One-on-One Meetings (A manager's guide)

Posted by Luke Thomas
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One-on-ones are a fantastic way for managers, directors, and executives to build stronger teams. This simple process can help you build rapport, help uncover issues before they become a big deal, and build productive working relationships with your direct reports.

This is the most comprehensive guide to one-on-ones you will find – we’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started. I've also recorded a video version below:

If you’re new to 1:1s, or are looking for a refresher to make sure you’re on the right track, this guide is for you. If you are an employee, we've created a team member guide you should check out.

Quick Note: This post was inspired by the excellent Manager Tools book (we have their permission to publish this summary). If you’re a manager, you need to check out their blog as well.

If you'd like to read more about where a one on one originated, check out High Output Management. It's where this idea was first introduced by Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel and is literally the best book we've ever read on management. 

[June 2020 Update] We wrote this post back in 2016 and have changed our perspective on the format of 1-1 meetings a bit since then. You can read more in this post. We've retained the rest of this post because it highlights the current best practice advice which is still relevant!

Your role as a manager is important

First, it’s important to recognize how important you are to an organization’s health. According to Gallup, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.

Also, 50% of employees have quit a job because of their manager. There’s a clear correlation between a great manager and employee retention.

Finally, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them. Put simply, how you communicate as a manager is a key way to make work better. That’s why one-on-ones are so important.

How do one-on-ones work?

One-on-ones are scheduled meetings (typically every week) that you have with each of your direct reports to check-in and see how everything is going. These are typically about 30 minutes in length. The manager’s job is to listen, ask probing questions, and uncover ways to improve. Let’s discuss the building blocks below:

1.) Scheduled

These meetings should be a recurring meeting on your calendar, not an ad-hoc event that you decide to do when you have enough time. By making this a weekly occurrence (and putting it on your calendar), you’re sending a signal to each employee that they matter. It also helps craft a culture of 

Think of these meetings like going to the gym (or building another habit). If you’re trying to get the team to give you more honest feedback, is it reasonable to expect that they will do this effectively on the first week?

Probably not.

Likewise, it takes time to create a feedback culture. You should focus on consistency, the results will come over time.

2.) Everyone on your team

1-1s are for everyone you manage, not only the top performers. If you hold a meeting with certain employees and not others, you’re sending a signal that only a few people are worth your time. This may increase engagement with the people that you meet with, but will destroy morale with the people you don’t meet with.

This is by far the most important building block of a success one on one. Schedule these meetings with every person on your team.

3.) ~30 Minutes

Next, the length of the meeting matters. If it’s too short, you won’t get the feedback you need. If the meeting is too long, you won’t want to schedule it because it takes too long. That’s why we recommend you keep these meetings around thirty minutes in length.

Certain employees will want to talk more than others, so this may require periodically running over the allotted time, especially if you’re discussing something important. Thirty-minute meetings is rule of thumb, not a hard-fast requirement. 

We strongly recommend that each employee create an agenda of items that they want to talk about beforehand.

4.) Personalized

Don’t hold one on one meetings in public spaces. Certain employees may fear giving the most honest feedback because other people on the team can overhear them. If you have an office, hold the meetings there.

If you manage a remote team, we recommend using Google hangouts or Skype by default. It’s easier to interpret body language compared to a phone call.

5.) Ask Questions

1-1s are a meeting where the employee sets the agenda, not you. This isn’t a performance review, but instead, it’s a time to ask questions, listen, and coach. Typically we see managers kick-off these meetings by asking “how’s everything going?”

We recommend that you enter these meetings acting like a detective. It’s your job to collect feedback and improve – even if things are going smashingly well, you can still find ways to improve as a manager and become more productive.

The only way to discover these insights is by asking questions. We recommend asking a few questions before you hold the meeting - it gives people time to think about what they'd like to talk about instead of putting them on the spot in real-time.

Questions to ask

If you use Friday, you can try this cadence for free. You could setup a weekly check-in and generate a report to use in 1-1 meetings.

6.) Take Notes

Finally, one on ones require note-taking by the manager. It’s widely documented that taking handwritten notes helps boost retention. There’s also a few softer reasons at play. If you sit behind a computer, there’s a chance you could get distracted by a Slack message or email.

