One-on-one meetings: A comprehensive guide for managers and employees

    Managers are the single most important benefit any company can offer their employees. When employees and managers communicate frequently and continuously share feedback (both ways), they’re more likely to be engaged in the workplace. The most powerful way managers can engage their employees and share feedback? Start by mastering the one-on-one meeting.

    This guide covers every aspect of how to approach one-on-ones from both the employee and manager perspective. It’s time to make the most out of your most important meeting: One-on-ones.

    SECTION 1

    What are one-on-ones and why should you have them?

    Everyone talks about one-on-one meetings, but there’s a lot of confusion about what they are. For some, they consider it to be an annual review, while for others it’s the weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meeting that employees have with their manager.

    In this section we will cover:

    What are one-on-one meetings?

    One-on-one meetings (also known as check-ins, 121s, 1:1s, one-to-ones) are a dedicated time for an employee and their manager to connect on work, career development and growth. One-on-ones are one of the most important ways managers can engage and retain their teams.

    One-on-ones: A type of meeting held between a manager and their employee, often on a routine cadence that involves discussing growth, performance, development and motivation.

    How often should you have one-on-ones?

    Based on findings from the 2019 State of one-on-ones report, most managers stated they have one-on-one meetings weekly for 30 minutes.

    Data from the State of One-on-ones 2019 report

    Although 30-minute weekly one-on-ones seem to be the most common choice, the length and frequency of your one-on-ones will differ for each manager-employee relationship. When it comes to deciding on how long and how frequently you’d like them to be, here are some things you should consider:

    • If this is a brand new relationship, a good rule of thumb would be to overbook and adjust. It’s better to get time back rather than run out of time and try to reschedule.
    • Have a look at how much you have to discuss over time. If you have a lot to discuss each and every week, it’s probably a good idea to have one-on-ones on a weekly cadence.

    When it comes to one-on-ones, the ideal scenario is that over a certain time period, things you want to discuss with your manager or direct report batch up. There’s a piece of work you’d like feedback on. There’s a professional development course you’re interested in attending. There’s something you need from your manager in order to move forward on a project. The list goes on.

    Instead of scheduling a meeting every time one of these things crops up, find a time that will work consistently for both of your schedules where you’ll be able to tackle the things that come up between your meetings. 

    What’s the purpose of one-on-one meetings?

    When asked what the purpose of one-on-one meetings are, managers reported the following:

    • 70.4% To understand and eliminate roadblocks
    • 60.7% Pulse check (Are they engaged? Happy? Upset?)
    • 53.6% Status update (How are specific projects coming along?)
    Katie Womersley on People Leading People
    Katie Womersley on the People Leading People podcast

    When asked what the purpose of one-on-one meetings are, employees reported the following:

    • 73.3% Status update (ex. How specific projects are coming along)
    • 56.2% Pulse check (ex. Talk about if you’re feeling engaged, happy, upset?)
    • 54.5% Share roadblocks with your manager and see if they can help unblock

    The good news: Managers and employees are on the same page when it comes to the purpose of one-on-one meetings.

    SECTION 2

    How should managers and employees approach one-on-one meetings?

    The purpose of a one-on-one will differ for each company, department and individual but generally, the goal is to build a good working relationship between managers and their direct reports.

    In this section we will cover:

    The role of the manager in one-on-one meetings

    The manager’s most important role in one-on-ones can be whittled down to doing three things for employees:

    • Psychological safety needs to be high ⬆️
    • The benefit for employees needs to be high ⬆️
    • The effort for employees needs to be low ⬇️

    Psychological safety (High)

    Do people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feedback, etc or is there a level of fear preventing that open communication?

    👉 If you want your team to be vulnerable with you, be vulnerable yourself first. As a manager, you’ve got more “power” in this relationship so set the tone for open communication by being the first to open up.

    Effort (Low)

    How much effort does a person have to put in to share feedback with you? Should your direct reports be ready for a battle every single time?

    👉Challenge your team, of course. But, understand that there’s a limit. Sometimes people don’t want to argue a PhD dissertation when they’re giving you feedback. Find that line.

    Benefit (High)

    When a direct report shares feedback with you, are you actioning on it?

    👉Whether or not you agree with the feedback, even just acknowledging it and committing to doing something leaves you both in a better place than before. It can be as simple as saying “let me think about this for a week and I’ll get back to you.”


    It’s the manager’s role to make sure these three things happen in order to have a successful one-on-one meeting. Let’s take for example, that a direct report has constructive feedback to share with their manager. Over their entire working relationship, both parties have put in the necessary effort to build up a rapport with one another. They’ve opened up about challenges, successes, aspirations and more. That dialogue is welcome here (safety).

