Managing People

The Ultimate Guide to Manager One-on-Ones

July 19, 2022
August 25, 2023
Lattice Team

Managing people makes for a busy schedule. Delegating tasks, keeping track of project updates, and reporting progress to leaders takes time and flexibility. This means managers have to be intentional in how they prioritize their calendars, without forgetting to check in with each of their direct reports individually.

It can be tempting to do these check-ins asynchronously over email or Slack, but nothing can truly take the place of a one-on-one meeting: 30 minutes for managers to get real-time feedback from their direct reports, including pressing issues, new ideas, and chronic frustrations that require the nuance of face-to-face conversations.

But for managers with multiple team members, this can seem time-consuming. How can they make the most of these 30 minutes? We’re breaking down everything managers need to know about running successful, meaningful, and effective one-on-ones with their team members.

What are One-on-Ones?

One-on-Ones (or 1:1s) are a regularly scheduled time for managers to check-in with direct reports.

Effective 1:1s help companies and managers understand how employees are feeling about their day-to-day work, their professional development, and the organization as a whole. These meeting are typically viewed as a management tool to increase output, track progress towards goals, and stay in touch with employees’ happiness. But they should be framed as the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting.

Elements of an Effective 1:1

  • Employee-led: Individual contributors own the agenda and dictate the conversation, which provides agency and opportunities for constructive feedback.
  • Consistent: Meeting cadences should be regular, whether they‘re weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Consistency helps employees set expectations about a manager‘s availability, and help managers keep a regular pulse on how their team members are doing.
  • Comprehensive: Agendas should be a cross between day-to-day challenges, career development, job satisfaction, and anything else on the employee’s mind. 1:1s are not a status update meeting. If status updates for tasks are necessary, they should be kept short (5 minutes or less).
  • Ongoing: Open-ended conversations are a feedback mechanism to help employees grow their skills and overcome challenges. 1:1s make sure performance review conversations happen more than once a year.

Why Do 1:1s Matter?

One-on-ones help employees, managers, and companies understand each other in different ways.

For employees

One-on-ones are a sacred time where employees get a manager’s undivided attention. It’s an opportunity to:

  • Clear roadblocks. Managers can provide perspective and context to help employees overcome challenges in their projects. 1:1s give employees an opportunity to get advice from managers solve problems in a candid, safe space.
  • Gather feedback. Submitting work without receiving feedback can lead to confused or misguided employees. 1:1s are an opportunity for employees to talk with managers about their productivity and output to understand how to improve and get recognition when they did a great job.
  • Discuss career growth. Employees with a growth mindset may have questions about developing new skills or the next step in their career progression. 1:1s are a touch point for having regular, transparent conversations about career development to learn now to unlock the next level of their role or specialization.
  • Share feelings and ideas. Building a meaningful, supportive relationship with a manager means employees feel empowered to share their thoughts and ideas about the company, their team and their workflow. 1:1s are an appropriate, private forum for them to share feelings (good and bad) and bounce ideas off their manager.

For managers

Managers are often evaluated by the performance of their team: the greater the team output, the more successful the manager. It’s the job of the manager to provide advice and help their team cross the finish line. The challenge for managers is that time is scarce; managers are responsible for so much work that they have to delegate to the team. This dynamic means managers must focus on high-leverage activities, actions that have an exponential rate of return on investment. By having frequent 1:1s, managers are able to:

  • Help employees overcome challenges. 1:1s are a safe space for employees to express concerns or needs with solving problems in their workload. Managers should lean into their working relationship with each employee to empower their skills development and capacity to overcome challenges.
  • Steer employees down the right path. Recurring meetings are an informal touch-point for managers to guide their team to success. Because 1:1s are more open-ended than status updates or reports, managers can provide mentorship and valuable guidance to align employee growth with team goals and OKRs.
  • Uncover new ideas or improvements. Empowering employees to own the meeting agenda can encourage them to bring up new ideas or opportunities for innovation. In return, managers can decide to escalate potential improvements to leadership, or support employees in solving problems themselves without feeling like they‘re being micro-managed.
  • Build trust with their team members. During these conversations, managers have an opportunity to make employees feel valued and make sure their concerns about the workplace are addressed. Asking open-ended questions can help build trust and accountability between managers and employees, which leads to more engaged and satisfied workforce.

For companies

One-on-ones are the essential building blocks of your company communications. They provide a communication architecture for escalating problems all the way up to executive leadership. Without well-designed structures for communication and valuable information about key challenges, ideas and innovation may fall through the cracks. This free flow of ideas helps keep your company moving forward and makes employees feel empowered. When employees at every level are participating in regular 1:1s, companies holistically benefit in several ways:

  • Employee engagement: When companies invest in the structure and culture that comes from regular 1:1s, employees are more likely to reflect on their past week of productivity and needs, and are more engaged in their day-to-day work.
  • Talent retention: Workers feel important and valued when they are confident their voices and contributions matter. Having managers spend time recognizing their employees’ needs and contributions shows employees the company cares about their team goals and career goals.
  • High-performing teams. Meaningful communication and engagement helps managers keep a pulse on their team’s growth and productivity. When managers are well-informed and employees are empowered to share feedback, teams can achieve their goals more effectively.

