The Best and Worst Ways To Have A One-On-One Meeting

By David Mizne

Every week I am asked this question, “What do you want to discuss in our next one-on-one meeting?”

Suddenly I am given an opportunity to reflect on what is bothering me most, or on any challenges that I may be having. I am comforted by the fact that in a couple of days, I will be able to sit down with my boss and have exclusive access to his attention, experience and expertise.

I know that not every manager or employee sees the importance of one-on-ones so I have put together this handy-dandy blog post to explain the why and how of this critical business practice. Or check-out the slideshare below:

Don’t skip ‘em

Most managers are responsible for their own projects as well as supporting several team members to be successful at their initiatives. When the pressure is on, it might seem like a good idea to cancel a one-on-one meeting to free up time to meet deadlines for those personal projects.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to this HBR piece by Elizabeth Saunders, unresolved employee issues won’t just go away. While you are ignoring your team to put the finishing touches on your power-point, disaster looms:

- A cancelled 15-30 minute conversation can lead to a flooded inbox. Emails back and forth are inefficient and can end up costing managers even more time than the one-on-one.

– Not answering the emails could lead to employees lingering outside your door, waiting to ambush you during your walk to the bathroom. Constant distractions like these make it difficult to stay in flow and complete your work.

– Employees that give-up and decide to move forward without adequate guidance might create a mess that has to be cleaned up later – leading to more wasted time.

- You are sending the message that the employee is not a priority, which can deteriorate the relationship and team morale.

Come prepared

Ok, so one-on-ones are indispensable. How can they be handled most efficiently?

According to Saunders, managers can “request that tracking documents are updated in advance of your meetings and reports on action items are sent in advance for you to review quickly.” That way the meeting can be spent resolving issues instead of just getting up to speed.

When employees share relevant information and answer important questions before the meeting, both they and their manager are prepared for the discussion.

Another great question to ask employees prior to a meeting is, What challenges are you facing? As inventor Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Not only is the employee priming their manager to think about how to help, he or she will also begin the process of helping themselves.

Looking for great questions to make the most of your one on ones and other meetings? Try 15Five Today!

Create the space

More excellent advice on meeting prep comes from Anese Cavanaugh, who describes how managers can proactively set the container for each meeting so that people can show up with their best thinking and best performance.

In her book, Contagious Culture, Anese advises that managers be fully present and “be aware of, and responsible for, your impact. Hold [the employee] as magnificent. Intend for them to shine. And they will step into that.”

Listen, then speak

About a month ago, I was feeling unmotivated. I was getting bogged-down in the minor details of my job instead of feeling like I was working in my Zone of Genius. That is the unique quality that everyone brings to the table, for me it’s my writing.

Instead of making assumptions or providing his reflections on my performance, my manager began by asking me what was going on for me. He was genuinely curious about my experience. After I shared, he explained how he really wanted me to be working in my ZOG, and even explained how that would serve the greater company goals. We brainstormed ways that I could get back there as soon as possible.

I left the meeting feeling seen, and feeling deeply supported in my success at the company. And knowing that my efforts were helping the company to grow, revitalized my sense of fulfillment. In about 20 minutes, we got on the same page, clarified what I should be working on that was most high-leverage, and strengthened our relationship.

Of course, a broad question like “how’s it going?”, may not be best suited to all employees. If the person is either reluctant to share anything at all, or offers waaay too much information, ask more pointed questions to get to the heart of the matter. This is when asking what they want to discuss ahead of time really pays off.


So much people management can be accomplished over email, employee engagement software, and company-wide or team meetings. But one-on-ones have a particular potency that can’t be replaced. They have 3 basic purposes; build the relationship, answer the most pressing challenges, and re-align the employee with team or company goals.

Unless you are completely devoid of personal skills or are unwilling to listen, you can’t really mess up a one-on-one. In fact, the most common mistake that managers make with these types of meetings is not holding them at all.

Image Credit: Guillermo Viciano

David is not a fan of the terms “thought leadership” or “content marketing”, but he’ll keep using them…for now. Follow him on twitter @davidmizne.





What advice do you have for having an effective one-on-one? Leave a comment below!

Learn why 15Five is improving the way employees and managers communicate.

  • louise

    Great post!

  • Mike Hughes

    I like it. To add, sometimes for my 1 on 1’s we go outside, and I’ve noticed a few things…
    – It felt like we were able to talk more freely then we would be able to out on the floor.
    – This is where we could discuss things that would be hard to relay in e-mails.
    – Also it was nice outside, and a good change of pace.
    – Joe being a smoker, (Arthur is too), he would smoke a cigarette, kept things casual and relaxed.
    The important thing to keep in mind if going outside is not to downplay the preparations and expectations to discuss during the 1 on 1’s. Despite the casual and relaxed manner of the meeting, the conversation and the opportunity for individualized communication is the most important thing.

    • David Mizne

      Great feedback Mike! My preference is also to have 1:1’s outside. So much becomes available with a change of context…and some sunshine.


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