Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
August 29, 2023 · 11 min read

A Guide to Mastering One-On-One Meetings

A Guide to Mastering One-On-One Meetings: Illustration in blue, black, white and grey of a birds eye view of a one on one meeting at a desk with the blog title written in the middle.

One-on-one meetings are consistently rated as the most impactful way to learn about your team, exchange feedback, and keep projects on track. Unfortunately, many managers get their one-on-ones wrong, with sessions feeling rushed, unorganized, and at times, combative.

Whether you’re a manager or employee, a proper structure for one-on-one meetings helps deliver value, make the most of your time, and achieve your shared goals.

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In this guide, we’ll learn about one-on-one meetings, including how to structure them for success and how to avoid the common traps to ensure they’re beneficial for everyone involved.

What are one-on-one meetings? Why are they so important?

One-on-one meetings — also commonly known as check-ins, 121s, or 1:1s — are any dedicated time for two people to formally meet, most commonly an employee and their manager.

While the best one-on-one meetings are tailored for the individuals and the working relationship, they generally provide a chance to update and plan ongoing work, discuss career development, and raise workplace issues or concerns.

Illustration of pie charts showing resulte of a survey of how long and how often one on one meetings are held in companies. 66% weekly, 20% bi-weekly, 9% monthly. 53% 30mins, 20% 1 hr, 19% 45 mins, 5% 15mins
Source: Hypercontext

The personal nature of a one-on-one is what separates them from other sessions such as team meetings, daily scrums, project update meetings, or all-hands calls. But just because one-on-ones feel personal, doesn’t mean they’re devoid of structure or purpose.

How you structure and how often you hold them will depend on your organization and goals. However, research shows that weekly one-on-ones may drive the most benefit — with the majority of meetings lasting 30–60 minutes.

While an hour a week might seem like a lot of time to commit to personal growth and check-ins, one-on-ones provide a ton of value to both managers and employees.

Benefits of 1:1s for managers Benefits of 1:1s for employees
Provides a crucial opportunity to build a connection with each team member — this is especially important if you’re managing remote teams. Allows you to build a relationship with your manager away from the dynamic of the wider team.
Provides a private opportunity to check in with employees on their welfare. Allows you to voice concerns or feedback in a private way.
Helps you to keep track of an employee’s work and re-prioritize if necessary. Provides an opportunity to ask for help with tasks or escalate problems if required.
Helps you to develop coaching and leadership skills. Gives you time to dig into your career progression and get real feedback from your direct manager.
Increases team motivation and morale. Helps develop security and trust with your manager - reducing anxiety and boosting engagement.

How to structure a proper one-on-one meeting

To truly benefit from your one-on-one meetings, you need to do more than just put an invite in the calendar and turn up. Managers have to be intentional, create the right environment, and ensure the employee comes to the session prepared.

Here’s how you can plan, run, and follow-up after a successful one-on-one:

Before the meeting: Plan, set expectations and a schedule

Fail to plan, and you’re planning to fail is a common saying that could have easily been written about one-on-one meetings. Planning, expectation setting, and consistent scheduling are key to setting off on the right foot.

Here’s what you can do before a one-on-one meeting to provide the most value for your team.

Explain the initiative (or reboot) to your team

Whether one-on-ones are a new thing or they’ve been used in the past, it’s crucial to clearly explain to the team how you plan to run them, why you’re doing them, and what they can expect. This ensures everyone is on the same page and expectations are aligned from the beginning.

Here’s an example of a short and clear communication you can send to your team to explain your new one-on-one meetings:

What you want to communicate Example
How you plan to run them Hi Team/[Name],

I wanted to let you know that I’ll be scheduling recurring one-on-one meetings with everyone in the team. We’ll use these sessions to plan our [week/month/quarter], prioritize tasks, discuss issues, plan on career development, and just generally catch up on work and how you’re feeling.
Why you’re doing them These one-on-one meetings will supplement other meetings such as [insert here] but will be exclusively for you and I to discuss individual matters.
What they can expect You’ll see the invites drop into your calendar shortly, but please let me know if you have any questions in the meantime.


[Your Name]

Choose a one-on-one template to follow

If you’re new to one-on-ones, templates can help provide a practical structure to keep things on track and make sure everyone’s getting value out of your time together. While you’ll most likely develop your own template over time, there are some common structural elements you’ll want to copy.