Across the board, investing in 1:1s ensures employees get the training they need to overcome work challenges, receive recognition for significant achievements, and they get the support they need when dealing with personal issues.

How to Run a Successful One-on-One

Just having a regular meeting cadence isn’t enough. 1:1s have to be meaningful and mutually beneficial. A few things for managers to keep in mind when having one-on-ones with your team members:

1. Make it about them.

Remember that the meeting is about the employee: how they’re feeling about work, current challenges, innovative ideas, career aspirations, and aptitudes for growth. The entire conversation should be focused on the employee to show them you’re hearing what they’re saying, giving them the continuous feedback (and recognition) they deserve, and demonstrating how the company values their contributions.

Start by asking what’s on the their mind. Employees should own the meeting agenda and generally dictate the flow of the conversation, but when the discussion starts to slow down, it’s on the manager to ask employee-centric questions that touch on key issues. This is especially important for creating a sense of psychological safety so employees know they can share what matters most to them.

2. Create a schedule and stick to it.

In the day-to-day shuffle, it’s easy to think about 1:1s as non-essential meetings, especially when they’re not directly related to the bottom line or client work. But the opposite is true: A 30-minute conversation with your employee can go a long way in making sure they're on track and happy with their job.

Most 1:1s last between 30 and 60 minutes. Put the time on your calendar and do your best to not cancel. If for some reason you can’t make it, always reschedule. Not only will this show employees that they’re a top priority but will also improve the work product and efficiency of the team.

3. Ask for an agenda.

Productive meetings take preparation and 1:1s are no exception. Since it’s the employees meeting, it’s on them to own the agenda and prepare ahead of time. The employee should decide how they want to use the time with their manager.

At Lattice, we’ve found it helpful to have consistent opening questions each week to get the conversation flowing:

  • What did you focus on this week?
  • What are your plans and priorities for next week?
  • What challenges or roadblocks do you need help with?
  • Is there anything else on your mind?

For more ideas about what to ask during 1:1s, download our agenda templates for remote 1:1 questions and manager 1:1 agendas.

4. Help them open up.

Often times the conversation during a 1:1 stagnates — perhaps a slow week resulted in no roadblocks, or a new hire feels hesitant about being candid. This is where it’s time for the manager to ask questions rooted in empathy and care. Some questions we’ve found effective:

Short and Long Term Goals

  • How can we help improve your day-to-day work?
  • How are you feeling about your current projects?
  • What would you like to work on next quarter?
  • A year from now, what do you want to have accomplished?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

Company Improvement

  • What’s the biggest opportunity we’re not thinking about?
  • How can the team work better together? Where are we failing? Where are we succeeding?
  • What’s your least favorite thing about the work environment?
  • How are you feeling about the company’s future? Why do you say that?
  • If you were the CEO, what changes would you make?

Career Development

  • Do you feel like we’re helping to advance your career? What else can I be doing to help grow your career?
  • Do you feel like you’re learning at work?
  • What projects are you most proud of? What do you want to work on next?
  • If you were not in your current role, what industry or field would you like to be in?
  • What’s a professional development project you’d like to pursue?

Manager Suggestions

  • How can I be a better manager?
  • How can I make your work easier?
  • What areas of your work do you want more/less direction from me?
  • What additional resources do you need?
  • How can we improve these 1:1s?

Job Satisfaction

  • Are you happy in your current role?
  • What’s not fun about working here?
  • What’s working for your work-life balance?
  • I’ve noticed you’re a more (adjective) than usual. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
  • What do you want to do but don’t feel like you have the time for?

Besides asking leading questions, another effective strategy to help employees open up is a change in scenery — go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, walk around an art museum. This change of pace can help managers build stronger relationships, which will help employees comfortable enough to open up.

5. Take Notes and Follow Up

If you’re running a successful 1:1 as a manager, then each week you’ll uncover different challenges and insights about the employee, such as a desire to grow a new skill or a problem they’re experiencing on a particular project. It’s essential to follow up on any issues in subsequent 1:1s. This shows you truly care about their concerns because you took the time (and remembered) to address their needs.

Take notes during every meeting, so you remember the issues raised and appropriate action items. At Lattice, we use our check-in tool to add structure, take meeting notes, and help managers follow up, but a running Google doc also works. No matter where you’re taking notes, make sure to close the feedback loop by following up about important findings.

Lattice helps teams manage performance with seamless feedback integration and meaningful structures for employee-manager check-ins. To learn more about effective meeting strategies that drive performance and development, download our ebook How to Use Performance Management to Inspire Employee Growth.