Effective one:ones

What are one-on-ones for?

One:ones help you get to know each other, not in a casual way, but in an informed deliberate exchange, where you share something from your own life, and ask them something about theirs. You should be vulnerable so they can be in return. That is the duty of leadership.

It is on you to show your cards first, which builds trust and helps you get to know one another. One:ones also provide a basis for shared context. They help with future communication and understanding. They should also be used to plan and support career growth. If your organisation has a career ladder (and it should), one:ones, is where you discuss it, where you can talk in detail about where they are at in their career, and where they would like to be. Then make plans to offer growth in that area and follow through.

The most important thing about one-on-one is that follow through. None of the rest matters if you stop thinking about it as soon as the meeting ends. If you take any actions, get them done ASAP. Any problems you are entrusted with, must be addressed. In this instance, you are reporting to them instead of the other way around. Lastly, one:ones are useful for problem solving.


Like leadership styles, you should choose the meeting style, depending on context, need, and your report. Some people prefer checking off a set agenda. Even if that is not your thing, go with them on it. This meeting is for them. But make sure the list consists of things that need a meeting, though. Status updates can be from the actual system or from emails.

Catch-ups are great for getting the pulse on how your report, team, and project are going. Particularly useful in remote work environments.

Informal feedback and coaching is useful periodically, but you don't want it to be every session. With less experienced colleagues or those who are new to the team or the company, make one:ones more frequent to ensure your reports are comfortable in learning the ropes.

Progress report is great for when the person is also a manager. As a manager of managers, you rarely have day-to-day knowledge of their team from a people's perspective, so using some time to get caught up on these perspectives is useful. But again, consider how much of this information could be derived from systems in place or be sent via email.

And lastly, there's no substitute for getting to know someone one-on-one, with that someone being you, their manager.

Common challenges

Do not ever cancel your one:ones and strive to never postpone them. Either of those gives the report the impression of how important or not they are to you.

What about when your report has nothing to say? Well, that is why you have your bag of crafty manager tricks. It is on you to help make these sessions valuable to them. Try different styles, try leading with vulnerability, or flat out ask them what they want from the meeting.

The sign that your meeting is dead is when it is just project updates. You should not need those for a team you are leading. You should already know this information. It is okay, great even, for someone to raise an issue with you, but ideally if it is project related, the issue should be raised as needed, and not wait for one:one time.

Make one:one sacred time

Once again, do not postpone and never cancel. These are the crux of leadership, genuinely learning about the people you work with. How well your one:ones go, determines so much of how well everything else works.

One:ones are great for coaching time. Coaching can be informal and as needed, and one:one is the perfect opportunity.

One:ones are also good for giving and receiving feedback. Serious corrective feedback should be scheduled separately, so as not to pollute the nature of the one:ones, and to give it its appropriate immediacy. Minor corrective feedback and praise, can be offered in the one:one session. Praise is nice to offer publicly, at the time, but some people are not into that, so you can give it privately in the one:one.

You should tie the conversation to personal, team, and company goals. Identify how to align these and make the connections clear.

Understand engagement

Five factors to help with motivation and engagement are: certainty, autonomy, meaning (purpose), progress, and social inclusion (relatedness and belonging)


Be consistent with your sessions and their timings, take notes, follow up, and set clear expectations.


Give choices and direction as needed. Every person can and should have domains of ownership, even if the only domain of ownership they get is this meeting. You can use this opportunity to offer them some coaching, and lead them in direction of having more autonomy and more ownership in other parts of the business or in other parts of their role.

Meaning (purpose)

Use impact statements, when you talk about things. Try saying, "this matters because", or "I'm bringing this up because". Explain why you are saying a thing. In a one-to-one with their boss, people can feel uncomfortable, and they can miss the point. You have to be really clear. And as mentioned previously, you can use this time to connect the day-to-day aspects to goals, and higher meaning. Connect and align them and their work with company's vision and mission.


Try to always start them with a small win, a casual chit chat, and congratulations on something. Praise for how a meeting went, for how work was done, for completion of a significant project are some examples. Start off with some small things, put your report at their ease, and make them feel more comfortable. Make them feel like this is a good situation to be in. When you're offering feedback, you can develop a pattern and be quite regular with it. "Here is the section of our one-to-one where we discuss this particular skill that you are working on as one of your goals, or this particular thing you are focused on". That can be part of an individual development plan that you work out with them at some point and check in on. You do not have to review the whole plan every meeting. You can just look at small pieces of it, focus on the one goal that they should be thinking about day-to-day because that is the one we all agreed we are working on.

Social inclusion

The small talk does matter and so does being vulnerable, but you can also use one:ones as a tool for building relationships. Discuss who do they go to for support and who would they like more contact with? Who can you connect them with? Who can you give them opportunities to connect more deeply with, so that they have more networks around them, and feel more stable and more connected. Team dynamics is always interesting. You take what you see in the meetings and bring it back to the one:one to see if they are different in the one:one so that you can address that. You can ask about it. Somebody's character and personality are always delicate subjects to talk about. Think about your phrasing and ask politely. Ask "are you okay? I have noticed a change in your behaviour recently. I've noticed that you speak out more (or you speak out less), and I was wondering if you'd be comfortable talking about why or if you have felt the same thing".

Always be sure to ask about their lives outside of work. Work is not the only reason we are on the planet. That is not the only thing people care about. Use this time to learn about your reports and what is important to them.

Under the current circumstances for COVID, make sure you check in on the extroverts, and how isolation is impacting them. You can check in on the introverts, and find out how isolation is impacting them too. It is really important to take a health check of the team's morale regularly.

Starting a new reporting relationship

When you get a new report, whether somebody moves teams and comes into your team, or somebody joins the company and they are new to everything, you really want to focus on building your trust and rapport. That has to be the absolute first thing you work at. You have to be vulnerable and to get to know them.

If nothing else happens in your one:ones for the first month, that is fine. But you should think about where you want to get this relationship to, within a time period. Literally create a plan. For example, I want to know a bunch about this person's preferred ways of working, and their comfort levels with their role within the first month. I want to know an appropriate amount of detail about their family life, hobbies, personal life, outside of work within the second month.

Encourage participation by updating the new hire documentation. Communicate your expectations. This is the first thing you need to do with somebody, to explain to them what you want. They need to understand how you manage, how you lead, understand what this meeting is to you, and why they are here.

Always get as much feedback as you can from a new hire, because they will have friction points that people who work with you for a while do not see any more. As you form a relationship, you find a bunch of workarounds for little niggly things, and everybody just gets on with it. Take the opportunity to find some of your company's rough edges, so you can work on them.

And of course, remember to schedule your regular one on ones.

Key points

  • It is their meeting. Let the report conduct the meeting.
  • You should use the different meeting styles (there are more than listed above, you could look them up).
  • Be vulnerable, be open and be consistent. Never postpone, never cancel.

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