    In the past, when they’ve given feedback to their manager it has been listened to without backlash, not to say there haven’t been disagreements, but the conversation was always constructive (effort). Feedback has become an important part of their working relationship because when it’s shared, it’s always actioned on in some capacity (benefit).

    This is the ideal relationship that every manager and direct report should aspire to achieve. Why? Because you’ll feel comfortable sharing feedback, both ways, and grow faster as a result of it. Not to mention, you and your direct report will be happier and more engaged at work because you’ll consistently be working out the kinks.

    The role of the direct report in one-on-ones

    Direct reports should make the most of this time with their managers and take charge of the conversation and the agenda. In a recent survey, we asked direct reports what they found most challenging with one-on-ones. Here’s what they had to say:

    • 34% Having meaningful, productive conversations
    • 26% Ensuring I’m providing value to my manager
    • 16% Making time for one-on-ones
    • 13% Understanding how my manager is feeling overall
    • 6% Other
    • 5% Getting my manager to contribute to the agenda

    So, how do you make the most out of your one-on-ones, have meaningful, productive conversations and provide value to your manager?

    Set expectations with your manager

    Remind not only yourself but your manager that this is your time with them. Let them know that you’re both equally responsible for adding items to the meeting agenda and coming prepared to discuss them.

    One of the best ways to do this is by adding a meeting description, whether it’s in your calendar invite or agenda document. This is a great way to hold one another accountable for taking ownership of the meeting and come prepared to discuss every single time you meet. Don’t forget to include the purpose of the meeting in your description as well to keep you aligned on what you’re trying to get out of the meeting.

    Here’s an example between a manager and employee on the Soapbox team:

    Meeting agenda description

    Drive the meeting

    Treat this as a dedicated time to talk about anything you want to (with respect to your manager’s time, of course). If there are roadblocks that you’re facing, add them to the agenda leading up to the meeting. Be sure to give them ample time to prepare, so aim to add most of your agenda items at least a day before the meeting.

    One-on-ones are an opportunity for you to have your manager’s undivided attention, so take advantage of that. If you feel you’re deserving of a promotion, start that conversation in your one-on-one meeting. Utilize this time to set yourself up for success, for the short and long term.

    Remember that your manager is not a mind reader, so use this time to let them know how you feel about the work you’re doing, the work you want to do and how you’d like to progress within the organization. 

    1:1s 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.

    -Kim Scott, Author of Radical Candor

    Manage up

    Managing up in the simplest terms is the idea of managing your manager. Whether you have a fantastic boss or a terrible one, knowing how to manage up will help you become a better employee, team member and human.

    When it comes to managing up, here are some tips to do it effectively:

    1. Learn your boss’s management style

    How hands-on is your boss? Do they focus on all of the little details or do they want to just sign the dotted line? Depending on how involved they would like to be in your work, cater to that need proactively.

    For example, if your boss likes to know what everyone’s working on for the day, don’t wait for them to ask for an update. Proactively communicate a high-level run-down of your planned activities for the day.

    2. Figure out how your boss likes to communicate

    Text, email, slack, hangouts, carrier pigeon and beyond; know how your boss likes to get in touch, especially when it comes to your regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings.

    If you know your boss will ask you how you’re tracking against your goals in every one-on-one meeting, have that information readily available to them. In fact, if you can, add it to your meeting agenda prior to your one-on-one. This will give them time to read through the notes, allowing you to focus more on the stuff that matters.

    3. Tell your boss where they are most helpful

    This is especially important if you have a manager that tends to want to dip their toes into a lot of different things, make it abundantly clear where you need them to be in order for you and the team to succeed. Make sure this is written and documented once agreed upon, like in your meeting notes.

    Give and ask for feedback

    No one is a mind reader. You can’t expect your manager to improve (and vice versa) if you’re not sharing feedback on an ongoing basis. Whether the feedback is about how you work with one another or about your organization’s culture, it’s important that it’s shared between you and your manager.

    In fact, according to Corporate Rebels’ iceberg of ignorance, the higher up you get in an organization, the more problems are hidden from you. So, if you’re not sharing that feedback, they likely won’t be made aware of the issue.

    iceberg of ignorance
    (Source)

    Feedback is a two-way street. So, when it comes to giving and receiving it, here are a few things to keep in mind:

    When asking for feedback, be specific.

    If you’re looking to improve and grow, instead of asking, “What’s an area I can improve?” try asking:

    • What’s one thing I can improve on with my writing?
    • Where do you feel like my communication skills are lacking?
    • How can I live out our company values more in my day-to-day?
    • Can I be supporting people on the team more? How can I do this?

