One on one meetings are a recurring time set aside for managers and their direct reports to connect, offer support and feedback, strategize on current projects, vent, and keep each other accountable. They are vitally important to an efficient, effective team and an inclusive, trusting work environment. But how do you ensure these meetings run smoothly every time? Read our nine one on one meeting best practices that will help ensure your one on one meetings are a resounding success.
In a word, yes. One on ones are important—really important.
That’s because one on ones between managers and their direct reports are the building blocks of any great organization. Before anything is a project or a goal, it is a conversation between two people. Time and time again, this conversation takes place in a one on one meeting.
If your one on ones feel like a waste of time, we’re sorry to say, but that means you’re doing them wrong.
For a manager, the one on one meeting is one of the most vital soft skills to master. At WorkPatterns, we’re fond of the saying, “people leave managers, not companies.” According to Gallup’s State of the American Manager Report, “One in two employees have left a job to get away from a manager and improve their overall life at some point in their career.” The report goes on to note that “Having a bad manager is often a one-two punch: Employees feel miserable while at work, and that misery follows them home, compounding their stress and putting their well-being in peril.”
Don’t be that manager. A one on one is where you build a relationship with each member of your team. It’s where you get to know and trust each other, offer career coaching, discover and build intrinsic motivation, strategize on projects, and it’s a safe space for both of you to offer constructive feedback. It’s where you let your direct report know that you’re not an ogre trying to micromanage or belittle them—you’re there to help them succeed in their career in whatever way you can.
📚 For more insight into a manager’s role, read our manager's guide to one on one meetings.
For a direct report, the relationship with your manager is THE MOST IMPORTANT one you have in your career at any given time. Like all relationships, it takes work. Don’t like your manager? Don’t trust your manager? That’s unfortunate, but completely dismissing the relationship won’t serve you. Invest in building a constructive relationship during your one on one meetings by being present and attentive and seeking to understand your manager’s communication preferences, work habits, and idiosyncrasies.
📚 For more insight into a direct report’s role, read our employee’s guide to one on one meetings.
Let’s dig into the best practices for one on one meetings so that you can ensure, whether you’re a manager or a direct report, you rock your 1:1s from here on out.
As a manager, illustrate the importance of one on one meetings by making them a priority. Both parties must show up prepared, on time, and attentive—and that starts with the manager.
According to Gallup’s report, “Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores.” Your engagement and follow through have a direct impact on that of your team’s. Demonstrate how essential one on one meetings are by taking them seriously.
If something comes up, make sure the meeting is rescheduled. Don’t give your team the impression a one on one is something that can be skipped. If you do, it negates the meeting’s importance. Make time for 1:1 meetings, and never let one fall by the wayside.
A meeting cadence simply refers to how frequently meetings occur. A cadence could be daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, or yearly.
A consistent meeting cadence is essential to an efficient and effective team. When a one on one meeting lacks a reliable cadence, it’s easy for an employee to feel nervous or suspicious if their manager requests to meet with them privately out of the blue. Did they do something wrong? Are they in trouble? But if your direct report expects the meeting, there’s little to worry about. They know what the meeting is about, why it’s important, and what to expect.
Assess how often you need to meet based on the needs of each employee, and don’t be shy about asking them how often they feel you should meet. For one on one meetings, we generally recommend setting a biweekly cadence, but it’s up to you based on the current needs of your team.
Regardless of what you decide is right for each team member, figure out what the right cadence is, and stick to it. Don’t constantly reschedule. Sometimes rescheduling is unavoidable, but defaulting to that on a regular basis doesn’t send a good message. If something can be rescheduled and moved around on a whim, it’s clearly not a priority—and this is exactly the opposite of how you want your direct reports to view one on ones.
📆 Learn how to choose the right meeting cadence for your 1:1 meetings.
Along with having a consistent cadence, your one on ones should have a consistent structure. This way, both parties know exactly what to expect and can prepare accordingly.
How much or how little structure will vary by organization. At a baseline, make sure each attendee (especially the direct report) knows what they are expected to bring to the meeting. What should they be prepared to discuss?
It’s a good idea to begin your one on one meetings with a temperature check. How is the direct report feeling? Have there been any pain points recently? How can you support them? Assure your direct report that you’re on their side, affirm their perspective, and recognize any recent wins.
Next, move on to their goals both large and small. What progress are they making? What’s the next step? Make sure to break the goals down and create action items. Record these action items to ensure you accurately remember what they are and to keep your team members accountable when you meet next.
However you choose to structure your meetings, ensure that structure remains consistent. If you determine the structure should change based on feedback from your direct report, adjust accordingly, but by and large, keep the structure reliable so that everyone knows what to expect.
A meeting agenda is vital to a successful meeting. A meeting agenda outlines the nature of the meeting, its goals, discussion topics, and talking points. The agenda provides a structure that enables the team members attending the meeting to get on the same page about what is expected of them.
The most effective meeting agendas are collaborative. Before your one on one meeting, share the agenda with your direct report and ask them if there’s anything they would like to add. What’s on their mind? As Andy Grove says in his book, High Output Management, one on one meetings “...should be regarded as the subordinate’s meeting, with its agenda and tone set by [them].”
