Turnover was high on Bill’s team—higher, in fact, than on most other teams at his company. Although Bill thought of himself as a good manager, exit interviews with his departing team members suggested that they hadn’t felt meaningfully engaged or fully supported in their roles and had tended to step on one another’s toes with their assignments.
What, exactly, was Bill doing wrong? One area stood out when I spoke with him and his team: He held fewer regular one-on-one (1:1) meetings with his direct reports than his peers at the company did. When he did meet with team members individually, the subject tended to be a critical issue he needed help with rather than their work or their development.
Bill, a composite of managers I’ve worked with and studied, clearly had a blind spot when it came to 1:1s. Such blind spots are not uncommon. Of 250 direct reports I surveyed recently, nearly half rated their 1:1 experiences as suboptimal. That’s hardly surprising, given that few organizations provide strong guidance or training for managers about when and how to meet individually with their employees. But my research shows that managers who don’t invest in such conversations—who view them as a burden, hold them too infrequently, or manage them poorly—risk leaving their team members disconnected, both functionally and emotionally.
The best managers recognize that 1:1s are not an add-on to their role—they are foundational to it. Those who fully embrace these meetings as the place where leadership happens can make their teams’ day-to-day output better and more efficient, build trust and psychological safety, and improve employees’ experiences, motivation, and engagement. The managers thrive in turn, because their success is tied to the performance of those reporting to them.
I’ve been studying teams, leadership, engagement, and meetings at work for decades, and in the past three years I’ve set out specifically to learn what makes 1:1s work best by doing three studies: a global survey of 1,000 knowledge workers, a U.S. survey of 250 people who either lead or participate in 1:1s, and interviews with nearly 50 top leaders at various Fortune 100 companies. I’ve discovered that although no one-size-fits-all approach exists, there are some useful guidelines for managers. Most important is that the manager should consider the meeting a focused space for the direct report and make that explicit. The meeting should be dominated by topics relating to the needs, concerns, and hopes of the employee, who should take an active role in presenting them. As the manager, your responsibilities are to ensure that the meetings occur, actively facilitate them, encourage genuine conversation, ask good questions, offer support, and help each team member get what’s needed for optimal short-term performance and long-term growth.
In this article I’ll lay out how to prepare for and facilitate effective 1:1s.
Before the Meetings
Setting up your 1:1s should entail more than dropping invites onto your team members’ calendars. You should lay the groundwork for your conversations and plan the logistics to best fit each report’s unique needs.
Communicate the initiative or your reboot of the initiative.
Whether or not the practice of holding 1:1s is new to your team, announce it at a team meeting so that everyone gets the message at the same time and no one feels singled out. Tie the meetings to your organization’s values (such as the importance of hearing employees’ voices) and to your personal values (such as striving to be a supportive leader). Also stress that these conversations are not meant to signal dissatisfaction with your team’s work and are not about micromanaging; rather, they are opportunities for you and each member to get to know each other better, learn about challenges, and discuss careers, and for you to give help when it’s needed. This is also a good moment to tell your team members what you need from them to make the meetings successful: They should drive the agenda with key priorities, be curious, be actively engaged, communicate candidly, think deeply about problems and solutions, and be willing to ask for help and act on feedback.
My research suggests that you should adopt one of three plans for the frequency of 1:1s: (1) You meet with each of your team members once a week for 30 minutes or so. In my surveys, employees, regardless of job level, rated this approach the most desirable; it also correlated with the highest levels of engagement. (2) In the second-highest-rated plan you meet every other week for 45 to 60 minutes. (3) In a hybrid plan you meet with some team members weekly and others every two weeks. Whichever plan you choose, aim to spend roughly equivalent amounts of time with employees over the course of a month so that all team members get the same in-person support from you. To determine the right cadence, consider:
Team member experience. Weekly meetings are ideal for more-junior employees and those who are new to the team. They allow you to provide coaching and other support for the employees’ growth and development and to build a relationship.
Manager tenure. Similarly, if you are new to the team, weekly meetings are ideal for establishing relationships and alignment.