    Write down all of the feedback you give and receive

    Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll both remember everything you discussed in your one-on-one (because you won’t). Especially if you’re working through a lot of different bits of feedback in the meeting. Just like with any one-on-one agenda item, you’ll want to write down what was discussed, so you can revisit it later.

    Set next steps

    Make sure that the feedback you’ve just shared or received is being actioned. Whether it’s as simple as, “Let me have one week to think about this feedback”, make sure there’s a next step documented so that the feedback is actioned.

    Show that you’re acting on the feedback

    Once again, this can be as simple as bringing up the feedback in your next one-on-one and saying, “Hey, I’ve had time to think about this feedback and am ready to discuss.” In other cases, when more concrete next steps were set, you’ll want to explicitly show your manager (or vice versa) that you’re following through on those next steps. Even if it seems like overkill to keep them updated every step of the way, do it anyway. They’ll appreciate how seriously you’re taking their feedback.

    SECTION 3

    Who owns the one-on-one meeting?

    One-on-one meetings should be treated as an employee’s time with their manager. However, the manager is still equally responsible for participating and contributing to the conversation, pre-, during and post-meeting.

    When asked “Who owns the meeting agenda?”, 49% of the 200+ managers surveyed said that they share ownership of the agenda with their direct report.

    Who owns the meeting agenda
    Soapbox 2019 State of One-on-ones

    Sharing responsibility is a great way to build trust between both parties. However, it’s important to remember that one-on-ones are made to help the direct report. Managers, take a step back during this time and let your direct report lead the conversation.

    Managers and employees alike should find a structure that works best for this time. Here are a few models that other managers use:

    The 10/10/10 model

    “Our structure is typically the 10/10/10 model: 10 minutes for the direct to speak what is on their mind first, then 10 minutes for my items, then 10 minutes ‘for the future,’ discussing what specific action items there might be from the conversation to make sure we follow up on.” 

    -James Carr, Infrastructure Engineering Lead at Zapier

    Be completely hands-off

    “The agenda is set by the team member, so it tends to vary with what’s on their mind or where they need support or feedback. Once per quarter, however, the agenda is pre-set. During this quarterly check-in, we have a career session to discuss progression and give more ‘formal’ feedback on the current quarter’s performance. As our performance reviews take place every six months, this is an important check-in.”

    -Lorena Scott, Head of People Operations at Ritual

    Set meeting guidelines and let the direct report lead

    “I have a basic guideline that my reports use as a starting point.  But again, this is their meeting – so they adapt the agenda based on what they need to talk about.”

    -Bronwyn Smith, VP of Business Operations at Influitive

    Prioritize all of the direct report’s agenda items first

    “I maintain a list of topics to cover as well (some are time-sensitive, some are not), but if we don’t have time for my topics in our 1:1, then I’ll follow up on those things afterward.”

    -Paula Segal, Director of Product Management at SeatGeek


    At the end of the day, what works for one manager and direct report may not work for another. Find a process and structure that works best for you and your manager and/or direct report.

    SECTION 4

    What do you talk about in a one-on-one meeting?

    Whether you’re starting from a blank slate or looking to improve your conversations, this section will cover key considerations for you to think about before your next one-on-one.

    In this section, we will cover one-on-one conversation tips, including:

    We asked 200+ managers what’s being discussed in their one-on-ones. 75% of managers said that they discussed growth and development during this time.

    75 percent of managers discuss growth and development in one-on-ones
    Soapbox 2019 State of One-on-ones

    One-on-ones should be tailored to each unique individual. That means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this time. However, when it comes to one-on-ones, there are general guidelines that can help you build trust and have productive conversations with your direct report or manager. 

    Set a meeting goal

    The key to a productive one-on-one meeting is defining what you and your report want to get out of it. The goal of the meeting should be set collaboratively so that you’re both on the same page leading up to, during and after the meeting. By collaborating on the goal, you’ll also ensure that you’re both getting value out of the meeting.

    Some common one-on-one goals for managers include:

    • Understanding and eliminating roadblocks
    • Pulse check (I.e. Is the direct report happy, engaged, upset?)
    • Status update (I.e. How specific projects are coming along)
    • Talk about career growth

    Once you determine the meeting goals, you’ll be able to shape the agenda items, meeting structure, and conversations around those goals.

    Start every meeting by breaking the ice

    Icebreakers and conversation starters might sound cheesy (and might actually be cheesy when executed), but starting a meeting off by asking a personal question, is the beginning of creating a psychologically safe environment.

    Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. 

