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Personal Development
Essential Guide to One-On-One Meetings For Managers (+Template)

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, which I’ll share here.

But, 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. 

But, by working hard to foster positive, trusting relationships with your people over time, and you adhere to the practices covered in this article, you’ll be better prepared to weather those little storms that come.

This article is aimed at 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. 

What Is A One-on-One and What’s The Purpose?

One-on-one meetings, sometimes referred to as “check-ins”, are formal meetings between a manager and their team member that provide a dedicated time to come together, communicate, and help each other grow personally and professionally.

The main purpose of a one-on-one (1:1) meeting is to foster a positive and productive working relationship between you (the manager) and the individual members of your team.

They are a simple but powerful tool that provides each of you the opportunity to:

  1. Share information on everything from project updates to personal feelings and well-being;
  2. Set general job performance expectations and ensure consistency and alignment of expectations between all team members;
  3. Assess team member engagement and motivation, and understand the personal and/or work elements impacting this;
  4. Reinforce workplace vision and values to ensure broader culture alignment across the entire organization;
  5. Develop a personal relationship which can help support the professional relationship; 
  6. Identify ways to grow—ways in which you and your employee or direct report can help with their career development and career goals, and
  7. 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. These meetings are a precious opportunity for you to get feedback on your performance and employee sentiment in general, so 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're 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.

A one-on-one conversation involves two people—you and your team member. Great managers know that communication must go both ways.

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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 a team member 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 someone 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 discussions (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.

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 team member 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 it’s important to have:
    • Energy and emotional check-in: check with the employee how they're 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, role, 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. Flex time (5 minutes): As with any meeting, always allocate a small chunk of time to allow for deeper discussion on a particularly important topic, summarize any key action items, or simply end the meeting early!

Some Example One-on-One Meeting Questions

Here are a few common one on one meeting questions that I typically 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 blockers 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.

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
  • Spaces to take notes

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.

1-1 template and guide featured image

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Best Practices For An Effective 1:1 Meeting

The potential benefits of one-on-ones are a boost in employee performance and productivity. But, unfortunately, if not handled then correctly the opposite can occur as well.

Here are ten best practices for ensuring a positive and productive one-on-one conversation.

  1. Schedule weekly or bi-weekly. Schedule the frequency based on the number of team members you’re responsible for 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 and, more importantly, gives you time to mentally prepare for the next one.
  4. Ensure privacy. Avoid public places if possible. Use your office, 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. 
  5. Make them a habit. Avoid canceling a 1:1 unless absolutely necessary. Pick a day and time and schedule a recurring meeting and it will become part of both your regular work rhythms. Set yourself a goal to not miss more than one out of every ten meetings.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 (i.e. asking the right questions to help them work through problems themselves) puts more power and responsibility into their hands to figure out solutions to problems.  
  10. 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.

Related Read: How To Go From Manager To Coach

Further resources

1:1s are one of the most effective tools you have in your toolkit to help you build rapport with your team member and share constructive feedback that will help you both succeed professionally.

Some further resources to help you along your management journey:

For further support, you can join the People Managing People Community, a supportive community people managers passionate about sharing knowledge and building organizations of the future.

By Mike Gibbons

Mike has held various senior leadership positions in the technology industry, most recently as the General Manager of FLIR Integrated Imaging Solutions. His responsibilities included coaching and leading a team of over 300 people; managing P&L for a US$100M business; and defining and executing business strategy. Mike is guided by his deeply-held beliefs in connection, curiosity, humour, empathy, and honesty. After much soul-searching he decided to leave the corporate world in 2018. Since then he has invested in and helped several early stage companies mature, grow responsibly, and live true to their values.

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