In this guide you’ll learn:
Why one on ones are important
Frequency and duration one on one meeting best practices
How to create a space of trust and open communication in your one on ones
Best practices for managers to follow before, during, and after one on one meetings
The one on one meeting is one of the most important soft skills mastered by great managers. After all, the now popularized saying goes: people leave managers, not companies. In the highly regarded book ‘High Output Management” by Andy Grove, when describing how to conduct one-on-one meetings with your employees, Mr Grove says:
“A key point about a one-on-one: It should be regarded as the subordinate’s meeting, with its agenda and tone set by him.” - Andy Grove
So while the spirit of the one-on-one being “the subordinate’s meeting” makes sense, managers who take this too literally would be making a mistake. Managers are responsible for providing structure to the meeting and having systems in place for follow up and accountability. Not just for the employee but for themselves too.
Whether you are managing people for the first time or are a seasoned manager, the one on one meeting is one facet of your job that will evolve, grow, and improve with practice. In this guide, we break down the nuances and logistics involved, and provide an overarching framework on how to best approach these meetings as a manager. We'll also provide an employee one on one meeting template you can use in WorkPatterns.
What is a one on one meeting?
In its simplest form, the one on one meeting is a recurring time set aside for a manager and one of their direct reports to connect. The content and format will vary depending on the individuals and their respective needs at the time. It can be a straightforward performance check in, a career coaching session, a project strategy session, a venting session, or time to get to know one another better.
Why are one on one meetings important?
Regardless of company size or how close you work together, the one on one is the foundation of the employee manager relationship. This is crucial to the success of the team for a few reasons:
Interpersonal rapport and connection.
Dedicated time outside of the day-to-day provides the space to build a strong working relationship. It gives both parties an opportunity to discuss things that may not surface naturally in conversation otherwise.
Project tracking and feedback.
A one on one offers a chance to raise red flags, discuss blockers, and share feedback in a lower stress context. This helps keep projects on track and gives both individuals time to process and be concise (as opposed to being reactive on the spot). As a manager, it’s your responsibility to provide support to your team and enable them to do their best work.
Document progress against goals.
One of the most frustrating parts of any job is when ongoing discussions lack follow through. Whether that is quarterly objectives or personal development goals, documentation is beneficial. Structure prevents the sentiment of stagnation and serves as a reminder to acknowledge growth. Checking in at a regular cadence provides managers insights into longer term employee goals and how to help them achieve them.
How often should managers have one on one meetings?
Many CEOs will share that one on one meetings should happen at a regular cadence that is baked into the calendar. Once a week is the most common, although once every two weeks or once a month makes sense in some circumstances. When determining what is best for you, here are a few things to consider:
- Can you maintain it in the long run? If you anticipate that once a week is too frequent and might result in rescheduling or canceling, it may be better to have it once every two weeks. Consistency is key for your employees.
- What are the expectations of the employee? Do they want to have more frequent check ins or are they comfortable with touching base every few weeks? This is important. For example, if you do not collaborate directly with the employee on projects, it may be beneficial to check in more often to build rapport and support them. Alternatively, managers that work closely with an employee as part of other project work can have a bi-weekly check in without jeopardizing the manager employee relationship.
- Is there enough to discuss? Like regularly canceling meetings, it can feel like the one on one meeting is pointless if there isn’t much to discuss. While some managers prefer to leave it open ended and play it by ear, we don't recommend that. The meeting needs to be time well spent. Collaborative agendas are a helpful tool for ensuring discussion topics have a home between meetings. But, if there really isn’t enough to discuss weekly, try once every two weeks.
How long should one on one meetings last?
A one on one meeting should feel like it is long enough to bring up a complicated topic without feeling rushed, but short enough that you are not looking to fill the silence. Depending on the size of the team and the nature of your working relationship, here are a few things to consider:
Manager's one on one meeting goals
Is the goal to check in, offer feedback on current projects, and leave it open for the employee to bring other topics up? Scheduling a full hour may be too much if this is the format.
Employee one on one meeting goals
Is this an individual who wants mentorship and professional development opportunities? Limiting the coveted one on one meeting to 30 minutes may feel too rushed in this case.
What's realistic and sustainable?
The important thing about one-on-one’s is the ability to keep it consistent. This establishes a routine, and sets both parties up to know what to expect, so they can respectively get the most from the meeting.
One on one meeting best practices for managers
If you ask anyone who has been working for a few years to tell you about their favorite manager and their least favorite manager, there is always someone that comes to mind for both. More often than not, individuals will experience an “okay” manager. There are no real complaints, but also nothing particularly remarkable.
Once in a while (a few times in their careers), lucky individuals will experience a manager who is truly, truly impactful. Whether it is a manager who served as an incredible mentor, or a manager that shaped their career growth, or a manager who set the bar for empathy--these are the managers that make a difference.
With that preface, this is why a meaningful, impactful one on one meeting is akin to an art form for every manager. Here are some high level recommendations on how to get the most from the meeting:
Before the one on one meeting:
- Set the context. Make sure your direct report knows the purpose of the meeting, what to expect and what to contribute. WorkPatterns enables managers to establish a consistent meeting format across one on ones.
- Mentally prepare. Paint a picture of what a successful meeting looks like. This will be different, but the question to focus on is: what do you hope to get out of the meeting this time?