    For the sake of you and your report’s sanity, do NOT ask about the weather or the weekend. Icebreaker does not mean “small-talk.” Ask something unique, something that when they answer you’ll have learned a little bit more about them as a person. Consider a question like, “What’s something outside of work you’re excited about?” Or follow-up on a prior meeting’s question like “I remember you saying your family was coming to town, how did that go?” Starting the conversation with something personal from both attendees helps open up that psychologically safe space.

    Pro tip: Avoid scheduling one-on-ones on Mondays. It eliminates the “How was your weekend” temptation.

    Icebreaker question to ask in one-on-one meetings

    To keep these conversations fresh, here are some icebreaker questions you can ask:

    • What’s something you’re really jazzed about outside of work?
    • What’s something, outside of work, that you’re looking forward to this week?
    • What’s one cuisine you could live without?
    • What’s your favorite restaurant in our city?
    • What’s the most random job you’ve ever had?

    Don’t let status updates dominate the meeting

    For employees and managers alike, it’s easy to fall into the status update trap. But, when the main focus during one-on-ones is on project updates and timelines, it becomes incredibly difficult to build rapport and trust.

    “One-on-ones are such an important time to build trust and that’s tough to do if this time is treated as a status update.” 

    -Connor Bradley, Growth Team Lead At Jobber

    In fact, when you exclude certain conversations, like growth and development, from your one-on-ones, you’re actively disengaging your direct reports.

    Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace found that when employees have consistent performance feedback, they become emotionally and psychologically attached to their work and workplace. As a result, that individual experiences higher levels of productivity, safety and produce higher quality work; In other words, they show up and actually try.

    There are four levels of an employee’s performance development needs: 

    1. Basic needs
    2. Individual needs
    3. Teamwork needs
    4. Personal growth needs
    gallup's q12
    Gallup 2017 State of the global Workplace

    So, how can managers and direct reports try to achieve all, if not most of all of these needs during one-on-ones? We’ve broken this down into an easy-to-remember framework: The Balance Framework.

    Use the Balance Framework

    The Balance Framework is a method for approaching one-on-one discussions that involves talking about four topics in your meetings equally:

    🌱

    Growth and Development

    Who’s someone in the company you’d like to learn more from?

    👏

    Motivation

    What are you passionate about, personally or professionally?

    💼

    Work

    What, if anything, feels harder than it should be in your day-to-day work?

    ☎️

    Communication

    When’s the best time to give you feedback on work?

    Ideally, each topic should take up approximately 25% of your conversations. Though it will vary from meeting to meeting, over the previous 30 days you’ll want to aim to spend close to equal time on each topic area.

    Growth and development

    These are career conversations, what managers can do to help their employees excel in the business and outside of it. This is where managers can offer advice, coaching and help grow the skill sets of their individual team members. 

    Try asking any of these one-on-ones questions:

    • What projects would you like to work on or be more involved in?
    • What professional goals would you like to accomplish in the next 6 to 12 months, and what makes you say that?
    • What areas of the company would you like to learn more about?

    Motivation

    One of the most difficult things all employees face at one point or another in their career is staying motivated at work. In fact, after surveying 500 employees, we discovered that 34% of direct reports struggled most with staying motivated at work.

    Managers should take the opportunity in one-on-ones to spur conversations around motivation, which can help gauge and improve employee motivation. What makes them excited to work? What projects reinvigorate and which ones demotivate? 

    Try asking any of these one-on-one questions:

    • What makes you excited and motivated to work on a project?
    • What type of work environment do you work best in?
    • What is your outlook on this week?

    Work

    Discuss the projects, the progress and the day-to-day details. This often consumes one-on-ones and ends up turning, what should be a great time to build trust, into a time for “status updates.” So, it’s important to only allocate 25% of your time to discuss work-related topics. If conversations start veering towards work too much, set aside a separate time to discuss project-related work. 

    Try asking any of these one-on-one questions:

    • What does an ideal, productive workday look like to you? Walk me through it.
    • What are the biggest time wasters for you each week?
    • What can I hold you accountable for next time we talk?

    Pro tip: Talk about work last in your one-on-ones. You can easily schedule a follow-up conversation related to work things. It’s more difficult to break a conversation around growth or motivation into another separate meeting.

    Communication

    Breakdowns and silos in communication torpedo productivity and collaboration. You can address those head-on in conversations by identifying where there might be communication issues.

    Try asking any of these one-on-one questions

    • Is there anything that would be productive for me to re-explain to our team?
    • What’s something you’d like to share but is a little stressful to bring up in person?
    • How can we improve communication between members of our team?

    Check out these 121 tried and true one-on-one questions to add to your next one-on-one meeting.

