The Perfect One-on-One Meeting: A Complete Guide

Jan 20, 2022 | Employee Engagement, Performance Management, Professional Development

Being able to hold a successful one-on-one meeting is critical to performance management. These meetings, often called check-ins, are informal conversations between managers and employees. They focus on whichever aspects of performance are currently most relevant. And they typically happen on a frequent basis.

“When employees strongly agree they received ‘meaningful feedback’ in the past week, they are almost four times more likely than other employees to be engaged,” says Gallup.

By providing this valuable feedback, a one-on-one meeting can greatly boost engagement.

Let’s first dive into the purpose of a one-on-one meeting and when to hold them. Then, we’ll discuss how to plan and structure them for best results.


1. What Is the Purpose of A One-on-One Meeting?

2. How Often Should You Hold A One-on-One Meeting?

3. What Format Do These Meetings Take?

4. What Happens During A One-on-One Meeting?

5. How Should You Prepare for A One-on-One Meeting?

6. How Should Your Employees Prepare for A One-on-One Meeting?

7. What Should You Avoid Doing in A One-on-One Meeting?

8. How Should You Structure One-on-One Meetings?

What Is the Purpose of A One-on-One Meeting?

The one-on-one meeting plays a key role in guiding employees’ growth. During this meeting, employees gain clarity on how to overcome challenges. Managers can help them identify barriers to success and how to overcome them. Employees can also receive guidance on meeting their goals for their job and career.

“One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager,” says Elizabeth Grace Saunders in Harvard Business Review. “They are where you can ask strategic questions such as, are we focused on the right things?”

Holding one-on-one meetings allows you to share honest feedback with employees. Plus, they serve as your most important means of building a rapport with employees. Further, they give you a stronger understanding of how employees are performing in their daily work. 

How Often Should You Hold A One-on-One Meeting?

Good managers hold one-on-one meetings routinely with each of their direct reports. Ideally, you’ll hold them once a week, particularly if working remotely. This allows you to give more detailed and up-to-date feedback. Once every two weeks can also work, coupled with more frequent quick check-ins.

Set a regular time for these meetings. Otherwise, you’ll be dealing with a scheduling nightmare. (You don’t want to debate meeting times with each employee every week!) Blocking out specific times will make holding a one-on-one meeting hassle-free.

What Format Do These Meetings Take?

Women shaking hands after one-on-one meeting
Credit: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

Managers should hold one-on-one meetings in a private setting. They can take place in an office, on a private Zoom call, or in another quiet location. Providing privacy creates a sense of psychological safety. Then, employees will feel more free to voice concerns and ask questions. 

Typically, one-on-one check-ins should last for at least half an hour. For a weekly meeting, half an hour often works well. If you hold them less frequently, try making them longer.

What Happens During A One-on-One Meeting?

In this meeting, managers give detailed feedback to employees. They also receive information from employees about topics like these:

  • Issues they are confronting
  • Strengths they have mastered
  • Abilities they want to develop
  • Progress they have made
  • Accomplishments they have achieved
  • Any changes to their career goals

In their feedback, managers may need to provide the following types of input:

  • Clarification of goals, responsibilities, or expectations
  • Information on how to access learning resources
  • Guidance on how to improve particular skills
  • Input on solutions or ideas proposed by the employee
  • Appreciation for employees’ hard work
  • Reminders of how their work helps fulfil the organizational vision.

After discussing these points, managers and employees can make a plan for improvement if needed. They should work together to lay out this plan. In other cases, employees may simply need feedback on their progress within an existing plan.

Managers should strive to stay positive throughout these meetings. Sharing gratitude for particular efforts employees have made will set the right tone.

Additionally, managers can gain insights into how well the team is functioning as a whole. On a weekly basis, they can get each employee’s perspective on what needs to improve.

How Should You Prepare for A One-on-One Meeting?

Older Black man writing during one-on-one meeting outside
Credit: Ono Kosuki/Pexels

Since these meetings tend to be informal, some think they require little preparation. Too often, managers approach them in a disorganized manner. Employees leave the meeting thinking, “What was that for? What did I gain from it?” 

