As a leader, one of the most effective tools you have to build rapport, support your team, and nip problems in the bud is regular one-on-one meetings. Done right, these meetings provide a perfect opportunity to check in with team members, identify training needs, and connect on a more personal basis.
However, one-on-ones can easily lose their effectiveness if they aren’t utilized properly, just like any other type of meeting. And worse, if they are not done well, it can reflect poorly on your leadership abilities. Making the most of this time with your direct reports means putting in a little legwork before and after the meeting itself.
It also means learning how to hold productive and valuable conversations during the meeting itself. Even if you already get along well with your staff members, you’ll all get more from this time with each other if you plan to do a bit more than just have a chat every few weeks.
We’ve put together this guide to effective one-on-ones to help you identify where you can improve your current practice. If you aren’t already holding regular one-on-ones with your team members, we hope this guide will also convince you that it’s time to start.
Why Are One-on-One Meetings Important?
If you manage a team, your calendar is probably already packed with meetings, calls, and to-dos. Adding yet another task to the list may seem like a daunting proposition, especially since you’ll need to find time to have one-on-ones with every single member of your team.
However, there are good reasons for making time to meet with each of your direct reports regularly. If this isn’t something you are already doing, here’s why you want to start.
1. Build Relationships with Your Team
One of the most vital benefits of regular one-on-one meetings with your team members is that it gives you a chance to build deeper relationships with each person and get to know them better.
Having a healthy and respectful relationship with your direct reports should be a priority for every leader. When those interpersonal relationships are strong, teams are more cohesive and productive. Communication flows more easily, and staff members feel seen and supported.
While you shouldn’t expect to become best buddies with every direct report, it is essential to strengthen your relationships with them as much as you can. Employees report that their relationship with their manager is the top factor in determining job satisfaction, according to research by McKinsey & Company.
People who feel connected to their managers are more motivated and engaged. They’re also likely to stay longer — in a survey by Udemy, almost half of the respondents said they’d left a job because of a bad relationship with their manager. Meanwhile, Adobe found that switching from annual performance reviews to regular one-on-one catch-ups reduced staff turnover by 30%.
One-on-One meetings provide a perfect venue to spend time really getting to know each person on your team. Done right, they can help you build trust and establish yourself as a supportive and caring servant leader.
2. Understand Employees’ Motivations
We’ve talked before about the importance of motivation to organizational success. Motivated employees are more productive, stay longer, and produce better quality work.
However, working out what motivates your team members is easier said than done. Each individual has their own complex reasons for finding purpose and value in their work. You’ll need to understand at least some of their drivers (and blockers) to increase that sense of engagement and motivation.
The best managers are constantly on the lookout for clues as to what motivates their staff members. However, it can be hard to spot these clues in a team setting where your attention is split between more people.
1-on-1 catch-ups provide a great opportunity to learn more about your direct reports and what makes them motivated to work well. It also means you can spot if someone is becoming disengaged and, hopefully, make changes to help them find purpose in their work again.
3. Uncover Problems Early
The old saying “a stitch in time saves nine” is just as appropriate for the workplace as the sewing room. Small problems turn into big problems when they’re left to fester, so getting to the root of any issues or blockages early will save you time and effort in the long run.
Although you’d hope your direct reports would feel comfortable enough to come to you if there was a problem, you’re far more likely to hear about issues if you’re proactive about engaging with your team members one-on-one.
Your employees might not consider something important enough to bring to your attention. But if you’re regularly checking in with them, you’re more likely to spot that things aren’t quite right. Regular one-on-ones also mean your team members know they’ll have an opportunity to speak to you without other people around, which gives them the confidence to share issues more openly.
When problems do arise, one-on-ones also allow you to solve them in a supportive and collaborative setting. You can work with each person to identify blockers and how to remove them, without turning it into a big team debate (or a massive email chain).
4. Identify Opportunities for Development
If your team members are engaged and motivated, they’re also going to have half an eye on their career progression. One of the vital roles of any manager is coaching and mentoring their direct reports so that they build their skills and continue their professional development.
In the busy whirlwind of your daily work life, it is hard to find time for you or your reports to focus on identifying opportunities for development and learning. But setting aside time that is dedicated to discussing a team member’s needs and interests means professional development won’t be put permanently on the backburner.
Although you may have an idea of what progression looks like, your employees may surprise you by having a completely different vision for their own careers. Speaking with them one-on-one is a great opportunity to discover where they see themselves heading and how you can support them in reaching those goals.
