Managing People

The Ultimate Manager's Guide to Leading Effective One-on-Ones

July 29, 2021
June 23, 2022
  —  
By 
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

Communication plays a key role in any manager-employee relationship. While email, Slack, and team meetings can help managers and their direct reports stay in contact, there’s no substitute for actual facetime. That’s why one-on-one meetings are an unparalleled way for individuals to come together to share company, team, and personal updates — and why they’re so crucial.

But while one-on-ones might seem straightforward and easy to lead, they’re actually challenging to perfect. In addition to using one-on-ones to share productivity updates, find solutions to obstacles, and exchange feedback, managers should also take advantage of these casual check-ins to discuss larger, big-picture themes like professional development, career advancement, and performance management.

If that sounds like a jam-packed agenda that’s going to be impossible to fit into a 30-minute time slot, don’t worry — we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help managers ace these important meetings. Whether you’re a first-time manager or an experienced veteran, here are all the best practices, expert advice, and agenda templates you’ll need to lead efficient and effective one-on-ones with ease. 

Benefits of One-on-Ones 

One-on-ones are a standing, recurring meeting between a manager and their direct report. An essential part of the continuous feedback model, one-on-ones help drive workplace communication and connection. But that’s not all they do. When done right, one-on-ones have myriad benefits in the workplace, from increasing productivity to improving engagement

Below is a look at the many benefits of one-on-ones and how to best leverage them to have open, honest, and productive conversations with your direct reports.

One-on-ones provide an opportunity to:

1. Address Roadblocks

Casual, frequent check-ins allow managers to stay informed about any roadblocks that could be impeding an employee’s ability to do their job. Rather than struggle alone in silence, an employee can update their manager on a challenging situation and ask for their help, expertise, and guidance. If a person or process is preventing a project from moving forward, a manager can work with their employee to find the best way to proceed.

As a manager, the sooner you become aware of a roadblock, the sooner you can take action and help your employee resolve it. This can save your direct report the frustration of having to deal with broken processes or difficult coworkers on their own, and enable them to continue to meet their deadlines and performance goals. 

2. Build Trust

One-on-one meetings can play a powerful role in improving the quality and depth of the manager-employee relationship. These casual check-ins are one of the few occasions when managers get alone time with their direct reports in a given week, so they provide an excellent opportunity for managers to get to know their employees on a personal level — which can, over time, lead to a stronger rapport and greater trust.

“Regular one-on-one meetings are an invaluable way to help build rapport and mutual trust between managers and employees,” said Ewelina Melon, Head of People at Tidio, a technology company offering live chat and chatbots software for customer service. “They are the best (and sometimes even the only) opportunity for managers to really get to know their workers and understand their perspectives. One-on-ones are perfect for carefully listening to employees' needs, showing appreciation, and expressing that you care about them.” 

3. Get Face-to-Face Time

As remote and hybrid work continue in the wake of the COVID pandemic, one-on-ones have become increasingly important because they give managers time to connect face-to-face with employees they don’t see in the office every day. Remote employees can more easily be overlooked for promotions or feel disconnected from their teams, so it’s crucial for managers to use these check-ins to understand how they can best support these employees from a distance, share an appreciation for their contributions, and get a pulse check on employee morale.

Frequent one-on-ones with remote employees can also give your remote staff the chance to ask questions or get updated on any in-office conversations they might have missed. As a manager, one-on-ones give you designated time to connect with your remote employees on a personal level, build trust, and ensure that they’re kept in the loop on projects and team updates.

4. Cover Personal Topics

One-on-ones also provide a private and safe environment for employees to discuss more personal topics. Whether they felt disrespected by a colleague or have an issue at home affecting their job performance, employees might be more forthcoming in a private setting about any personal challenges they’re facing.

Once these issues are out in the open, managers can discuss the best way to move forward with their employees — whether that’s addressing a situation head-on, adjusting an employee’s work schedule or responsibilities, or allowing them to take time off. Managers should be empathetic when their employees come forward with these types of challenges, so their team feels supported and comfortable opening up about personal issues in the future.

5. Discuss Career Development

These weekly meetings shouldn’t just cover to-dos and deadlines; managers should also use them to check in on their employees’ professional growth and ensure that their direct reports feel properly challenged and fulfilled by their roles and responsibilities. 