In actuality, managers must prepare for one-on-ones thoughtfully. Take time to collect your thoughts before the meeting. Jot down notes about how the employee’s performance has changed since your last meeting. Consider whether the employee has achieved any successes (small or large) since your last meeting.

Create a list of discussion points to cover in the meeting. The following questions may help you organize your thoughts: 

  • Where is the employee struggling most?
  • How can I help the employee to prepare for the coming week’s challenges?
  • Has the employee’s performance changed recently? In what ways?
  • Is the employee prioritizing effectively? 

Prepare thoughtful questions on similar topics for the employee as well. Choose open-ended questions that require a detailed answer, such as these: 

  • What would you like to do more of in your daily work? Less of?
  • What would help you to feel more engaged in your work?
  • What is not going as well as you would like? Why?
  • How effectively are you managing your time? What strategies do you use?
  • What type of assistance do you need to work at your best?
  • How could you and your team members strengthen your communication?
  • What projects or tasks leverage your greatest strengths?
  • What do you feel proud of in your work? Don’t be shy!

You probably won’t ask all of these questions in one half-hour meeting. Rather, you can use them as needed to draw out their thoughts on pertinent topics. Performance management software can help you prepare helpful and relevant questions as well.

How Should Your Employees Prepare for A One-on-One Meeting?

Managers often neglect to tell employees how to prepare for a one-on-one meeting as well. When both parties prepare, however, they’ll have a far more productive conversation. Managers should coach employees on how to collect their thoughts for these meetings.

Ask employees to make a list of topics they want to cover, as Saunders suggests. They should include challenges they face, along with solutions to discuss. For example, an employee might want to discuss the following topics:

  • How to better communicate with clients.
  • Ways to improve presentation skills.
  • Whether results for project X met expectations. 
  • How the team could have better managed project X.
  • How to use software program Y more effectively.

Encouraging employees to share discussion points will help them become proactive about their growth.

What Should You Avoid Doing in A One-on-One Meeting?

Make the most of your check-ins by avoiding these four things:

  1. Showing up late. Always be punctual. You’ll convey the importance of these meetings by showing up on time. Plus, employees will get more out of them when you fully use the time.
  2. Getting straight to business. This may seem counterintuitive, but spending a moment on chit-chat will build your rapport.
  3. Looking at your phone. Silence distractions, so you can give the employee your undivided attention.
  4. Coming across as an authority figure. Instead, be a supportive coach.

By keeping these points in mind, you’ll build trust and convey appreciation for the employee.

How Should You Structure One-on-One Meetings?

When you meet with employees, look at the discussion points you’ve each written. Quickly distill them into the most essential points. Chances are, overlap will exist between your list and the employee’s. (If not, that could be a red flag that the employee needs to develop self-awareness!)

Here is a sample structure for a one-on-one meeting:

  • Check in about the discussion topics.
  • Express gratitude for something the employee has done in the past week.
  • Ask the employee to discuss challenges faced recently.
  • Share feedback on how the employee could have handled an issue better.
  • Direct the employee toward learning resources.
  • Ask the employee to describe how teamwork could improve.
  • Ask how you can better support the employee.
  • Recap action steps and thank the employee for participating.

The exact items in this list will depend on what you need to discuss. For a newer employee, you may focus more on clarifying responsibilities and expectations. For someone confronting a major hurdle, you may focus on creating an action plan.

When giving feedback, keep it future-focused, as Gallup says. That means discussing what people can improve, not what they’ve done wrong. In other words, focus on future benefits rather than negative impacts of past performance. By doing so, you’ll maintain a more optimistic tone that boosts morale. 

With regular one-on-one meetings, performance improvement will be all but inevitable. Coach all of your managers on how to hold a one-on-one meeting effectively. Employees will then receive consistent, detailed feedback, and you’ll understand the challenges they face.

As a result, you’ll more effectively coach them to success—and their engagement will improve considerably. 

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