How to run a successful and effective one-on-one meeting

What does your employee David want to do with his career in 10 years? What does he like least about his job? And what’s his Siamese cat’s name?

These are all topics that you might be able to answer after a successful one-on-one meeting with David.

Notorious for either being absolutely wonderful, or an awkward waste of time, successful one-on-ones take work. You have to be able to drive the right balance of professional and personal conversation, deliver a combination of criticism and kudos, and decide when it’s time to stop everything and listen.

Read on to learn the benefits of one-on-one meetings, get tips for how to run them successfully, and download one-on-one templates to make your meetings more effective.

What are the benefits of one-on-one meetings?

Many business leaders have sung the praises of the one-on-one meeting. Intel’s Co-founder and former CEO Andy Grove said they can bring managers a 10x return on investment if they’re done correctly. Our CEO at Front Mathilde Collin agrees, saying her one-on-ones are her most impactful meetings each week. So what exactly is it about a well-run one-on-one that is so beneficial to employees, leaders, and businesses overall?

Increasing business alignment

The most obvious benefit of one-on-one meetings is that managers and employees get designated time to align towards larger business goals. Managers can get insight into the work, successes, and challenges their employees are encountering throughout the week. Employees can ask questions to get guidance and stay on track with their goals.

Building personal connections

Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, argues that authenticity and recognition are tightly connected in the workplace.

"…for us to connect with people in an authentic way, we have to see and acknowledge who they are as humans, not just what they do as workers,” Robbins said in a Forbes interview.

One-on-one meetings provide an outlet for employees to open up and show their whole selves at the office. Managers can understand what's going on in their personal lives and how that might impact their work, and employees can feel comfortable to share personal topics in a setting that's appropriate.

Likewise, managers can share what's going on in their lives outside of work. With the full picture of the person you're working with, you can both feel more comfortable and form a closer bond that goes beyond, "What's the status on this project, Shannon?"

Bringing meaning and happiness to work

Delivering happiness is no longer enough for today's employees. Instead, people are also seeking to find meaning in their work to feel fulfilled. One-on-one meetings help employees find meaning in their work by constantly connecting everyday tasks with a broader mission.

Mathilde argues that having an understanding of how you're contributing to a bigger cause makes employees happier and helps boost employee engagement: "I see this at Front where employees credit their high engagement with caring about our mission and understanding how their work impacts that mission."

Boosting employee retention

With increased employee engagement comes increased retention. In other words, if your team understands how their work impacts your business, it's likely that they'll be happier and want to continue working at your company. Cutting down on employee turnover helps cultivate company culture, boosts morale, and benefits your bottom line because you're avoiding the high costs of hiring new employees.

How to run a successful and effective one-on-one meeting

People spend from 35 to 50 percent of their time at work in meetings. How can you run one-on-ones that get straight into meaningful topics? Below are some of the guidelines that managers at Front follow:

1. Religiously make the time

This is your employee’s time for access to management and leadership to discuss their present and future with the company. It’s a time to build trust, confidence, and show your investment in them. If one of you can’t attend, find another time — don’t just cancel.

2. Create a cadence and stick to it

Make sure your one-on-ones are scheduled, recurring calendar events, and expect others to plan around them. Reserve enough time to have a serious discussion, anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, or a full hour if you need it. At Front, we like to do a weekly one-on-one and then a monthly check-in. Think about what your employees need, and schedule accordingly.

3. Treat people as individuals

Not every approach works with everyone. Be prepared to adapt your own style to what will work with your employee. Not everyone needs the same frequency. Not everyone receives feedback in the same way. Not everyone plans their time in the same way. Don’t just force your team to work under your preferred standards — talk about your preferences in your first one-on-one (get a First one-on-one template) and adapt your meetings so that it’s productive for both of you.

4. Pick a comfortable location

Create a welcoming environment where you can have a private conversation and where your employee can feel safe to open up. Ask what suits them — perhaps it’s in your office, a meeting room, over coffee, or even outside for a walk. Once again, it won’t be the same for everyone, so let your employee choose. Some leaders like to choose location before each meeting depending on what tools you need. If you need a whiteboard to jot down ideas or map things out, grab a meeting room. If you’re only chatting, then maybe a walk is all you need.