    SECTION 5

    How to have an effective one-on-one meeting

    It is the responsibility of both managers and employees to ensure each one-on-one is successful. In this section, we’ll cover things that both managers and direct reports can do to have effective one-on-one meetings:

    A manager’s guide to effective one-on-one meetings

    If you’re a manager who’s looking to have effective one-on-ones, here are 15 things that you can do. We’ve broken these down by:

    Before the meeting

    A little prep work goes a long way when it comes to having meaningful, productive one-on-ones. Here are a few tips to help you prep for every one-on-one.

    1. If you’re not already having one-on-ones, explain what they are and why you’re having them

    If you aren’t currently having one-on-ones and want to introduce them to your team, do it thoughtfully. DON’T, without any context, add a calendar event inviting your direct report to a meeting titled ‘Manager <> Report 1:1.’ Your employee will sit and stew thinking you’ve scheduled time to break hard news, or worse—fire them. Before setting up your invite, send an email or message that shares what the context of the meeting is (what the goal is, what you’re going to discuss) and what your expectations for them are (how to prepare, what to do leading up to the meetings and during).

    If it’s your first one-on-one, use this email template:

    Hi  [Insert name],

    I want to start having one-on-ones with everyone on the team. Don’t be alarmed! These meetings will help us communicate better and grow as individuals and as a team. My goal for these meetings is to remove any roadblocks and connect with you on your work and how you’re feeling about your role and career progression.

    I’ll send through a standing meeting invite and an agenda shortly. To prepare for our one-on-one I’d like us both to contribute to the agenda 50/50. If you’re stuck on what to bring to this first meeting, here are some questions to get the wheels turning!

    I’m excited to start having more one-on-one time with you. Please don’t hesitate to share any questions you might have.

    [Signature]

    2. Schedule your recurring meeting

    Here’s what you’ll need to decide with your direct report:

    • What day and time? Tuesdays at 10 am 📆
    • How long? 30 minutes ⏳
    • How often? Weekly 🗓
    • Where? Somewhere quiet and private 🗺

    Once you’ve determined all of this, create your recurring calendar event.

    3. Set meeting goals and expectations

    Determine what each of you wants to get out of this meeting. We talked about the importance of setting a meeting goal earlier in this guide. Remember that the meeting goal will influence the conversations you’re having during your one-on-one.

    Some examples of meeting goals include:

    • To understand and eliminate roadblocks
    • Talk about career growth and personal development
    • To understand how the direct report is feeling

    It’s also extremely important to set expectations prior to this meeting. Who owns the meeting? How do you expect one another to prepare for this meeting?

    A great way to keep these expectations top of mind is to add them right into your meeting description or calendar invite. Here’s an example:

    This is our time to talk about strategy, company goals, and your growth and personal development. You will ultimately own this time, but we are both expected to contribute to the agenda, prepare for this meeting and action on all next steps.

    Expectations we’ve determined together:
    – Show up on time, always
    – Never cancel this meeting and avoid rescheduling at all costs
    – Aim to add items to the agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting
    – Come prepared to discuss

    4. Share the meeting agenda in advance

    If you’re someone who likes to sleep on things, this is a great way to ensure that you have all of the time you need to process any items on the agenda and come to the meeting ready to discuss. The same goes for your direct report.

    When you’re both prepared for the meeting, it’ll be that much more effective!

    5. Prepare 3-5 backup questions to add to the agenda

    Whether or not you get to these questions, you’ll have a fallback should you run into a situation where there’s not enough to talk about on the current agenda. This doesn’t mean you should force conversations to fill time, but you should certainly take advantage of this one-on-one time you have together. Who knows, you might have a really awesome conversation as a result!

    6. Keep everything in one place

    If you’re spending half of the meeting sifting through multiple documents trying to find your meeting notes from past discussions, you’re making it ineffective. Have all of your agendas, notes, next steps and summaries living in one place. Not only will this help with the prep work, it will make your meeting that much more effective.

    7. Block off time for yourself before the meeting.

    Aim to block 15 minutes before the one-on-one to give yourself time to collect yourself. You don’t want to go into a one-on-one meeting hot off the heels of a big team meeting or a frustrating external call. Use the time to review the agenda, collect your thoughts and show up ready to discuss.

    8. Have a one-on-one meeting tech stack

    Have everything you need to help you have a great one-on-one meeting while ensuring that future meetings are just as effective and successful. We recommend you have two things:

    Shared agenda tool

    34% of managers use pen and paper to document their one-on-ones. Having your meeting notes and agenda for one-on-ones hidden in a notebook will not foster two-way dialogue. Instead, use a shared agenda and note-taking tool that will allow you both to contribute to the agenda, track your past meetings and your meeting follow-up. 