Team size. If your team is large (10 or more), consider holding 1:1s every other week so that you can stagger them across a longer time span. You may need to reduce the time allotted to each meeting. To ease the load associated with a large team, some managers introduce peer mentoring, in which team members give guidance and feedback to one another rather than rely solely on the manager.
Remote or in person. If your team is remote, weekly meetings can help counter a lack of spontaneous face-to-face contact.
Team member preference. Finally, give your employees a voice in the decision.
I’ve seen some managers, mostly senior leaders, opt for three or four weeks between 1:1s, but investing only 60 minutes or so with each team member every month makes building a trusting relationship difficult. And because more-recent events are easier to recall, the longer time lapse also means that you’re less likely to discuss any issues that arose several weeks prior to the meeting. These meetings are most effective when you can build momentum around specific areas of the direct report’s activities and growth. A monthly cadence makes that more challenging. But if your team members are seasoned and have worked with you a long time, and you are readily available for impromptu conversations, this cadence can work and is preferable to nothing. However, employees rated this option as least desirable, and it was associated with smaller gains in engagement.
Finally, avoid canceling 1:1s, which can hamper your team members’ progress and make them feel that they are low on your priority list. This was one of Bill’s problems: He readily canceled these meetings if he got busy. That sometimes demoralized his team members; they also found themselves duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes because they hadn’t had a chance to coordinate their work through Bill. If you must cancel, reschedule the meeting right away, ideally for the same week—even if that means moving the meeting up rather than moving it out. Another option is to reduce the length of the meeting: Some time together is better than none at all.
Set a location.
In my research, employees rated virtual 1:1s as slightly less desirable than those held in person, but they rated the ultimate value of the meetings similarly regardless of which form they’d taken. If you can meet in person, choose a location where you and your employee will feel at ease, present, and free of distractions. In my surveys the most highly rated location was the manager’s office or a conference room; the lowest was the direct report’s office. Support for outside locations, such as coffee shops, or taking a walk near the office, was uneven, so don’t assume that everyone would welcome them. Talk to your team members in advance to gauge where they feel most comfortable.
Create an agenda.
Many managers assume that 1:1s are too informal to require an agenda, but my research shows that having one is a strong predictor of the effectiveness of the meeting, whether it was created in advance (which is ideal) or at the meeting itself (if necessary).
Even more critical, though, is the employee’s involvement in the agenda’s creation: Both direct reports and managers rated meetings most highly when the reports contributed to or established the agenda themselves. Bill’s habit of organizing his 1:1s around his own priorities and needs meant that his team members’ concerns were usually relegated to the end of the meeting—and often went unaddressed if time ran out.
Collaborating on an agenda can be as simple as having each party create a list of topics to discuss. In the meeting the two should work through first the employee’s list and then the manager’s, as time allows. (Both should review their notes from previous 1:1s while preparing their lists in case some topic requires follow-up.)
Alternatively, some managers create the agenda from broad questions, such as: What would you like to talk about today? How are things going with you and your team? What are your current priorities, and are there any problems or concerns you would like to talk through? Is there anything I can help you with or anywhere I can better support you? What do I need to know about or understand from your perspective?
A warning: Both these approaches tend to prioritize immediate tactical issues and fires to be put out. However you plan your agendas, periodically weave in longer-horizon topics such as career planning and developmental opportunities—by either taking five or 10 minutes at every meeting to discuss those areas or dedicating one out of every three or four meetings to addressing them. (See the exhibit “Sample Questions for 1:1s” to get a sense of issues that should be discussed over time.)
At the Meetings
Once you’ve prepared for a meeting, a fruitful discussion will depend on your ability to create a setting in which your employee feels comfortable. A valuable 1:1 addresses both the practical needs and the personal needs—to feel respected, heard, valued, trusted, and included—of the employee. To ensure that a meeting does so:
Set the tone.
First, be present. Turn off email alerts, put your phone away, and silence text notifications. Remind yourself as the meeting begins that it is fundamentally about your employee’s needs, performance, and engagement.