Of course, one-on-one meetings are also an opportunity to gently bring up any areas where you’ve noticed a staff member could use some extra training. Done right, this can be a supportive process that helps you close any knowledge gaps in your team.
5. Receive Feedback
Finally, one-on-one meetings are as much of an opportunity for professional development for you as they are for your direct reports. Discovering what they feel is going well or poorly can give you insights into how to improve your own work and increase your leadership skills.
As well as feedback on your abilities as a manager, you can use this opportunity to gather feedback from your team members on their work and your team’s strategy. Not everyone has the confidence to speak up in larger meetings, which means you may be missing out on valuable insights from quieter team members.
One-on-ones give those who may not otherwise contribute a chance to share their thoughts and ideas on upcoming plans, projects, and goals.
How Often Should You Hold One-on-One Meetings
The frequency of your one-on-ones will vary depending on the size of your team, the nature of your work, and the experience level of your direct reports.
If your work is very fast paced, having a shorter one-on-one every week may be beneficial to make sure team members are on the same page and are keeping up with their work. However, that might not be doable for managers of larger teams.
Meeting every two weeks or monthly often works best for most teams. It’s frequent enough that you can check in with everyone, without being so often that it overwhelms your calendar.
New employees will likely need to meet with you more often, so plan to have weekly meetings with them as part of the onboarding process.
You may also want to speak more regularly with remote employees. It is easy for those who don’t work on-site to feel disconnected from you (and the wider team), so frequent one-on-ones can help to bring them into the fold.
Look at the schedule of your other regular meetings, such as team catch-ups, to help you decide whether you should be holding one-on-ones with your remote team members more often. Ask for their input too – they also need to balance their calendars.
The most important thing is to make sure that one-on-ones are held regularly. An occasional meeting isn’t enough for your staff members to feel like they are your priority, or to support their development and progression.
How Long Should a One-on-One Be?
Allow at least half an hour to an hour for each one-on-one. You need enough time to be able to delve deeper into issues or ideas that come up. Your reports shouldn’t feel that your time with them is limited or that they need to rush through everything at a gallop before they lose your attention.
Alternatively, you can set varied times for different one-on-ones. For instance, having a 30-45 minute meeting once a month and then a long 1+ hour meeting once a quarter to review more in-depth topics. This can allow for more flexibility to meet regularly, while not filling your entire schedule.
It should go without saying, but for one-on-ones to be effective, you need to consider them a high priority. Tempting though it might be to let internal meetings like this slide when your work ramps up, it’s when your team is busiest that they most need your time and support.
Try your utmost to never cancel a one-on-one. If it is absolutely unavoidable and you do need to move a meeting, make sure it is rescheduled as soon as possible. Cancelling meetings, especially at short notice, sends a message to your employees that they aren’t a priority for you, which will quickly erode the relationship between you.
Allow yourself some buffer time before and after each meeting too. Keeping ten minutes spare before the one-on-one helps to make sure you are on time and able to focus your attention fully on your employee, not on what you were just doing. And ten minutes afterward will allow you a bit of flexibility to finish discussions and make notes before you are pulled back to your other work.
The time commitment for an effective one-on-one goes beyond the meeting itself. Like any other meeting, you should come out of these discussions with a list of action points. Make sure you allow for this as you plan your weekly schedule – just like canceling meetings, failing to do what you’ve promised will mean you lose the trust of your team members.
Looking at this, the idea of holding one-on-ones with all your direct reports might start to feel onerous. However, the advantages far outweigh the effort of finding some space in your calendar. As a manager, supporting the people in your team should always be a priority.
Tips for Making One-on-Ones More Effective
We’ve looked at how frequently you should hold one-on-ones and how long they should be. However, getting those meetings on your calendar is just the tip of the iceberg. You still need to make sure you and your employees get the most from the meeting itself.
This is particularly important if you manage remote staff. When you all work in the same space, it is easier for people to grab five minutes of your time here and there. Tools like Slack, Teams, and Zoom may have made remote collaboration easier, but a regularly scheduled one-on-one remains the most valuable way for remote employees to connect with you, share their progress, and raise concerns.
Since more and more of us are managing remote and hybrid teams, we’ve written these tips on the assumption that at least part of your team isn’t in the office regularly.
Holding effective one-on-ones remotely might be slightly more challenging at first, but you can still make this a valuable and productive time for both you and your team members.
1. Agree on Discussion Points in Advance…
Hopefully, you already know the importance of setting an agenda in advance of larger meetings. When everyone involved knows what is on the table for discussion, they can come prepared. An agenda also helps to keep meetings relevant and on track.
