In the midst of hectic work days, regular one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports can often devolve into focusing on what went wrong (like a completed project that didn’t end well), or what’s happening right now (like roadblocks on a current one). 

But these regular opportunities to connect with employees shouldn’t just focus on criticizing what’s happened in the past, reacting to the present, and going over other status updates. One-on-ones also need to address the future — namely, the interests of the employee going forward, including their career growth and development plans and how their hopes and dreams fit into company goals overall, said Sarah Skidmore, CEO of Skidmore Consulting, a consulting company that provides leadership training.

Setting aside time to talk about employee development during one-on-one meetings can require some advance planning, but the effort is worth it. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 Report, managers are responsible for 70% of variance in team engagement — meaning, managers play a significant role in whether or not their staff members are engaged. In order for managers to positively influence their employees’ well-being, they must be skilled in having honest and meaningful conversations with their team members about development, the report said.

One-on-one meetings provide the perfect opportunity for routine conversations about professional development and, when they’re done right, these regular check-ins can bolster employee engagement, success, and retention. Furthermore, one-on-ones build the foundation for high-performing teams.

“We really want to spend time dedicated to the future — where [an employee] wants [their] growth to be [and] what opportunities there are with the organization,” Skidmore said. “But then, bring it back to the present because [they] need to take action in the present to develop [their skills and abilities].” 

One-on-ones offer a prime opportunity for employee development. Here are eight ways to foster your workers’ skills and career growth during one-on-ones.

1. Let your employee lead.

Some managers use one-on-ones as an opportunity to deliver a monologue, but this approach ultimately isn’t going to be very effective. Instead, let employees set the tone for these virtual or in-person check-ins. 

Show your team members that you trust them to know what they need to do their job well — whether that’s help on a project, a new certification, or other development opportunities — by letting them set the meeting agenda and direct the discussion points.

“It’s your employee’s time,” Skidmore said. “Turn the tables and empower your employee to come to that time with the priorities that are important to them.” 

2. Facilitate a focused discussion.

Leadership coach Meredith Turney encourages managers and employees to fill out a meeting template or questionnaire ahead of time that can direct the conversation during the session. Opt for open-ended questions rather than those that just require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. These types of discussion questions might cover an employee’s day-to-day role and responsibilities, recent achievements, or any current obstacles or challenges, and could also delve into broader, deeper topics, like what would make the employee become dissatisfied with their job and what gets them really excited about their work. 

When they meet up, the manager and employee can compare notes to determine where there is alignment and misalignment, Turney said. Then, together they can develop an action plan to tackle what’s next.

3. Encourage self-awareness.

Not every employee has a plan for their future. Managers can help them become more introspective by asking the right questions. Queries could cover, for example, things like where they are now in developing their leadership and performance capabilities and what their strengths and weaknesses are, recommended Allison O’Brien, Director of Learning and Development at training and development consultancy ECHO Listening

From there, the employee can start mapping out their own plan, O’Brien said. “For someone to feel engaged and to participate in employee development, it has to be because they want it for themselves versus someone saying, ‘You need to develop in this area.’” 

4. Consider what they enjoy doing. 

An employee may be great at building spreadsheets for the team, but they also may absolutely hate the task. But that same individual probably has other roles that they both excel at and love — perhaps leading collaborations with other teams or focusing on a technical aspect of their job. During these regular check-ins, help team members reflect on their skillsets, what they truly love about their work, and how they can take advantage of those passions to grow their careers and support company values and goals, advised Carrie Missele, Learning and Development Director for management consultancy Inspirant Group.

Career paths aren’t linear, Missele said. “As a manager, you learn things and you can say, ‘I didn’t realize you love doing that.’ Maybe as you’re thinking about the future of your team, you might know there is a role that is more of that thing that that person [enjoys doing and] might consider.”

5. Pay attention to their well-being.

Employees that are doing are getting all of their daily tasks done, but their well-being may not be tended to, Skidmore pointed out. And that can impact their ability to even consider signing up for a mentorship program or training opportunity. That’s why managers must make time during one-on-ones to address an employee’s well-being at the personal level.

Are they getting assigned the toughest projects among other members of the team? Do they have the tightest deadlines? If so, does that stress them out? If the answer is yes, it might be time to address their workload to make room for their development

Results from employee pulse surveys and other employee-feedback-gathering methods can also guide conversations during regular check-ins about an individual’s well-being. And if a pulse survey reveals that most of the workforce is stressed, managers should ask their direct reports how they’re doing during one-on-ones.

“Development is generally not in the job description,” Skidmore said. “A lot of times, our job descriptions are focused on tasks [and] to-dos. So if we’re in a space where we’re burned out, we’re not going to have the energy or desire to go a little bit above and beyond to develop ourselves.” 

6. Build trust by cultivating rapport.

Employees will be less likely to open up about their needs and dreams of advancement if their manager isn’t vulnerable with them, too. If, as a manager, an employee asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to or expresses interest in pursuing a position in another department that you’ve never worked in, admit that you don’t know the answer and connect them to the right person or resource, O’Brien said.

It’s critical for managers to be open about what they don’t know and follow up with answers for their team members, she said. This will help build rapport and trust.

“Disclosure is a true indicator of whether or not there is trust in that relationship. Employees that feel like their manager ‘gets’ them, gets their experience, respects them, [and] respects their ideas are going to continue to disclose and [invest in] that relationship,” O’Brien said. “[When] employees don’t believe that their manager is connected to what’s important to them [and] what concerns them, they start to withhold; they won’t disclose, they withdraw, and then they leave.”

7. Challenge your own biases.

Managers can enter one-on-ones with blinders on, Skidmore noted. For example, you might think your junior employee is just like you were 20 years ago — eager and destined for leadership. In reality, that individual could be excited about becoming an expert in their field, but have absolutely no desire to ever manage people. In other cases, some managers might bristle at an employee who shares that they hope to take over their manager’s role one day.

Don’t let these recurring meetings turn into difficult conversations driven by your own biases and projections. Instead, “let the employee, not the manager, guide [the] conversation so the manager isn’t influencing that employee’s career goals,” Skidmore advised. “The last thing we want to do is not allow employees to be able to voice their dreams, goals, and vision for their career so much so that they don’t see that they have a future with that organization.” 

8. Revisit their annual goals.

It can be all too easy to let those employee development goals hashed out during more formal employee performance review processes go by the wayside. One-on-ones provide an opportunity to check in on these goals in real time and offer constructive feedback on the progress so far. Has the employee taken steps to take part in a mentorship program or get that certification they wanted? At the same time, is the manager making room for them to accomplish those goals? 

Without regularly revisiting those original development goals, the year can pass without much movement on them, Skidmore cautioned. 


It takes time, effort, and intention to foster discussions about employee development during one-on-ones, but these personalized conversations to build individualized learning and development plans for each worker can go a long way, experts agreed. And that’s especially true today. 

During the current Great Resignation, workers are quitting their jobs at record rates. Additionally, remote work is leaving many people feeling disconnected from their workplaces and colleagues. Employees are missing out on the camaraderie and learnings that can come from close-knit work relationships or informal check-ins at the water cooler. One-on-ones (whether virtual or in person) that are tailored to individual employees’ needs and goals can make a big difference.

“[If] you can empower someone individually and make them feel like they’re getting individualized attention — something tailored to them [that’s] authentic —  that goes a long way in retaining talent and keeping them engaged in the role,” said Turney.

Ready to boost your employees’ development with thoughtfully planned one-on-ones? Ask us how we make it easy with Lattice Grow, designed to help managers develop their teams. Schedule a demo today to learn more!