5. Remove distractions

Close your laptop, turn off your monitor and put away your phone. If your eyes are checking the clock or for new messages rather than engaging in the conversation, how important do you think that makes your employee feel? Don’t invite others to join in without your employee’s explicit permission. If you use a laptop for notes, be explicit about it and close all your other tabs.

6. It's all about your employee

Let the employee set the agenda, but do reserve time for your own follow ups or coaching. Prioritize the top items and discuss the employee first. This time is about your employee’s needs, growth, and career. If they’re having trouble, now is your designated time to help solve it, or to set them up with resources that can get them moving in the right direction. If you have agenda items to discuss, leave time for them at the end.

7. Create accountability and momentum

Document conversation highlights and share it with them using whatever note-taking system works for you — we included our one-on-one templates in Google Docs. Capture action items and set owners and dates. When you coach your employee on something, have them take notes to summarize it and reference it later. Even a simple recap email keeps you both aligned and accountable, and eliminates recall issues around prior conversations.

8. Listen actively

This is important. Effective communication is part of building a strong and trusting relationship. Be sure that you are listening — and chances are, you’ll be listening much more than you’re talking! Always ask open questions like “How can I help you?” “How are you feeling about...”, and “What can I do to unblock you?” That way your employee has the floor and a simple “yes” or “no” answer won’t suffice.

9. Solicit feedback about yourself as well

What can you do better to help them? How could you manage them better? Fight to get honest feedback. Getting cynical and negative feedback is okay, and it’s also a good opportunity to emphasize that “being skeptical is fine, but being cynical is limiting.” Give thanks profusely for all feedback.

10. Embrace the awkwardness

Nothing ground-breaking comes from boring conversations. It’s highly likely that your one-on-ones will be awkward – maybe just for the first one, maybe every single time. But nothing amazing gets accomplished with an easy conversation. So embrace the awkward. It means that you’re working through tough issues, touching on important subjects, and forming a closer bond that can only be achieved by an awkward situation.

One-on-ones are your designated time for helping employees grow. As a leader, you can find your most rewarding moments during these sessions. It’s your time to show employees that you’re invested and you care – and often, this can mean the world to them.

One-on-one meeting questions

What should you ask your employee in a one-on-one meeting? And on the flip side, as an employee, what should you ask your manager? Pick a few of these questions to get started:

  • How are you?
  • What’s the progress on items from last week?
  • How can I help you with these?
  • What can I do better?
  • How is our 1:1 working for you?
  • How is the team is doing?
  • How can we make things better?
  • How can I help with anything?
  • In the past month, what have you been happy about?
  • In the past month, what have you been less happy about?
  • Any questions for me?
  • How do you feel about your goals for this quarter?
  • Any feedback for me?
  • How could I be a better manager for you?
  • What can I do to make your professional life better?
  • What’s the biggest problem of our organization?
  • What don’t you like about our product?
  • What would you like to improve next quarter?
  • What would you like to achieve by the end of the year?
  • What would you like to learn?
  • How is your team doing?
  • What would you like to be better at / in which areas would you like to grow?
  • After X+ month/years at Front, how do you feel overall?
  • If you were me, what would you do differently?
  • What are the things you’ve done since you joined you’re the most proud about?
  • Is there anything I could do to invest more in your growth?
  • In the next month, what would you like to do differently from last month?
  • What’s the split of your time today between X/Y/Z? What would you like to spend more/less time on?

One-on-one meeting templates

Download these one-on-one templates to get started with effective meetings. Here’s what you’ll get:

  • First one-on-one meeting template: Use this for your very first one-on-one with an employee.
  • Weekly one-on-one meeting template: Use this for your regular weekly meeting to check in on progress, answer questions, and work through challenges.
  • Monthly one-on-one meeting template: Use this each month to discuss employee happiness overall.
  • Career development meeting template: Use this to help your employee think about long term career goals and set tangible benchmarks to reach them.
  • Coaching session template: Use this to coach employees through tactical problems and help encourage holistic thinking.
Effective one-on-one meeting templates download