Those same benefits apply to one-on-ones with your team members. Agreeing on discussion points in advance of the meeting gives you a structure to work from. It also gives you prior warning of what’s on your employee’s mind. Especially ask if they have any specific questions or concerns to discuss, as this allows you to think on those issues beforehand and not be blindsided.
Setting an agenda for a one-on-one should be a collaborative process. Remember, the focus is on the needs of your direct reports, not your priorities as a manager. Encourage them to lead in setting discussion points and shaping the meeting’s agenda.
This doesn’t need to be an overly formal process. A shared document or even a dedicated chat channel can easily be used to suggest and agree to discussion points.
2. …But Be Flexible
Having a plan is important, but there’s a fine balance to strike between having a structure and being too constrained by your agenda. If your employee comes to a meeting with something pressing on their mind that isn’t on your pre-agreed list, it’s more important to listen than to insist on rigidly sticking to the plan.
Similarly, if a discussion takes longer than expected or uncovers something that needs you to delve deeper, you should feel free to let the conversation evolve naturally. Sometimes the greatest insights come when we allow people’s thoughts to flow.
If you find this happening in meetings, take a moment to check with your employees which other items on the agenda could be discussed in another setting (e.g., via email or in a team meeting) or shelved until your next one-on-one. You don’t want to miss out on covering something important, but you also shouldn’t cut a productive conversation short just because your agenda has further items on it.
3. Be Realistic About What You Can Cover
If your one-on-one will just be half-an-hour, you’re unlikely to have time to discuss more than one or two things in any depth. If your direct reports are adding more than that, it might be a sign that they need more access to your time.
Remote employees may especially fall into the habit of saving all their questions until they know they’ll have your undivided attention. A one-on-one meeting isn’t designed to take the place of regular communication about day-to-day work.
If you notice your remote team members are saving their queries for the one-on-one, make sure they know how and when they can contact you the rest of the time. You may need to make an extra effort to check in with them via other means, such as email or Slack, until they get more comfortable doing this themselves.
You can also gently identify agenda items that are best dealt with in another forum. With practice, your direct reports will learn what is and isn’t right to bring to a one-on-one, meaning both of you get more out of your meetings.
Plus, this is a valuable skill for employees to learn in their own journey to becoming leaders in the organization.
4. Choose Your Venue with Care
If you’re meeting with your employees in person, it goes without saying that you should find a space away from the rest of the team, so you can talk freely. While a meeting room will do (especially if pushed for time), conversations can sometimes feel less inhibited when held at a non-work venue, such as a café or coffeehouse.
You could even try walking meetings, giving you both a break from the desk.
It’s obviously harder to get creative with meeting venues when you’re holding one-on-ones with your remote employees. However, that doesn’t mean that it is any less important to think about your meeting environment.
Clearly, the basics need to be in place. Both of you need to have the correct IT and a decent internet connection. However, you can go beyond this to make your virtual meeting a supportive space.
Ideally, find a space away from your usual desk to hold the call, so you aren’t interrupted. If you work from the office, this might be a small meeting room or a dedicated space for calls.
If you are at home, you may be more limited by technology and the needs of other family members using the space. At a minimum, make sure that wherever you are is free from distractions. Turn off your phone and mute any notifications on your computer. Ask your employee to do the same.
Have your camera switched on but try hiding your own video feed from your view. We all get distracted by seeing our faces on screen, so this simple trick can help you focus your full attention on your employees.
5. Put Employees in the Driving Seat
We touched on this briefly when we looked at setting your meeting’s agenda, but it is worth reiterating in more detail. As a manager, you may be used to leading meetings. However, your usual roles are reversed when you hold a one-on-one with an employee.
This meeting is about them – their successes, challenges, and professional development. This means that they should be the ones in the driving seat.
Getting your direct reports to take the lead on setting the meeting agenda is one way to make sure they feel empowered to make the one-on-one their own. You should also allow them to take the lead in discussions.
However, not everyone will have the confidence to take charge of their one-on-ones with you straight away. It’s fine to encourage the conversation along with prompts and questions. Over time, your employees will hopefully find their feet and start feeling more confident about being in the driving seat.
6. Leave Time for Personal Updates
A one-on-one is still a work meeting, so your main focus will be what’s going on for your team members professionally.
However, it is also worth leaving a little time for personal updates, especially at the start of the meeting. You don’t need to delve deep into your employees’ personal lives or ask intrusive questions about non-work stuff. But an informal check-in can help to create more of a connection between you.
This can be as simple as asking what they did on the weekend or enquiring about family members, pets, or hobbies. It’s a great way to show that you see them as people, not just employees.
