Effective 1-on-1 Meetings

How to Have Effective 1-on-1 Meetings With Your Direct Reports

There are a lot of ways to think about holding effective 1-on-1 meetings with the people on your teams. New leaders often hem and haw over how to get this just right.

However, the most important things to keep in mind about effective 1-on-1 meetings are often overlooked.

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The Secret to Having Effective 1-on-1 Meetings

effective 1-on-1 meetings

Have Regular 1-on-1 Meetings

I have to start at the beginning here because it’s simply not the case that all managers are holding regular 1-on-1 meetings. This is a cardinal sin. 1-on-1 meetings are quiet, focused collaboration time for employees and bosses to connect.

It’s also the most important chance for you to hear from your employee, and it’s their time, not yours. As a senior or junior manager, you must create the space for this.

I’ve historically held my 1-on-1 meetings for one hour every week and had a high bar for canceling or rescheduling. Currently, my marketing director and I have our 1-on-1 meetings every other week for an hour.

The reason for bi-weekly versus weekly is that we work very closely together — literally a couple of feet from each other — all day every day, and we just don’t need to carve out that formal time every single week.

But, if they wanted the 1-on-1 meetings to be an hour every week, I would respect that request, and adjust my schedule to accommodate her needs, no questions asked.

Listen to our 1-on-1 meetings podcast episode >>

Be On Time for Your 1-on-1 Meetings

How to have effective 1-on-1 Meetings

The 1-on-1 meeting is really not your time, Ms. Manager… it’s their time. Being late is disrespectful. Constantly prioritizing “something else” — email, other meetings, etc. suggests that this particular 1-on-1 meeting is not as important to you as these other things.

Remember, as a manager, in many ways, you represent the company to the employee.

Think about the message that you and the company are sending to someone that their time is not that important to you. How do you think this will affect their engagement? (hint: not well)

Change the 1-on-1 Meeting Setting

Occasionally, go for a walk and have your 1-on-1 meetings. Occasionally, go get coffee. Go sit in the courtyard. Get lunch or breakfast or dinner.

Most often, it’s probably easiest and most efficient to grab or schedule a room and get right into it. Every once in a while, though, offer to change the setting.

Think of it as a chance to interact with your team member more as a human being than as just the stodgy old boss.

It’s OK to Cancel Your 1-on-1 Meetings … Sometimes

“If there’s nothing to discuss, it’s ok to cancel. People, too often, view 1-on-1 meetings as mandatory, but it’s refreshing when you both acknowledge that things are OK for now, or the time may be better spent other ways… and you can do this as long as you both agree not to take a request to cancel personally.” — Ben Saitz, Chief Customer Officer at RocketFuel.

Cancel occasionally, when you both agree, but beware not to do this regularly. See Have Them above.

Two Ears, One Mouth

How to have effective 1-on-1 Meetings

They own the agenda… mostly

There is a reason you were given two ears to hear and one mouth to speak. You learn a heck of a lot more listening than talking. Use this as your guide to having effective 1-on-1 meetings.

I think it’s pretty important that your employee owns the agenda. You might set some guidelines for things that you request to be in the agenda. Then again, you might not.

An example of something that you might request is a regular update on their OKRs, KPIs, etc., and maybe you’ll ask that they communicate any blockers that you might be able to help with. Not crazy.

But I think the idea that your employee owns the agenda is a simple, symbolic practice that helps them feel ownership and autonomy for their work and their time.

You’re saying, “You tell me what’s important,” and of course, you can coach and guide them to help refine over time what’s important. Remember that Steve Jobs said: “We hire people to tell us what to do, not the other way around.”

Have a Shared 1-on-1 Meetings Doc

I like the idea of using a Google Doc, or other shared doc, for a few reasons:

  1. A shared doc is easily accessible pretty much everywhere – across devices, even without a network connection if you choose the “Available offline” option.
  2. A shared doc is a great way to capture action items, what’s said, what’s decided, what’s due, etc. to help us remember these important things amid our busy-as-hell lives.
  3. A shared doc enables manager preparation – just because your employee is driving the agenda, doesn’t mean you need to be surprised! You could agree that the agenda is developed an hour or two in advance and take time to see what’s coming and prep.
  4. It allows you to keep a running archive of 1-on-1 meetings content that could come in handy down the line for any number of reasons.

3 High-Leverage Agenda Items for Effective 1-on-1 Meetings

How to have effective 1-on-1 Meetings

While the specific agenda items for a 1-on-1 meeting should be set by your employee, it’s still OK to help structure the agenda to make the time as productive as possible. Many junior employees may be unsure as to what they should cover in the 1-on-1 meetings. Here are some topics to consider working into your 11-on-1 meetings:


While I don’t recommend using a 1-on-1 meeting for simple work status updates (those can easily be accomplished via email), it is entirely appropriate to include “Progress toward goals” as a standing agenda item in a 1-on-1 meeting. Y

our team member has quarterly goals — ie KPIs or OKRs — that are closely tied to the goals of the team and the company, and it’s very productive to understand the results that your team member is achieving.

In the spirit, though, of allowing the employee to own the agenda, give him or her the autonomy to tee up the discussion and prioritize the specific items to cover. That week might be all good news, or maybe that week there’s a blocker that they need help with. Perhaps the employee just wants some advice on a problem they are working through.

Be there to support them in the achievement of their goals and enable them to determine how you do that.

Career Development

We have developed a very robust Career Conversation methodology. Once a Career Action Plan is developed, allow space in the 1-on-1 meetings to talk about and follow up on action items.

Making this a habit like brushing and flossing will mean that you are investing in your folks in a differentiated way.

Kevin Sheridan says in his LinkedIn post about the Top 3 Reasons Employees Quit, “[Managers] do not regularly meet with their direct reports to discuss Career Development, Learning, and Promotion Opportunities.”

Regular investment in growth and development helps everyone — helps your employees grow toward their dreams, helps the team and company improve, and helps your relationship with your employees.

Feedback: Get It, Don’t Give it

effective 1-on-1 meetings and solicit feedback

The 1-on-1 meeting is not the place for the manager to give feedback to the employee. That’s not a typo. Recall that we favor short bursts — a few minutes — of feedback given immediately after the specific situation or event.

Instead, think about the 1-on-1 meeting as a chance to get feedback from your employees. If you want to build a culture of feedback, the best place to start is here.

Follow our steps to get people to open up and prove you can take and that you value tough feedback: ask your go-to question, stay silent until your employee has the chance to answer, listen with the intent to understand not cross-examine, and then reward the candor.

Radical Candor author and co-founder Kim Scott uses another approach, which can substitute or complement the above. She asks her direct reports to structure their 1-on-1 meeting agendas by answering these questions:

  1. What’s on your mind this week?
  2. How happy were you this past week?
  3. How productive were you this past week?
  4. What feedback do you have for me?

For the record, Ben, quoted above, also favors an open-ended question style for his 1-on-1 meetings. Questions are a great way to help guide your employee’s thinking about the 1-on-1 meeting agenda.

But, I’ve found that when working with more senior employees, it also works well to leave it entirely up to them and trust that they’ll prioritize the appropriate agenda items.

So remember, supercharge your 1-on-1 meetings with your employees by making sure you have them, using the time to listen and learn what is important to your employees, and giving your employees ownership of the agenda (with some guidance on key topics to cover).


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Russ is the vice president of people at Qualtrics. Prior to joining Qualtrics he held various roles at Google, Twitter, and was a co-founder and COO of Candor, Inc. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School.