deadlines this week?
Do you have any thoughts, ideas, or suggestions on how to solve this problem?
I have many more sample one on one meeting questions for other parts of your meeting agenda in this one on one template.
Where Can I Find A One-on-One Meeting Template?
Here is a simple template to help you lead an effective 1:1 conversation. This handy one-on-one template will help jumpstart your introduction to the world of 1:1’s.
The one on one meeting template includes:
Quick start guide with essential one one one best practices
A simple framework for your one on one meeting agenda
Example one on one meeting questions you can ask for each part of your agenda
You can print it out and use it during the meeting as a guide or reminder of the topics you should cover. It’s also a convenient tool for your handwritten notes, and to record actions and decisions.
What Are Some Best Practices For An Effective 1:1 Meeting?
There are many do’s and don’ts when it comes to leading an effective 1:1 meeting. Following is a list of ten of the best practices for having a positive and productive one-on-one conversation.
Schedule weekly or bi-weekly: schedule the frequency based on the number of team members, and on the individual needs of each person. If you have more than five people, bi-weekly allows you time for the rest of your job. A new or struggling employee may need to meet weekly. Monthly is not frequent enough, and daily is way too often.
Limit to 30 – 60 minutes: again, take into consideration how many team members you have and the needs of each. If you have ten people and want to do weekly meetings with each, ten hours a week spent in 1:1’s may not be the best use of your time.
Schedule gaps: if you decide to schedule several 1:1’s in a row, leave 10-15 minutes between each one. This allows you the flexibility to go longer if necessary, but more importantly, gives you time to mentally prepare for the next one.
Ensure privacy: avoid public places if possible. Use your office or cubicle, or a conference room if necessary, to ensure privacy and avoid interruptions. Also, make sure to turn your phone and monitor off to minimize distractions.
Make them a habit: avoid canceling a 1:1 unless absolutely necessary. Pick a schedule and stick to it in order to make 1:1’s a recurring meeting—a habit and part of both your regular work rhythms. Set yourself a goal to not miss more than one out of every ten meetings.
Be prepared: before each one-on-one discussion, consider the team member’s work and projects, review the notes and actions from the last 1:1 meeting, and determine any general performance feedback you want to give.
Be flexible: sometimes it’s necessary to go deep into a particular topic. If your team member is facing a crisis in their personal life, for example, be prepared to abandon the regular agenda to support them.
Take handwritten notes: Typing may be easier but is often more distracting. Take notes of only the most important points, actions, and decisions. Know when (e.g. important decision made) and when not (e.g. during an emotional subject) to take notes.
Coach more: coaching isn’t always the answer – sometimes you need to be direct and tell/advise your team member on what to do – but coaching puts more power and responsibility into their hands to figure out solutions to problems.
Remote is ok: if you have team members who work remotely, connect with them over the video, versus the phone. Observing body language and facial cues is key to having an honest and open one-on-one conversation.