This also leaves room for your team members to let you know if they’re experiencing any challenges in their personal lives. Not everyone will want to open up, of course. However, if you give employees an opportunity to highlight big changes in their lives, you can make sure they have the support they need at work to reduce stress and mitigate the potential impact on their productivity. No one is fully capable of leaving “life” at home, and stress from non-work sources greatly impacts daily performance.
7. Recognize Achievements (Be Specific)
In the rush of day-to-day work, it can be easy for your direct reports to feel like their contributions are overlooked. A one-on-one is a perfect opportunity to show that you’ve noticed their achievements and value their input to the team.
These don’t need to be big achievements, which generally get a fair amount of recognition anyway. It’s the little moments when your employees have gone above and beyond that are most important to show your appreciation for.
Be as specific as you can. People know when they’re being brushed off with a “great work out there”. Show that you’ve genuinely been paying attention by mentioning exact situations where you’ve noticed your employee quietly shining.
Of course, if you want to do this well, you actually do need to be paying attention. Knowing that you’ll be meeting with each employee one-on-one can be a great incentive for you to notice their unique contribution to your team, making you better placed to be an effective leader too. Often, it’s helpful to take physical notes of achievements of your team members as they happen and save those notes for when you meet in person – to give clear examples of performance you appreciate.
8. Ask Questions
We’ve already established that these meetings should center on your employees. Encouraging them to open up and share their ideas, challenges, and insights is down to you, however. You can only do that if you ask the right questions.
You want to encourage your team members to talk, so ask questions that are open-ended and leave room for them to take charge of the direction of the conversation.
What is the most important thing we need to talk about today?
What obstacles are you experiencing in your work right now?
What could I be doing differently to better support you?
What are your biggest priorities in the next two weeks?
Once the conversation starts flowing, continue to ask questions to dive deeper into the points raised by your employee. Try to resist jumping straight in with suggestions or solutions – allow your staff members time to properly elaborate on their thoughts and get plenty of detail before you move on to action points.
9. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues
Once you’ve got your team members talking with some carefully judged questions, it’s important to pay attention to what they don’t say as much as what they do say.
Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language can give you some indicators of where people might be holding back or trying to give you the answer you want to hear, instead of their honest opinion.
When this happens, some gentle follow-up questions might be appropriate to see if you can discover an underlying issue or tempt out a more honest answer.
These non-verbal cues can also help you identify areas of work that your staff members find especially interesting. If they talk passionately about certain tasks, but are less enthused about others, it can give you valuable insight into how to keep them motivated. Make sure you take notes!
It is harder to pick up on these subtle forms of communication when you are meeting virtually. While online communication tools can’t (yet) fully take the place of seeing someone face-to-face, video calls can at least help you catch facial expressions and tone of voice more easily than a voice-only call.
This is why it is important that you both have your cameras switched on and have the right technology to make your video calls as high quality as possible.
10. Listen (Actively) More Than You Talk
You’ve probably already gathered that your role in one-on-one meetings is more as a listener than as a talker. While you’ll need to keep up your end of the conversation and ask plenty of questions, most of the talking should be done by your employee.
If you find you are the one speaking most of the time, it is a prompt to review the content of your one-on-ones. Perhaps you’re spending a lot of time giving updates and information that are better saved for a team catch-up than a private meeting. Or perhaps you’re focusing too much on your own priorities and not enough on your team members.
As good leaders know, listening is an active process. You don’t just pay attention to the words but look for the meaning behind them.
Following up with relevant questions, comments, and feedback helps to show your team members that you are paying attention. It also helps you check your understanding of what they’ve said, making sure you are both on the same page.
Practice active listening techniques during your one-on-ones to ensure your direct reports feel properly seen and heard.
11. Be Curious and Open-Minded
There is a certain mindset shared by many great leaders. They have a genuine curiosity about the people around them and are open to hearing new ideas, receiving feedback, and considering a different perspective.
Adopting this mindset will be helpful in every aspect of management but is especially important if you want your employees to come away from one-on-ones feeling heard and respected.
People feel most comfortable sharing their ideas and their challenges when they know they’ll be met with interest and attention, instead of judgment.
Even when you disagree, it’s important to understand where you employees are coming from. Their perspective will be different from yours as their manager – listening with an open mind can bring insights and uncover issues you otherwise wouldn’t have spotted.
Again, open-ended and relevant follow-up questions are your friend in portraying interest and curiosity in what your team members have to say.
