How to Have Better One-on-One Meetings

A one on one notepad sits on a table next to a black planner, a phone, and a black pen.

Regular one-on-one meetings are key to building a relationship between managers and their teams. 

They are opportunities to have honest and open dialogue, identify areas of growth, solve problems, and perhaps most important, develop a relationship built on trust and communication.

While most teams have some sort of regular, individualized check-in structure in place, research shows that there’s a disconnect between managers and employees around how effective one-on-one meetings are. While 78% of managers tend to leave one-on-ones feeling more motivated, only 58% of employees say that they feel the same way. 

When one-on-one meetings are run well, employees report feeling that they have a safe space where they can communicate openly and honestly with their manager, they have a clear sense of next steps and action items, and they may have gotten solutions to problems.

After a poorly run one-on-one though, employees report things like feeling micromanaged, undervalued, or like their time has been wasted with a conversation with no clear point or outcome.

So how can you take your one-on-one meetings to the next level and ensure that both attendees walk away feeling satisfied with the outcome? Here are strategies to help.

Set a meeting schedule and stick to it

The first step to having a great one-on-one meeting is to put it on the calendar. 

Create a recurring event at the cadence that works best for your team — whether weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Once that date and time is set, it’s important that both parties do the best they can to stick to the schedule. Of course, some conflicts are unavoidable, but if that happens, be sure to reschedule as soon as possible.

As an employee, nothing can sting worse than your boss repeatedly canceling your one-on-ones. Though it might not be the intention, not sticking to a consistent schedule communicates that the employee is not valued, that the meeting is a waste of time, or that the manager has more important things to do.

As a manager, remember that we find the time for the things that we deem important, so if you are finding yourself “too busy” to attend your one-on-one meetings, think about the message that’s sending to your team and work to identify areas where you could perhaps delegate or reassess priorities to make the time. (We love the Priority Pad to help assess what areas are getting undue attention.)

Have an agenda

Set your one-on-one meeting up for success before you even sit down together by creating an agenda. 

Create a shared agenda through a digital tool like Asana, Trello, or Google Docs so both the manager and the employee can edit and view the proposed topics ahead of time so everyone is fully prepared. If you’re not using a virtual tool, make sure that the agenda is shared at least 24 hours in advance so everyone can come prepared for the discussion at hand.

If you are a manager, remember that a one-on-one should be led by your employee, so empower them to drive the majority of the agenda. Your role here is to provide guidance, help them problem solve, and identify areas of growth.

If you’re setting up a one-on-one agenda for the first time, this is a great opportunity to encourage your employee to take control of the meeting by setting up a clear structure for the flow of the meeting. Here is a good example for how you might structure a 45-minute meeting:

  • 20 minutes: Topics from employee’s agenda (including giving feedback and discussing solutions)
  • 10 minutes: Discuss progress toward long-term goals and growth opportunities
  • 10 minutes: Manager’s updates
  • 5 minutes: Wrap up, review and agree on next steps

Remember, even though you have an official agenda, one-on-one meetings don’t need to be strictly business! The purpose of these meetings is to develop a meaningful relationship that’s built on trust and communication. So we highly recommend taking a couple minutes in the beginning of the meeting to share some (appropriate) details from your personal life — that new recipe you just tried, how your dog is doing, the book you just finished, etc. You are meeting with a real human being with interests and passions outside of the scope of their job, and the one-on-one meeting is a really great place to discover those things and foster connections. 

Be fully present and minimize distractions

Just as it’s important to make sure that you stick to your scheduled one-on-one meeting times, how you behave in those meetings is also crucial.

Again, this is an opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship and open dialogue between team members, so regardless of whether you are the manager or the employee, make sure you are giving the conversation your full attention. That means silencing your phone, turning off notifications, and avoiding opening your laptop to minimize distractions. 

Even having your laptop open to take notes can be distracting — we’ve all been there when an “urgent” email has popped up, causing us to say, “Hold on one second, I have to answer this,” and then spending the next 10 minutes of a 30-minute meeting responding to someone else about an entirely different concern. Both managers and employees *should* be taking notes though, and that’s why the Executive Notebook is our favorite meeting accessory — it’s sleek, stylish, and large enough to capture even the biggest picture conversations. 

The other thing that’s important to keep in mind is *where* you’re meeting. If you’re sitting at a desk in the middle of an open floor plan, or in a glass-walled conference room in the middle of all of your colleagues, it may not be the best environment to foster personal and meaningful discussions. Instead, try booking a conference room on a different floor from the rest of your team, or even going out for a walk or coffee together to extricate yourself from your normal environment.

Let the employee drive the conversation

When it comes to one-on-one meetings, these are really for the employee’s benefit. That’s why the employee should be the ones setting the agenda. It’s also why they should be the ones driving the conversation.

If you are the employee, begin the meeting by sharing your updates, questions, and concerns. What are you proud of that you’ve accomplished in the last week? What are you working on this week? Where do you need some support? What do you want to discuss?

If you are a manager, it’s important that your responses to questions and concerns stay away from the “This is what you should do…” variety and instead turn these moments into coaching opportunities. Listen first, then talk.

Here are some open-ended questions managers can and should ask to spark more meaningful conversations and to help their employee grow:

  • What challenges are you facing? 
  • Where are you stuck?
  • What changes could we make to help you optimize your day?
  • Do you have any suggestions for ways we could improve how we work together?
  • What keeps you engaged and inspired at work?
  • What part of your job do you feel is most relevant to your long-term goals?
  • How are you progressing on your goals? Do you need any help?
  • What are some experiences you have enjoyed recently?
  • What are some skills you would like to develop or experiences you would like to gain?
  • How can I support you better?

Wrap up with action items and next steps

A successful one-on-one meeting should end with clear next steps and action items for both the manager and the employee. Make sure you’re both on the same page about what’s going to happen, who’s responsible for it, and when it will be completed by. (We love the For Me, For You notepad for this!)

As a manager, try to avoid dictating deadlines unless *absolutely* necessary. Instead, empower your employee to set realistic deadlines and milestones for themselves (that you agree with, of course!), coaching them through it and clarifying your expectations, if needed.

As an employee, be honest about your bandwidth and try to avoid setting yourself up for failure by agreeing to unrealistic timelines. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take this opportunity to ask your manager for help prioritizing your workload.

And then? Follow up! These next steps aren’t one-and-dones to never be revisited again. Make time in your next one-on-one to discuss where you are and what progress has been made.

With small adjustments and the right tools, you can make every one-on-one meeting an opportunity for connection and growth. We can’t wait to see how much more you accomplish with more productive and effective meetings!

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