“A sense of career progression is a powerful motivational force,” said Laura Sukorokoff, founder of learning and development consultancy C-Change Learning and Development. “So taking some time to help team members develop their careers is a great display of manager support and care.”

And career conversations shouldn’t be reserved solely for annual performance reviews. Managers must periodically discuss their employees’ long-term goals, offer feedback and coaching, and support their direct reports in making their career aspirations a reality. By having these conversations more frequently, it will be easier for managers to advocate for their employees and help them get one step closer to their dream jobs come promotion time.

6. Share Real-Time Feedback

As an integral part of the continuous feedback model, one-on-ones give managers the ability to share feedback in very close to real-time. “Ongoing one-on-ones allow for real-time adjustments to be made, such as shifts in objectives and responsibilities and more agile course correction,” noted Michele Mavi, Senior Manager of Performance Coaching and Talent Development at staffing and recruitment company Soni Resources. “Additionally, more specific feedback can be given, which is always more helpful than receiving feedback during annual reviews. Employees can make use of actionable feedback right away and see results.”

One-on-ones also allow managers to coach employees more effectively. For example, if during a big presentation, a manager noticed that their employee fumbled through some slides, they can share that feedback in their next one-on-one when the presentation is still fresh in their — and their employee’s — mind. In the one-on-one, the manager might propose a few ways the employee could prepare more effectively for presentations in the future, or suggest that the employee take a public speaking class to increase their comfort and confidence with speaking in front of a large group.

Because they are private and timely, regular one-on-ones are also the perfect opportunity to share constructive feedback. While these might be difficult conversations to have, it's better to address potential issues sooner rather than later so you can put a stop to worrisome behavior before it becomes an even larger problem. Plus, employees will be more open and receptive to receiving advice and constructive feedback in a private and safe environment. 

7. Boost Employee Engagement

According to an article on Gallup, employees who meet regularly with their managers are almost three times more engaged than employees who don’t. But having a manager who merely shows up at the allotted time isn’t enough. 

While it’s important to get frequent facetime with employees, making the most out of that time together is paramount. In order to improve employee engagement, it’s not enough for managers to just show up and think that their physical presence alone will suffice; they need to take it a step further and come prepared and ready to discuss the topics their direct report cares about. In the following section, we’ll share detailed advice on how managers can make the most out of one-on-one meetings.

8 Tips for Better One-on-Ones

With enough practice, any manager can lead highly efficient, effective one-on-ones. To help, we’ve compiled our top tips for improving and optimizing your one-on-one meetings. From coming prepared with discussion points to leaving with actionable next steps, here are a few pointers you can try during your next meeting to make your one-on-ones even better.

1. Come prepared.

Just winging it rarely leads to a successful, productive meeting. While one-on-ones are more casual in nature, they still require the preparation and effort you would give to any other meeting.

For every one-on-one, managers and their direct reports should come prepared with a shared agenda and talking points to stay on task. With Lattice, you and your employee can collaborate to build an agenda that’ll help guide the conversation, making it easy to prepare ahead of time and stay on-task during the meeting.

2. Choose the right cadence.

Managers should work with their direct reports to decide how frequently they should meet (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) and for how long (30 or 60 minutes, for example). Some employees will want and need a more hands-on approach, while more autonomous individuals might prefer a less frequent or lengthy time commitment. Seasonality and workload might also dictate how often you and a given direct report decide to meet.

It’s best to cater the time, length, and frequency of the meetings to the needs and preferences of the direct report. Once there is a system in place, it can easily be changed as needed. Lattice’s 1:1s tool allows you to create recurring meetings or tie your one-on-ones to existing events on your Google, iCal, or Outlook calendar. That way, you’ll never miss a meeting and can easily pick a time that works best for both of your schedules, and update or change the event when necessary.

3. Find a quiet, private location.

While some one-on-ones may be casual check-ins, others might get more serious and personal. In order to make employees feel comfortable discussing whatever they need to in a given week, managers should opt for a quiet, secluded place to conduct these meetings. Choose a meeting room or private area of the office, rather than a bustling cafeteria or high-traffic spot where someone could easily overhear your conversation. This makes employees feel assured that anything they discuss in a one-on-one will remain between them and their manager. A private setting can also help employees be more receptive to receiving constructive feedback or more open to discussing a personal issue.