Employees know this too. Handwritten notes also is a signal to others that you’re focusing on them and it implies a commitment. When someone takes notes in a meeting, it’s an active signal that they are interested in what you have to say.

Finally, notes is a great way to remember things for later. Especially if there are action-items that develop from the one on one.

What are the benefits?

There are a plethora of benefits to these meetings, which we’ve outlined below. If I could summarize, they are great way to get to know your team on a personal and professional basis. These meetings give you insights and help you create a unique employee experience for every member of your team.

1.) Build better relationships

The first benefit is that it empowers you to get to know your team on a personal level. In this meetings you can uncover what motivates each employee, what their career aspirations are, and how you can empower them to do their best work.

If you manage a team of several people, it’s easy to spend more time with people you naturally get along with. It’s also competition for time and attention. If you don’t set time aside to specifically get to know each employee through one on ones, it’s a surefire way to unknowingly play favorites.

2.) Catch Potential Problems

No team is perfect, and a byproduct of working with others is that interpersonal issues pop-up. A benefit of a one on one is that you can discover these much faster than you could through other mechanisms.

We see two key contributors at play. First, if you schedule a weekly meeting, the cadence enables you to discover small issues before they become a big deal. While a lot can happen in a week, many major problems stem from a small issue growing over weeks (or months).

Secondly, the private nature of these meetings means there’s little fear of what others might think (compared to a weekly staff meetings). It's just you and your direct report.

3.) Discuss/diagnose performance

1:1 meetings are also a great place to address performance issues. Once again, due to the frequent cadence, you can talk about performance without waiting for performance review season. It’s a great way to talk things through earlier than the annual review.

4.) Recognize great work

If one on ones have a constant negative vibe to them, you’re doing them wrong. While you should be able to point out negative behavior and course-correct, these meetings are also a great time to say thank you for the extra effort an employee is putting in. Don’t forget to say thanks – it’s something managers don’t do enough.

How to format the 1-1 meeting

If you’re new to one on ones, we’re going to keep this as simple as possible. The most important meeting is the one you have. If you go into these meetings with too much complexity, you won’t end up doing them. That’s why we recommend keeping the meeting simple by following the structure below:

1.) Their Update

If you’re a manager, typically these meetings start off by asking “how’s everything going?” In the first fifteen minutes, ask questions that dig deeper into how they are feeling about their work, their teammates, and whatever else they’d like to talk about.

In this section, you can uncover what motivates each employee. Make sure to take notes as this will help you craft an employee experience that maximizes everyone’s strengths.

Pro-tip: ask for an 1-1 agenda beforehand. It will help the meeting go much more smoothly.

2.) Your Update

Successful one on ones are not a 1-way conversation, but instead is a dialogue. It’s common for issues to pop-up, and it’s important that you provide context and help them understand why a certain decision was made.

Please note, this is a proposed format, but the important thing is that it’s a conversation where both parties feel like they can be open and honest.

3.) Next steps

In the final five minutes, agree on next steps (if needed). As a manager, this is why taking notes is so important. If an associate brings up an issue or suggestion for improvement, take it to heart and do everything you can in your power to fix it. Also make sure to communicate progress along the way.

If an employee shows vulnerability and brings up an issue that may be tough for them to discuss, it’s your job to do something about it. Make sure you follow through afterwards.

Example 1-1 Meeting Questions

The key to a successful one on one is by asking questions (and follow-up questions). We’ve compiled a list of sample questions you can ask below:

  • How’s work going?
  • How can I help you this upcoming week?
  • What’s the best part of your job?
  • What’s the worst part about your job?
  • What do you think about _________?
  • What the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past week?
  • It doesn’t seem like you’re enjoying ________, what would you rather be doing?
  • It seems like you’re enjoying ________, is this an area of interest for you?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about ________, what would it be?
  • If you were me, what would you change about ________?
  • Who on the team is doing a great job that deserves recognition?

The key is to ask open-ended questions. Dig deeper in every response to uncover motivations and what each associate is passionate about. Make sure to take notes along the way. We wrote a post on 1-1 meeting questions to help you kickstart better conversations.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, one on one meetings may be the most high-impact meeting you have as a manager (especially a new manager). Take advantage of this time to create a strong relationship with each of your colleagues, and learn more about how you can empower them to be successful.

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