    We’re biased, but Soapbox is a great one-on-one meeting tool.

    Video tool

    If you’re managing a remote team, make sure you have a dedicated tool for connecting with your employee, whether that be Zoom, Slack video or Google Hangouts. Make sure you have a way to see and hear your employee that isn’t set up a minute before you’re supposed to meet.

    During the meeting

    Once you’re in the one-on-one, your biggest focus should be listening. Rid yourself of as many distractions as possible so you can laser-focus on your direct report.

    9. Spend more than half of the meeting listening

    If you find yourself doing more than 50% of the talking, stop. It’s tempting to fill awkward silences, but if you’re patient and wait for your employee to share with you instead of filling the dead air yourself, eventually they’ll start to fill the space themselves. Train yourself to ask open-ended questions (not yes or no) and wait for a response before jumping in yourself.

    “My role is to listen, be honest, and problem solve and give constructive feedback, when applicable. While I may drive the agenda during team meetings, that’s not the goal of my 1:1s, so I avoid moving into the driver’s seat at all costs. If the conversation is drifting off track, I use a few questions to bring it back in focus, including: 1) what work are you most proud of; 2) what’s been most frustrating. Another question I tend to ask to recenter the conversation is: what do you want to be doing more of or less of?”

    – Lorena Scott, Head of People Ops at Ritual

    TLDR: Get comfortable in uncomfortable silence. Let your employees fill it instead of you.

    10. Ask for feedback and give feedback every meeting

    A simple way to do this in one-on-ones is to have these two recurring agenda items on every one-on-one meeting agenda:

    • What’s one piece of feedback that you have for me?
    • Here’s one piece of feedback I have for you

    Even if you don’t get feedback the first time, keep asking for it. Eventually, you’ll have created a safe enough space and built enough trust with your report that they’ll feel comfortable sharing feedback with you. 

    “One-on-ones I almost always finish with, ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ And new folks who start working for me, never in the history of ever have they ever had any feedback because they’re like ahhh I don’t know who you are. And finally two months later, after I keep on asking every single week they go, ‘He’s not going to stop asking.’ So they say something lightweight…And they say something and I’m like, ‘Cool!’ And like that, that’s like the first moment on that sort of entering the safety zone where people, you know, where it starts to feel a little bit more like not the boss, and the manager’s kind of flattening things out.”

    -Michael Lopp, ex-vp engineering at slack

    11. Create a psychologically safe space

    A psychologically safe space is where individuals feel free to be themselves, share their ideas and opinions without fear of judgment or repercussions. The importance of psychological safety in any meeting, but particularly one-on-ones is huge. Without it, you won’t get the most out of your conversations.

    The best way managers can foster psychological safety in their one-on-ones is to:

    • Be vulnerable: Be the first to share something personal or a fear that you have. You’re the one in a position of power here, so set the tone of this being a safe space to talk about fears, challenges, goals and more. Show them that you’re a human too. 
    • Be transparent: Don’t hold things back from your team; share the uncomfortable and the awkward. It’s better to be transparent than to hold back (your employees can tell). 
    • Set expectations for both of your behaviors: Commit in your meeting (say it out loud or add it to your agenda) to being thoughtful about your reactions, open to constructive criticism and willing to listen. Most importantly, act on the behaviors you committed to. If you say you’re open to feedback, don’t lash out when you receive it because it will break that trust you’ve worked hard to build.
    • Be positive: Whether you like it or not, as a manager the tone you present both in your voice and body language is infectious. Pay attention to your body language, the words you’re using and your tone of voice.

    I try to build a good rapport with them. Sometimes this is sharing an interesting/funny story about something that happened while I was in their position or illustrating a specific challenge I had that I believe everyone faces. I also have several resources on hand to fall back on to get them to open up better. Radical Candor also has some specific advice to help ‘challenge directly’ to address uncomfortable issues.”

    James Carr, Infrastructure Engineering Lead at Zapier

    12. Pay attention to body language

    Your posture and tone say a lot, even if you’re not intending them to. Be sure to send silent cues that you’re open and listening. Avoid crossing your arms or looking at your feet. Make an effort to connect.

    Mirroring is a great way to use body language to build rapport.

    13. Start and end on a positive note

    Even if you’re having a tough conversation, or dealing with some negative feedback, try to end on a positive note. Whether that’s with. a statement like, “We’ll tackle this together,” or some other encouragement, it will allow you to both leaving the meeting feeling motivated and positive rather than stressed and drained.