- Set an agenda. Having an agenda will give structure to the meeting and help keep the meeting from going off track. Shared agendas give both parties the ability to think about discussion topics in advance. It also frees up valuable meeting meetings used to articulate agenda items.
- Create a plan. Having a plan beforehand will allow you to retain a lead on the conversation and prevent you from being caught off guard if something unexpected were to come up.
- Bridge the gap. As a manager, the aim should be to bridge the gap between where your employee is and where they could be. This could be in regards to performance metrics or even interpersonal areas e.g. speaking up more during team discussions.
During the one on one meeting:
Start your one on ones with a temperature check
This is a key habit to develop. A temperature check will give the employee a chance to bring things up that they may not share without prompting. As a manager, it’s very likely that you’re busy and going from meeting to meeting. However, it is important not let your one on one devolve into a transactional experience by jumping right into an agenda. To ensure that this does not come across as small talk or rhetoric, leverage one on one meeting questions like the following:
- How are you feeling?
- What’s on your mind?
- What are you most excited about?
- What are you most worried about?
- Have there been any pain points or frustrations recently?
- How can I better support you?
Create a space of trust
The one on one meeting can be a powerful tool in cultivating morale, inspiring productivity, and motivating growth. To achieve these, it is important that there is a strong sense of trust and a degree of confidentiality/confidence. Keep the following in mind:
- Respect them as a person first, direct report second. It is implicit that you are the manager. Empathy will go a long way and approaching your employee on a human level will be felt inherently. This will be the foundation of the “trust” sentiment.
- Assure them you are on their side. Words of affirmation ground a person’s mentality when they feel stressed, worn out, or frustrated. It isn’t realistic to expect no problems throughout the entirety of someone’s career. As a manager, your employees should be able to come to you when they encounter a problem they cannot solve. This will happen if they know you are on their team.
- Affirm perspective. If an employee leaves the meeting feeling as if they are not heard, or feel dismissed, it will damage the employee manager relationship. Taking some time to affirm the things they bring up is a good practice. Before jumping to respond with advice or feedback, validate what they are saying by reiterating the problem. It let's them know you listened while ensuring your interpretation is accurate.“I hear you.” “I can see why you feel that way.”
- Ask about morale. This is often overlooked, yet it is one of the most critical topics that should be brought up during a one-on-one. Every single meeting does not need to have a thorough discussion on morale. Yet, many employees will not vocalize it first if they are feeling down. A proactive approach prevents minor issues from spiraling into irreparable discontent.
Recognize wins, big and small
This is easier for some managers than others. Giving recognition or expressing thanks. It does not feel natural to everyone, but a little goes a long way. Instead of saving the acknowledgement for the big wins only (breaking sales records, promotions, etc.), try getting into a habit of recognizing small wins as well. Here are some ideas on where you can offer recognition and make your employees feel appreciated:
- When they are ahead of schedule or exceeding expectations for a project milestone e.g. you’re doing an incredible job getting through x, y, z
- When they handled a difficult situation well e.g. that was a hard situation to navigate and you knocked it out of the park, I’m very impressed
- When they volunteer outside of their usual scope of work e.g. It didn’t go unnoticed that you spearheaded the training for the new hires, thank you for doing that
- When they are hitting their personal goals e.g. you’re on track to reach that bonus, keep it up!
Review long term goals first
Although this might feel redundant, make it a practice to review long term goals first. Touch upon it briefly or reference existing goals in WorkPatterns to set the tone and the context for the next part of the conversation.
This is also great if there are any major blockers that are putting the long term goals at risk. It allows you to give feedback in an objective manner, leveraging the long term goals as the context. Additionally, this sets up the conversation to move into the next important topic: short term goals.
Make sure that short term projects are achievable
This is a delicate balancing act, especially as circumstances change and new variables show up. The purpose of setting benchmarks is so a large, overarching project or goal is more achievable and not overwhelming. In a one on one meeting, part of your responsibility as a manager is to gage whether or not the short term projects are feasible. If they aren't, it's your job to pinpoint why and offer solutions.
Hitting milestones creates momentum and traction which builds the confidence needed to tackle larger goals. On the flip side, if short term projects are too ambitious, it can feed burnout and low morale.
Create action items
Depending on the discussion topics, it is a best practice to wrap the conversation with action items for yourself and your direct report. This is best done before transitioning to the next agenda item. It’s worth mentioning that this should not feel like extra work for either party. Simply convert the discussion topic to an action item from your meeting workspace.
For example, if one of the takeaways is skill development e.g. time management needs work, the action item could be to schedule a training to help optimize the employee’s day to day. This is a stark contrast to asking the employee to send a breakdown of where they feel they are spending the most time in a day or week. Sending out a calendar invite is a simpler action item.
After the one on one meeting:
Treat each one on one meeting the way you would a client meeting. Take coaching notes where possible and file it away for the future. Ideally, you are building a long, healthy relationship with your employee where coaching will come into play at some point.
In addition to coaching notes, take personal notes for yourself on what went well and what didn’t go well. The Private Notes section of your one on one workspace is purpose-built for this. Reflecting on the meeting will allow you to improve your future one on ones.
Lastly, follow up even if it is a short note or a comment in WorkPatterns. This will close the communication loop and give the employee a channel to respond if they had anything they thought of after the meeting.
Start having better One on One Meetings with WorkPatterns
WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. We’re dedicated to improving workplace relationships, empowering teams to work more effectively, transparently, and enjoyably together.