4. Break the ice.

Before the meeting kicks off and you start running through your shared agenda, take time to break the ice and connect on a more personal level. A simple “How are you doing?” or “What did you do this weekend?” can set a more relaxed, comfortable tone and allow you to learn more about your employee. It can also put them at ease before you dive into your meeting agenda, which might make them more likely to open up during your conversation.

5. Cover the right topics.

One-on-ones shouldn't just be a regurgitation of the tasks and projects your employees are working on. Additionally, they should touch on morale, engagement, professional development, and career aspirations, while also leaving time for you to share feedback and coach your employees. That’s a lot to pack into a 30-minute meeting, so don’t feel like you have to address every topic every single time you meet. Just be sure to discuss each of these themes at least once a month so they remain top-of-mind and your employees know that you’re invested in their personal and professional growth.

6. Take notes.

You can cover a lot of ground in a one-on-one, so take notes to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks — like follow-ups or action items on either of your parts. This is especially important if your direct report asks for your help; you don’t want to forget to take an action you’d promised and risk damaging your relationship or credibility. Taking notes ensures that you’re both on the same page, and can remind you what you’d discussed and agreed to do long after the one-on-one has ended. 

With Lattice’s 1:1 tool, you can easily take notes to capture the important parts of the conversation as well as any next steps. You can also keep a running log of all your meetings, so you’ll always be able to find a recap of what you discussed whenever you need it.

7. Make it actionable.

Every one-on-one should end with clear, actionable steps. Use the last few minutes of the meeting to summarize the discussion, review notes, and discuss next steps. Maybe the manager has to take action to remove a persistent roadblock, or perhaps the direct report needs to pull updated data for an upcoming presentation; whatever the action items may be, make sure both parties are aligned on what work needs to be done and by when, and answer any lingering questions before the meeting ends. 

Lattice’s 1:1s tool makes it easy to create and assign action items during or after your meeting, ensuring that both you and your employee follow up on all the important action items you discussed.

8. Ask the right questions.

In order to best serve your employees and truly understand their situations — and make the most out of your one-on-ones — you need to ask the right questions. Julie Jensen, founder of Moxie HR Strategies, an HR strategy firm based in Oregon, said she sees many managers kick off a meeting by asking, “How’s everything going?” but fail to press employees more after receiving an obligatory “Fine” in response.

Instead of asking surface-level questions, Jensen said, “managers need to come prepared to follow up on the pleasantries by asking very specific questions that are relevant to the person and their work. A question like, ‘Last week you had trouble getting input from several key stakeholders on your compensation project and were planning to do some follow-up work. Where are you at on this now?’ positions the conversation to be productive and informational for both parties,” she continued. “It allows the employee a chance to openly discuss ongoing challenges or accomplishments toward expected outcomes.”

Making questions open-ended also allows your employees to lead the conversation and promotes more detailed discussions. Keep reading for sample open-ended questions you can use to guide your one-on-one conversations.

Sample Questions for Managers to Ask in One-on-Ones

Asking the right questions is a major component of running an effective and efficient one-on-one meeting. While each meeting and employee will require a different set of questions, there are some general best practices that are helpful to follow. 

Below, we’ve put together a list of our favorite questions to ask in a one-on-one meeting. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can spark some strong discussions with your direct reports. You can also use the order of the below outlined topics, picking a few questions from each section, as a rough meeting template for your next one-on-one.

Personal Life

  • How’s it going? 
  • How was your weekend?
  • How has your work/life balance been recently? 
  • Are there any non-company issues that might be making it challenging to focus on your work? 

Productivity

  • What did you focus on this week? 
  • What are your goals for next week? 
  • What have you accomplished in the past week that you are most proud of? 
  • What’s your biggest roadblock right now? 
  • Is there something or someone holding you back at the moment?
  • What can I do to make your life easier? 

Collaboration and Teamwork

  • Do you feel like the team is communicating effectively? If not, what could be improved?
  • Is there a problem on the team that I might not be aware of?
  • Do you feel connected with the rest of the team? Is there anything I can do to help?

Career Development

  • What aspect(s) of your role do you love and why? 
  • What aspect(s) do you dislike and why? 
  • Do you feel your current job and responsibilities align well with your career goals? 
  • In the next few weeks, our team will be taking on a few additional projects. Would you have any interest in working on one of them? 
  • Are there any skills you’re interested in learning or improving?
  • Are there any conferences you’d like to attend or courses you’d like to take?