What is your direct report looking to get out of the meeting? Do they want to focus on career coaching? Do they need help with a pain point on their current project? Or do they just really need to vent?
What are you hoping to get from the meeting? Add these points to the agenda, and share it with your direct report. Lead by example here. Add items throughout the week as they come up. Slack/MS Team threads, which should be actual face-to-face conversations, are a great source of inspiration here.
📚 Learn how to build an effective meeting agenda template.
Don’t get down to business right away. Utilize the one on one meeting to build rapport with your teammates. Regardless of whether you’re the manager or the direct report, you’re both people with family, friends, hobbies, dreams, and an avid interest in pizza. (Okay, maybe not that last one, but who doesn’t like pizza🍕)?
One of the best ways to build rapport with someone is to bond over shared interests like sports, movies, cooking, and what have you. Break the ice by asking questions and actively listening to your direct report. Say you discover they’re a huge Star Wars fan. What’s their favorite episode? Why? Who is their favorite character? If they could have any color of lightsaber, what would they choose? What ship do they most want to fly?
Once you know their interests, follow up about them at the beginning of each meeting. This is important for direct reports to do as well. It sets a comfortable, casual tone that allows you both to let your guard down.
One on ones won’t be productive if the direct report has any reason to be suspicious of their manager’s intentions. Trust is the most fundamental part of any healthy relationship, which is why building a connection with a manager and with each team member is so important. Trust only comes after building a friendly, comfortable rapport.
Begin each meeting by breaking the ice so that both of you can feel at ease.
📚 Learn more about building rapport in one on one meetings.
If your one on one agenda is consistently a blank Google Doc, which is definitely NOT a best practice for a collaborative agenda, the odds are that ‘get to know you’ questions probably aren’t going to warm the relationship up. Each of your team members has their own unique communication preferences, and some are more willing to open up than others.
If your direct report is shy and having difficulty with proactively adding to the collaborative agenda, bring in something they can help you work through in real-time. Solving a problem together and seeking the advice of your direct report is another way to break the ice and build a strong rapport. It shows you respect the team member and value their insight and skills.
Over time, and with plenty of affirmation, your direct report may begin to open up and let you in on their long-term goals and dreams. The mutual respect you build through problem solving together will demonstrate to the employee that you’re someone they can trust and learn from.
📚 Learn more about building trust in the workplace.
The one on one is the ideal environment to discuss the direct report’s long-term career goals as well as their personal and professional development. What do they want from their career? How are they hoping to advance within the business? Are they interested in being a manager one day? Break down these big goals into small steps the employee can take right now. How can you facilitate their professional development?
Now, do you need to discuss the direct report’s career development and long-term career goals at every meeting? Probably not. But it is very important to check up on these goals and the steps the employee is taking regularly.
Set reminders to address things that don’t need to be addressed on a weekly basis. With WorkPatterns, you can set a discussion topic to automatically recur every X weeks/months, so you can set the topic once and not worry about forgetting.
Every one on one meeting must end with clear action items, and these need to be followed up on to ensure accountability. What concrete action can the direct report take in the next week toward their long-term career goal? What’s the first project task they are going to tackle after the meeting?
What are the action items coming out of the meeting? Is there anything the direct report or manager needs to accomplish? Should this be completed before the next meeting or is more time needed? Are tasks clearly defined? Who will follow up?
It’s important that both the manager and direct report are crystal clear on the actions that need to be taken after the meeting. If a meeting ends without action items, the meeting was a failure.
👉 WorkPatterns automates meeting summaries, provides a spot to take notes in real-time, and captures next steps as action items.
Capture notes from the meeting, but don’t worry about writing everything down word-for-word. It’s important to actively listen during a one on one meeting, so when you’re taking notes, capture the gist of what’s being said and anything you want to remember for next time, but keep the focus on being present and attentive.
Both parties should review their notes before the next meeting to refresh their memory of what was discussed and to get in the right mindset. Notes are invaluable, but only if you use them.
📚 Learn how to take great meeting notes.
Do - Promptly reschedule a one on one meeting if something comes up.
Don’t - Skip one on one meetings when you’re busy.
Do - Collaborate with the direct report on a meeting agenda.
Don’t - Create and manage the meeting agenda by yourself.
Do - Open the meeting with light ice breakers and rapport building.
Don’t - Get straight to business.
Do - Take clear notes of what took place during the meeting.
Don’t - Write down every single thing that was said word-for-word.
Do - Refresh your memory on the events of the last meeting before your next one begins.
Don’t - Go into a one on one without referring to your notes first.
Do - Work together and follow up on action items.
Don’t - Forget about action items until the next meeting rolls around.
Do - Provide constructive feedback and promote a continuous improvement mindset.
Don’t - Use feedback as an opportunity to blame or insult others.
Do - Collect feedback on how the meetings are going, including cadence and meeting time.
Don’t - Assume the other person is happy with the one on one meeting structure—ask.
WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. Our platform helps managers, as well as employees, have effective one on one meetings every time with transparent scheduling, collaboration, and intentional goal-setting. Schedule and structure your one on one meetings with WorkPatterns so that nothing is forgotten and every next step is clear.
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