    After the one-on-one meeting

    14. Ask for their outlook

    Create a baseline by consistently asking your employees for their outlook after your one-on-one meeting. Has their outlook gotten worse, better or stayed the same? Monitoring this long-term can help you to track engagement and identify red flags faster.

    It’s important that you do this immediately after the meeting that way both of your feelings and thoughts are fresh in your minds.

    Meeting effectiveness survey questions

    Pro tip: Soapbox will automatically send out a meeting feedback request to all participants after you finish every meeting.

    15. Follow up every time

    Earlier in this guide, we talked about the three most important things managers should strive for in one-on-ones:

    • Psychological safety needs to be high ⬆️
    • The benefit for employees needs to be high ⬆️
    • The effort for employees needs to be low ⬇️

    Following up and actioning on your next steps is the best way to ensure that you achieve that high benefit that you’re aiming for.

    A manager’s one-on-one meeting checklist

    Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t be!

    It seems like a lot, but once you get going, all these one-on-one habits will start to feel like second nature. To make things easier, we’ve put all of the steps into a downloadable checklist for you to follow along (until it becomes second-nature!)

    Download the manager’s one-on-one meeting checklist here.

    An employee’s guide to effective one-on-one meetings

    If you’re an employee who’s looking to have effective one-on-ones, here are 15 things that you can do. We’ve broken these down by:

    Before the meeting

    As a direct report, there’s added pressure to ensure that your manager gets value out of this time with you. Preparing for a great meeting before it happens is a great way to drive value for both you and your manager.

    1. If you’re not already having one-on-ones with your manager and want to, let them know.

    If you’re not sure how, here’s a starter template for you to build off of:

    Hi [manager name],

    I would love it if we could start having one-on-ones together. This will be a recurring meeting that we have every week.

    I’ll drive this meeting, but I hope that you’ll take ownership of it too by bringing up things you’d like to discuss. I want us both to get value out of this meeting, so if it’s okay with you, I’d love to avoid status-update conversations and reserve those for our team meetings.

    Instead, I’d love. tochat about things like strategy, challenges, and my personal growth and development.

    We can talk more about our expectations and other logistics during our first meeting. For now, let’s get something on the calendar.

    I’m really looking forward to this time together!

    2. Schedule your recurring meeting

    Here’s what you’ll need to decide with your manager:

    • What day and time? Tuesdays at 2 pm 📆
    • How long? 1 hour ⏳
    • How often? Bi-weekly 🗓
    • Where? A virtual call 🗺

    Once you’ve determined all of this, create your recurring calendar event and invite your manager to it.

    3. Set meeting goals and expectations

    What do you want to get out of this meeting? What are your expectations? Remember that the meeting goal will influence the conversations you’re having during your one-on-one.

    Some examples of meeting goals include:

    • To discuss challenges, roadblocks and potential solutions
    • Talk about career growth and personal development
    • Talk about how you’re feeling and if it’s not great, what changes you’d like to see made

    It’s also extremely important to set expectations prior to this meeting. Do you want your manager to contribute to the agenda? How should they prepare?

    Some expectations you should consider establishing with your manager include:

    • Although you share the responsibility for this time, you will drive the conversation.
    • You and your manager will never cancel this meeting and will do everything possible to avoid rescheduling.
    • You will both come prepared to the meeting to discuss what’s on the agenda so that the time is meaningful and productive.

    4. Share the meeting agenda in advance

    Give your manager as much time as possible to prepare for this meeting. Aim to add in all of your agenda items at least 24 hours before the meeting. Realistically, there might be some things you add day-of once in a while and that’s okay, just don’t make it the norm.

    5. Aim to have 3-5 items to the agenda before the meeting

    Whether you’re blocked and want to talk about possible solutions or if you’d like to discuss your career path at the company (and beyond), add it to the agenda. Don’t let things fester. If you want to discuss something (and feel comfortable bringing it up), add it to the agenda.

    During the meeting

    6. Start on time

    This all comes back to the expectations that you set with your manager. If you expect that you both show up on time, it will allow you to start on time.

    7. Add notes and summarize items as you go

    The best way to stay organized and keep track of all of your decisions and conversations is to write them down. This is also great for when you want to bring up bigger conversations, like salary reviews. You’ll be able to look back and pull pieces of recognition, wins, growth and more to help build your case.

    8. Give your manager feedback

    This will really depend on whether or not you feel comfortable in sharing feedback with your manager. To get things going, try asking, “What’s the best way to share feedback with you?” This will help make it easier to share feedback.

    9. Ask questions

    This is your uninterrupted time with your manager. Use this to get clarity on what your managers expect from you and their guidance on how to approach the different challenges you’re facing in the workplace. 