Manager Feedback 

  • Do you have any feedback for me
  • How can I change my management style to better support you?
  • Is there anything we can change about these meetings to make them more impactful for you? 
  • Is there anything we didn’t get to today that you’d like to discuss in our next meeting?
  • Would you like me to share more updates from the leadership team? If so, what kind of information would be helpful?

Common Mistakes to Avoid 

Some one-on-ones stand out for all the wrong reasons — your employee could accidentally catch sight of confidential information while in your office, your staff member could not respond well to feedback on an area for improvement, or you could accidentally be double-booked and miss the meeting entirely. Luckily, these situations are easily avoidable if you approach each meeting with a little self-awareness and take the time to come prepared. 

Here are the most common mistakes managers make during one-on-ones — and how to avoid them.

1. Don’t do all the talking.

While it’s important to ask questions, provide feedback, and coach your employees during a one-on-one, by no means should you be doing all the talking in your meetings. Instead, encourage your employees to lead your one-on-ones, and kick off the agenda with what they want to discuss first. You can, of course, chime in periodically to answer questions and provide your insight, but make sure you’re spending a good deal of time actively listening so you can fully understand what’s on their plate, what they need help with, and how they are feeling about their role and the team. 

2. Don’t cancel a meeting.

Canceling or missing a one-on-one meeting, whether intentionally or by accident, can send a powerful message: I don’t have time for you. One-on-ones are the one time a week when you can give your employee your undivided attention, so you owe it to them to be there.

Of course, last-minute obligations pop up, but if and when they do, be sure to communicate to your employee the reason you have to miss your meeting, your gratitude for their understanding, and when a better time to meet would be. Try not to cancel without rescheduling immediately; otherwise, you might forget and fail to find another time.

3. Don’t only cover tasks and to-dos. 

While it’s important to understand your employee's workload and what projects they’re working on, status updates shouldn’t be the only thing you discuss during your time together. Ask about their career aspirations, how they’re performing against goals, and what aspects of their job they love or dislike. These types of questions will help you better understand how to manage and coach your employee — and keep them happy during their time with the company.

4. Don’t be distracted.

A one-on-one meeting is not the time to catch up on emails, reply to Slack messages, or cross off items on your own to-do list; your employees deserve your full attention. Lack of focus is one of the most common mistakes managers make during one-on-ones, according to Ron Hurst, PhD, President and owner of Los Angeles-based HR consultancy Developing Leaders Inc

“Checking your phone, responding to text messages, and monitoring your email are behaviors that send a clear signal to your employee: You are just going through the motions and don't really want to know them,” Hurst cautioned. “By continuing to focus on your work rather than focusing on your employee and building your relationship, you defeat the primary purpose of a one-on-one.”

Give your employee your undivided attention by putting your devices on “Do Not Disturb” mode and resisting the temptation to multitask in your meeting. When you're fully present, you'll not only be able to provide better support, but you'll also be able to detect more subtle nonverbal communication cues, like tone and body language. Your employees will be able to sense whether you’re fully present or distracted, so be sure to focus on them and their needs for the duration of the meeting.

5. Don’t fail to follow up on promises.

Any manager-employee relationship is based on trust and credibility. When you continue to support your employees and follow through on your promises, you help build that trust and improve your relationship. Unfortunately, a history of forgetting to follow up on your commitments to them can undermine that trust and make an employee less inclined to turn to you when they need help. It can also breed resentment and hurt engagement in the long run, so be sure to be straightforward with your team, follow through on the commitments you make, and admit when you fall short or make a mistake.

We’re all human and it’s unavoidable that from time to time, some things will slip through the cracks. Just do your best to keep track of what you say you’ll do for your employees and always aim to follow through. Luckily, you can create and track action items after every one-on-one with Lattice’s 1:1s tool, enabling you to keep all your follow-up actions in one place so you can check them off one by one — staying true to your promises and building trust with your employees in the process.



Remember that as a manager, you’re only responsible for 50% of each one-on-one meeting — the rest is dependent on your employee’s contribution. While these check-ins are an effective way to stay on top of employee productivity and help you better understand how your team is working toward goals, the main purpose of a one-on-one meeting is to help your employee. 

You and your direct report must work together to determine what to discuss during your weekly syncs, but when in doubt, turn to your employee to guide the conversation. A combination of active listening, open-ended questions, and plenty of empathy can help you use one-on-ones to be a better manager and support your employees however they need.