12. Focus on Positives Before Bringing Up Issues
There’s no getting around it – sometimes you’ll have points to raise during a one-on-one that aren’t so positive. While these meetings should never be used in place of proper disciplinary process, small issues and problems will arise from time to time that you might need to address with your employees during their regular one-on-ones.
Tempting though it might be to get those negatives out of the way early, people are generally more receptive to critical feedback when their positive efforts have been recognized first.
Leading with the positives also helps to set the tone for the rest of the meeting. If you begin with points for improvement, it can leave a sour taste that is hard to move on from. But if you’ve already established a tone that is generally positive and upbeat, a little bit of constructive criticism is easier for your employee to hear in the spirit it is meant.
Remember, identifying areas for improvement is as important to your team members’ professional development as recognizing their wins. So, don’t shy away from raising these points. Just make sure you focus on the positives first.
13. Make a Plan to Meet Training and Development Needs
As we discussed at the start of this guide, one of the main goals of holding one-on-ones with your team is to have a time where they can focus on their professional development. However, it isn’t enough to just discuss their needs in the meeting itself.
Training and development can easily be pushed to one side by the day-to-day realities of your work. You may both leave the meeting with the best of intentions but following through can be harder.
Unfortunately, employees who are regularly promised opportunities to develop that never materialize will quickly start feeling disappointed and let down. So, it is vital to have a plan for how you’ll help them achieve their professional goals.
When your employees identify areas where they’d like to develop, work with them to agree on short-, medium-, and long-term actions they can take to reach their aims. Revisit these regularly at your one-on-ones to make sure they’re on track and identify where they need support or action from you.
As always, there’s a fine balance to strike between empowering your team members to take ownership of their own development and giving them the support and tools they need to achieve their goals. Finding that balance may take some time, but don’t be afraid to ask the question – “what can I do to support you in reaching these aims?”
14. Invite Feedback
The main focus of your one-on-ones should be your staff members and their professional development. However, these sessions are also a great opportunity for you as a leader to gather feedback and refine your management skills.
Those open-ended questions again come into play here, giving your direct reports and opportunity to raise issues and pinpoint blockages in a non-confrontational setting.
As well as feedback on your own performance as their manager, one-on-ones provide a perfect setting to get team members to share their thoughts on big picture issues like your team’s strategy, the company’s product and approach, and the overall workplace culture.
Again, this feedback can help you spot issues that you might not otherwise have seen and may generate some innovative ideas to help your company succeed.
Don’t forget that curious and open mindset when receiving feedback, especially if it is critical. This isn’t a personal attack, but an opportunity for you to learn and grow as a leader.
15. Make Collaborative Notes
One-on-one meetings don’t need to be formally recorded. However, keeping brief notes will help you and your employee keep track of what you’ve discussed and agreed on during your time together.
A shared document that you can both update with quick notes from each session is best. Not only is this easy for remote employees to access, but it can also become a tool for further communication.
Plus, if either of you has misunderstood or misinterpreted something, collaborative notes will help you uncover the confusion quickly and set it straight.
Notes don’t need to be extensive. You can both have the document open during the meeting and jot down quick bullet points as you talk. However, they should include agreed upon action points so that you both come away from the meeting knowing what the next steps are.
Once agreed, these action plans should be revisited at your next one-on-one session.
You may also want to keep private notes to capture any insights or issues requiring further investigation or action on your part.
16. Adapt to Each Individual
Your team members are individuals, each with their own personalities, interests, and skills. While some best practice guidelines apply to most people, you’ll also need to be willing to adapt your approach to fit the needs of each employee.
Unlike team catch-ups or larger meetings, one-on-ones offer you some flexibility to change the format according to what each person needs from you.
Introverted employees might need you to do more to help them open up and feel comfortable leading the conversation. People with high energy levels might want to turn your virtual meeting into a walking one, where you video call from your phones so you can both take a stroll around the neighborhood while you chat.
Some employees may need more time to focus on personal and professional development, while others might relish the opportunity to share their ideas about the future of the company.
As you develop your relationship with your employees, you’ll get a feel for how each one-on-one needs to be structured to be the most effective for each individual.
Don’t forget you can ask them too. “How can we make the most of this time together?” is a valid and valuable question that will help you adapt each one-on-one to the person you’re speaking with.
Say Thank You!
A small but important point to finish. Just like you, employees have invested their valuable time in attending a one-on-one. End on a positive note by expressing your gratitude for their time, attention, and input.
One-on-ones are one of the most valuable management tools available to build strong and productive teams. With a little practice, the right mindset, and a willingness to put the focus on your employees, you can make your one-on-one meetings effective for both you and your team.