One on Ones - A Manager's Guide

One on ones are a fantastic way for managers, directors, and executives to build stronger teams. This simple process can help you build rapport, help uncover issues before they become a big deal, and build productive working relationships with your direct reports.

This is the most comprehensive guide to one on ones on the web - we’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started. If you’re new to one on ones, or are looking for a refresher to make sure you’re on the right track, this guide is for you.

Improve engagement

The Role of Managers

First, it’s important to recognize how important managers are to an organization’s health. According to Gallup, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.

Also, one in two employees have left a job because of their manager. There’s a clear correlation between a great manager and employee retention.

Finally, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them. Put simply, managers and their communication has a clear impact on the health of an organization. That’s why one on ones are so important.

What are One on One Meetings?

One on ones are scheduled weekly meetings you have with each of your direct reports to check-in and see how everything is going. These are typically around 30-minutes in length. The manager’s job is to listen, ask probing questions, and uncover ways to improve. Let’s discuss the building blocks below:

Scheduled

These meetings should be a recurring meeting on your calendar, not an ad-hoc event that you decide to do when you have enough time. By making this a weekly occurrence (and putting it on your calendar), you’re sending a signal to each employee that they matter. It also helps craft a culture of giving and receiving feedback.

Think of one on ones like going to the gym (or building another habit). If you’re trying to get the team to give you more honest feedback, is it reasonable to expect that they will do this effectively on the first week?

Probably not.

Likewise, it takes time to create a feedback culture. Build the cadence through consistency, the results will come over time.

Everyone on the Team

One on ones are for everyone you manage, not only the top performers. If you hold a meeting with certain employees and not others, you’re sending a signal that only a few people are worth your time. This may increase engagement with the people that you meet with, but will destroy morale with the people you don’t meet with.

This is by far the most important building block of a success one on one. Schedule these meetings with every person on your team.

30 minutes

Next, the length of the meeting matters. If it’s too short, you won’t get the feedback you need. If the meeting is too long, you won’t want to schedule it because it takes too long. That’s why we recommend you keep these meetings around thirty minutes in length.

Certain employees will want to talk more than others, so this may require periodically running over the allotted time, especially if you’re discussing something important. Thirty minute meetings is rule of thumb, not a hard-fast requirement.

Personal

Don’t hold one on one meetings in public spaces. Certain employees may fear giving the most honest feedback because other people on the team can overhear them. If you have an office, hold the meetings there.

If you manage a remote team, we recommend using Google hangouts or Skype by default. It’s easier to read body language vs. a phone call.

Ask questions

One on ones are a meeting where the employee sets the agenda, not you. This isn’t a meeting regarding performance, but instead, it’s a time to ask questions, listen, and coach if needed. Typically we see managers kick-off these meetings by asking “how’s everything going?”

We recommend that you enter these meetings acting like a detective. It’s your job to collect feedback and improve - even if things are going smashingly well, you can still find ways to improve as a manager and create a better employee experience.

The only way to discover these insights is by asking questions.

Take notes

Finally, one on ones require note-taking by the manager. It’s widely documented that taking handwritten notes helps boost information retention. There’s also a few softer reasons at play. If you sit behind a computer, there’s a chance you could get distracted by a Slack message or email.

Employees know this too. Handwritten notes also is a signal to others that you’re focusing on them and what you can learn. When someone takes notes in a meeting, it’s an active signal that they are interested in what you have to say.

Finally, notes is a great way to remember things for later. Especially if there’s action-items that develop from the one on one.

Benefits of one on ones

There’s a plethora of benefits to a one on one meeting which we’ve outlined below. If I could summarize, it’s a great way to get to know your team on a personal and professional basis. These meetings give you insights and help you create a unique employee experience for every member of your team.

Strengthen relationships

The first benefit of a one on one meeting is that it empowers you to get to know your team on a personal basis. In this meetings you can uncover what motivates each employee, what their career aspirations are, and how you can empower them to do their best work.

If you manage a team of several people, it’s easy to spend more time with people you naturally get along with. It’s also a competition for time and attention. If you don’t set time aside to specifically get to know each employee through one on ones, it’s a great way to unknowingly play favorites.

Proactively discover issues

No team is perfect, and a byproduct of working with others is that interpersonal issues pop up. A benefit of a one on one is that you can discover these much faster than you could through other mechanisms.

We see two key contributors at play. First, if you schedule a weekly meeting, the cadence enables you to discover small issues before they become a big deal. While a lot can happen in a week, many major problems stem from a small issue growing over weeks (or months).

Secondly, the private nature of these meetings means there’s little fear of what others might think (like in weekly meetings). It’s just a manager and the associate.

Address Performance Issues

One on ones are also a great place to address performance issues. Once again, due to the frequent cadence, you can talk about performance without waiting for performance review season. It’s a great way to address things before they grow.

Recognition

If one on ones have a constant negative vibe to them, you’re doing them wrong. While you should be able to point out negative behavior and course-correct, these meetings are also a great time to say thank you for the extra effort an employee is putting in. Don’t forget to give praise - it’s something managers don’t do enough of.

Meeting Format

If you’re new to one on ones, we’re going to keep this as simple as possible. The most important meeting is the one you have. If you go into these meetings with too much complexity, you won’t end up doing them. That’s why we recommend keeping the meeting simple by following the structure below:

Their update

If you’re a manager, typically these meetings start off by asking “how’s everything going?” In the first fifteen minutes, ask questions that dig deeper into how they are feeling about their work, their teammates, and whatever else they’d like to talk about.

In this section, you can uncover what motivates each employee. Make sure to take notes as this will help you craft an employee experience that maximizes everyone’s strengths.

Your update

Successful one on ones aren’t team vent-fests, but instead a two-way conversation. It’s common for issues to pop-up, and it’s important that you provide context and help them understand why a certain decision was made.

Please note, this is a proposed format, but the important thing is that it’s a conversation where both parties feel like they can be open and honest.

Next steps

In the final five minutes, agree on next steps (if needed). As a manager, this is why taking notes is so important. If an associate brings up an issue or suggestion for improvement, take it to heart and do everything you can in your power to fix it. Also make sure to communicate progress along the way.

If an employee shows vulnerability and brings up an issue that may be tough for them to discuss, it’s your job to do something about it. Make sure you follow through.

Questions to ask

The key to a successful one on one is by asking questions (and follow-up questions). We’ve compiled a list of sample questions you can ask below:

  • How’s work going?
  • How can I help you this upcoming week?
  • What’s the best part of your job?
  • What’s the worst part about your job?
  • What do you think about _________?
  • What the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past week?
  • It doesn’t seem like you’re enjoying ________, what would you rather be doing?
  • It seems like you’re enjoying ________, is this an area of interest for you?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about ________, what would it be?
  • If you were me, what would you change about ________?
  • Who on the team is doing a fantastic job?

The key is to ask open-ended questions. Dig deeper in every response to uncover motivations and what each associate is passionate about. Make sure to take notes!

Wrapping up

In conclusion, one on one meetings may be the most high-impact meeting you have as a manager. Take advantage of this time to create strong relationship with each of your colleagues, and learn more about how you can empower them to be successful.