    Here are some questions you can ask during your next one-on-one:

    • What steps can I take right now to progress my career with the company?
    • Who in the company do you think I can learn the most from?
    • How can we improve the way our team works together?
    • What’s something you feel unclear about on my work?
    • What’s an example of a situation I’ve handled well internally, a situation I’ve handled poorly?
    • What qualities are most important when you’re hiring for our team?
    • Is there anything I can do more or less of that would help you?

    10. Ask for feedback

    Part of managing up is proactively sharing and asking for feedback. If your manager isn’t giving you feedback in every single one-on-one, ask for it. If they’re consistently forgetting, ask for feedback from your peers, share that feedback in your next one-on-one with your manager and ask whether they agree or where they’re at odds with your peer feedback. 

    When asking for feedback, try to be specific in your request. Don’t just ask, “How can I improve?” Instead, try asking, “How can I improve the way I communicate with you and the team?”

    A great way to get even more feedback is to ask, “And what else”. This will give your manager an opportunity to share more.

    11. Manage up

    Managing up, very simply put, is the idea of managing your manager. It means employees are being more proactive about managing time and interactions with their manager, so in turn, it requires less management time from the actual manager. The best way you can manage up in one-on-one meetings is by leading the agenda. Prepare for your one-on-ones beforehand, use a shared agenda and document your meetings. 

    12. Don’t let work dominate the conversation

    It’s easy to defer to talking shop in one-on-ones, especially when there’s maybe a difficult conversation you want to have. If you’re having trouble getting yourself out of the shop-talk, try asking questions that probe your manager for feedback on your work. So instead of saying “Here’s where project X is, ” ask “How do you think project X is coming along? Is there anything you think I should be doing differently?” Drive work conversations more around how you can improve and remove any roadblocks rather than status updates. 

    Post-meeting

    13. Send out meeting notes

    Whether your notes live in a shared agenda app or you send them via email, make sure that they’re accessible to you and your manager. 

    You’ll want to make it easy for both of you to go back to your meeting and review what decisions were made, what next steps you agreed to and any other context you’ll need to be effective. 

    Some things to consider including in your meeting notes are: 

    • A list of the items that were on the agenda with summaries of each
    • Action items of things you both committed to (with due dates)

    14. Hold your manager accountable for the things they agree to

    Whether it’s in your meeting notes or not, have action items written down so that you and your manager can use them as reference leading up to your next one-on-one. Remember to always add due dates to action items.

    Most importantly, don’t be afraid to check-in on your manager’s progress and where they’re at with completing action items.

    An employee’s one-on-one meeting checklist

    There’s a lot to consider and that can feel overwhelming. However, once you get going, all of these things will feel like second nature, especially as you build more rapport and trust with your manager.

    If you’re an employee who’s looking to have effective one-on-ones, here are 14 things that you can do:

    Download the employee’s one-on-one meeting checklist here.

    SECTION 6

    One-on-one meeting template

    One-on-one meetings should be unique to each and every employee. That means that there is no one-size-fits-all template. Agenda templates should be used as a means of inspiration for having great discussions with your team. That being said, here’s a weekly template to help kick off your one-on-one discussions.  Customize this to your liking and reiterate in your meetings that this is a two-way dialogue, meaning that both managers and reports shared responsibility for the meeting agenda.

    Weekly one-on-one meeting template

    • What has been the highlight and lowlight of your past week?
    • Goals – how are you tracking this past week? Any blockers I can help remove?
    • What, if anything, feels harder than it should be in your day to day work?
    • If there was one thing I could do differently to help you more, what would it be?
    • On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with your work-life balance? How can we get closer to 10?

    👉 Try this template in Soapbox.

    First one-on-one meeting template

    • What do you like to do outside of work?
    • How do you like to communicate? (Phone, email, Slack, etc.)
    • What time of day do you do your best work?
    • What kind of projects are you most excited to work on?
    • What are your 1 year, 3-year, and 5-year career goals?
    • What does success look like for you in 30 days?

    👉 Try this template in SoapBox.

    If you’d like more options to choose from, check out these 9 one-on-one meeting templates.

    Wrapping up

    One-on-one meetings are the most powerful tool managers have in their toolkit to impact the performance and productivity of their teams. If all else fails, follow these golden rules of one-on-one meetings:

    1. Set up a recurring time and day for your one-on-ones
    2. Always prepare an agenda before the meeting
    3. Be open, transparent and vulnerable in your meeting
    4. Ask questions
    5. Document what you discuss
    6. Assign follow-up
    7. Deliver on your meeting follow-up

    Have better one-on-one meetings with Soapbox!