The Managers’ Simple Guide to a Successful One-on-One Meeting

One-on-one meetings between managers and employees are critical—it’s proven. Of course, it’s important to encourage good communication between all the people in an organization, but if you ask employees ten questions about engagement, seven of their answers will point to a manager as the reason why they are or aren’t engaged. That’s the takeaway from a Gallup poll on engagement—and it means that managers are far and away the biggest influencers of engagement in the workplace. So, if manager-employee communication is the most important of all, it’s important that when you have a one-on-one with an employee, you do it right. Their engagement hinges on it.

Preparing for One-on-Ones

The first thing any manager should do when initiating one-on-ones is have a plan. That means not only a plan for what you’re going to talk about in the meetings, but also a plan for when and how you’ll conduct the meetings as well. There are great reasons for both: internal structure ensures you’ll cover all the points you need to cover and makes it easier to follow up on points in subsequent encounters, while a planned schedule reduces the “principal’s office” stress employees feel when meetings occur spontaneously. It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. planning could be as simple as inviting each employee to a recurring monthly check-in, and structure can (and often does) take the form of a spreadsheet, with columns dedicated to current topics, past issues, and long-term goals.

Conducting a Successful One-on-One

Likely the most crucial element to any one-on-one is the approach taken by the manager. Power dynamics, unconscious biases, and ulterior motives can prevent the kind of open communication essential to a productive conversation. In The State of One-on-ones Report from Soapbox, one manager explains, “My actions and behaviours set the boundaries for what you think is acceptable during our 1:1s. If I want you to be vulnerable, I have to be vulnerable first.” It’s essential that managers set the proper stage, use the right language when delivering feedback, and ask for answers that will encourage openness.

Before meetings even begin, it should be clear that one-on-ones have no impact on promotions or raises. This clarification minimizes any attempts to garner favor or “play cards right” to achieve career goals.

In giving feedback, managers should offer personal observations rather than conclusions, and they should ask for confirmation and interpretation on behalf of the employee to avoid a judgment that lacks context. When asking for feedback, managers should avoid leading questions and ask how employees feel, rather than asking for a rating or other definitive response.

Want more tips for successful one-on-ones? Download our free ebook, The Employee 1-on-1 Checklist.

Download Now

It’s also important for managers to create stronger connections with their employees, and that means one-on-ones shouldn’t focus exclusively on the employee and their work. There should also be some time devoted to simply catching up at a personal level, whether that’s about family, hobbies, recent events, or what you’re planning for the weekend. As regular check-ins continue and employees begin to feel comfortable that these meetings are constructive rather than critical, they may start to reveal how they really feel about their work and the organization. That’s when progress begins to happen.

Ensuring Progress Happens

In order to track the effects of your one-on-ones, it’s important to have a record of the previous meeting and a target for your next meeting. That’s why setting goals, recording impressions, and following up on key points should all be part of your one-on-one agenda.

If you can incorporate these three elements, you’ll be able to see whether your efforts at improving communication and engagement are working or not, and have a good idea of your team’s overall morale when speaking about them with your leaders. And if you aren’t having regular one-on-ones with the person you report to, this is the best reason to start—because going through a year’s worth of employee concerns, goals, and achievements in one sitting would be quite a chore. Managers at every level from the C-suite on down can follow the same advice in this article, incorporating additional time specifically to address concerns from their employee’s direct reports.

In a recent ebook partnership with 15Five, we created a checklist for managers to follow when conducting one-on-one meetings with employees. You can download that ebook here and discover even more ways to ensure your regular check-ins are rewarding for you and your people.