As you go into the meeting, check your emotional state. Research shows that the mood you bring to a meeting has a contagion effect, so start out with energy and optimism. Reiterate your goals and hopes for the meeting and then move to some non-work-related topics, rapport building, wins, or appreciation to generate momentum and foster feelings of psychological safety. One problem for Bill was that he viewed 1:1s as merely another task on his already long list—something to just get done. That affected how he facilitated (or failed to facilitate), how he listened, how he collaborated, and how he engaged.
Listen more than you talk.
The biggest predictor of a 1:1’s success, according to my research, is the employee’s active participation as measured by the amount of time that person talks during the meeting. The ideal is anywhere from 50% to 90%. The agenda will have some influence on that, but you as the manager should carefully avoid talking more than your employee does.
In addition, listen actively to fully understand your direct report before you speak yourself. Display genuine interest without judgment and acknowledge the employee’s viewpoint even if you disagree with it. Ask questions that clarify and constructively challenge that viewpoint. Encourage your team member to provide thoughts on the matters at hand and potential solutions to problems. Stay vigilant about your body language and reactions to ensure that you’re creating a welcoming and safe space.
Add your perspective.
Once you’ve listened closely, there will be moments in the meeting when you need to contribute your point of view. A 1:1 provides an excellent opportunity for you to give honest and specific feedback on your direct report’s perspectives or actions. It is also a good place for you to engage in collaborative problem solving by truly understanding whatever issue is at hand, pooling information, identifying root causes, and creating a solution that both parties feel good about. If the team member’s solution is viable—even if it’s not better than your own—it’s important that you go with it. That sends a strong message and creates more commitment to the team member’s proposed path forward.
As you work through your established agenda, allow the conversation to move organically as needed to provide value. Focus on the items that are most critical. If some items go unaddressed, move them to the following 1:1. Let your employee know at the outset that real-time changes can be made to the agenda if a critical item emerges.
Also, to best connect with each direct report, consider that person’s preferences regarding communication, collaboration, and so forth, and adjust your leadership approach accordingly. That will increase engagement and inclusion, deepen the relationship, and create trust.
Clarify takeaways and action items for both parties, including how you will support next steps. When both the manager and the employee document these, chances are better that the actions will be carried out. It also builds continuity between meetings and allows for needed follow-up. After Bill implemented this change, he was reminded that his 1:1s were not mere transactions to get through but, rather, represented employees’ evolving stories—something to be nurtured and developed over time. Finally, show gratitude and appreciation for your direct report’s time—and start and stop on schedule to demonstrate those feelings.
Improve over Time
Ideally, both parties should leave the conversation feeling valued, respected, and well-informed, with clarity about next steps on projects, solutions to problems, and the commitments that each of them has made. However, the most important metric for success is whether your employee found the meeting both valuable tactically and fulfilling personally.
To learn where you stand and to improve these meetings over time, start by asking each team member for feedback and ideas to make future 1:1s better. Or you can anonymously survey your team with three basic questions: What’s going well with the 1:1s? What’s not going well? Do you have ideas for improving them? Know that what works at one time for your 1:1s may not work at another time, and what is comfortable for one direct report may not be so for another. So even if you think your current pattern is successful, keep trying new things.
What Bill learned from his first survey about 1:1s was sobering. Even more than in the exit interviews, team members raised concerns about whether he really cared about their performance or growth, citing his frequent cancellation of meetings and saying that they often couldn’t get a word in edgewise. But once Bill had taken their feedback to heart, the atmosphere on his team began to shift. As he committed to meeting regularly with his employees on topics of importance to them, he found that they seemed more committed to—and proficient at—their work.
. . .
Regular individual meetings with each of your team members may feel like a burden. But meeting for 30 minutes each week with one person adds up to no more than 25 hours over the course of a year. That’s not too high a price to pay to bolster your team’s and your company’s performance; support retention and prevent you from spending just as much time (or more) recruiting and onboarding replacements; and help each of your team members grow and achieve.