Here are a few options for one-on-one meeting templates:

1. The 90/10 approach.

In this flexible approach to a one-on-one agenda, managers ensure that 90% of all talking points come from their direct report — with only 10% coming from the manager. This is a good approach if your team works better with free-form meetings.

2. The “8 key areas” method.

This is a much more structured approach where each one-on-one meeting is based around eight key areas of discussion:

  1. Top of mind: What are the first things that come to mind and should be discussed?
  2. Things that went well: What did the employee do that they felt good about? Providing dedicated time to talk about wins is a powerful way to build team connection and motivation.
  3. Learnings: What did the person learn since your last meeting?
  4. Priorities: What are the one, two, or three most critical tasks for your team mate? How can you help them achieve their goals?
  5. Challenges and concerns: What’s getting in the way? Are there parts of their job or team processes that are annoying or frustrating them?
  6. Team dynamics: Are there any interpersonal issues that should be addressed? How is the team working together?
  7. Feedback: What feedback do they have on you and your management style?
  8. Career development: What can you do to help your teammate grow and progress in their career?

This template is much more structured. But that doesn’t mean you always have to hit each point. For example, there may be some weeks or periods where you focus more on team dynamics and skip learnings. Use this as a guide — not a strict set of rules to follow.

One-on-one meetings are one of the best ways to build relationships, progress projects, and plan out career development.

3. The chronological approach.

Finally, many managers structure their one-on-ones around recent work and future plans. The chronological approach simply asks your direct report to talk about:

  1. Last week’s wins and challenges
  2. Present priorities
  3. Future opportunities (both that they’re excited for and anxious about)

This format is simple and easy to follow. But it doesn’t get into the same level of nuance as the “8 key areas” approach. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which format works best for your team.

Set up (and stick to) a meeting cadence

Meeting cadence is important to ensure you’re providing enough support without wasting time or coming across as a micro-manager. While research suggests weekly meetings may be best, you need to choose the cadence that’s right for your team.

To find the right cadence for your one-to-one meetings, have a think about the following key factors:

Remember you can test and learn based on what’s right for you and your employee. It’s always better to change the cadence than continue with something that isn’t working.

Collaborate on a shared agenda

There’s debate on who should run one-on-one meetings. While they’re often initiated by managers, the goal isn’t to replicate a status update — but to provide opportunities for team members to voice concerns or ideas.

In most cases, it’s a good idea to collaborate on a shared agenda. As a manager, you’ll have ideas of what you’d like to cover. But let your teammates know that they can propose other areas to talk about.

As Ben Horowitz, founder of Andreessen Horowitz writes:

“The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting.”

Ultimately, you want them to feel that they have the space and freedom to speak up about personal issues and share feedback about your management style.

5 elements of psychological safety: Illustration of a cloud divided into 5 sections. Safety to speak up, openness to new ideas, flat heirarchy, lack of pre-judgement, vulnerability and transparency for all

Finally, make sure you share the agenda with enough time for your employee to prepare and execute what you need from them.

During the meeting: How to run (and attend) an effective one-on-one

With everyone prepared, it’s now time to actually run the one-on-one meeting. For this section, we’ll look at things to do during the session for managers and employees.

For managers: Set the tone and then fall into a supporting role

As a manager, the number one thing to remember in a one-on-one is that you’re there to listen as much (if not more) than you’re there to talk. Active listening is crucial here to help you build an environment of psychological safety that allows your employee to participate freely.

As a manager, creating a safe environment for a one on one meeting begins with you.

Here are some ways you can do this as you progress through your one-on-one meeting.

1. Set the tone by checking your mood and removing distractions

As a manager, creating a safe environment begins with you. Make sure you’re heading into the one-on-one in the right headspace by trying to be relaxed and calm in your own environment.

Next, you want to show this one-on-one meeting is your priority.

Remove any distractions in your physical environment (such as by booking a dedicated meeting room) or if you’re working remotely, close down any other programs and put your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’.

2. Start with a bit of small talk

Don’t dive straight into the formal stuff. Instead, put your employee at ease by asking about how their day is going, how their weekend was, or just ask how they’re doing.

While you may plan to do this ahead of time, ensure your interest is authentic. Don’t just rush the answers but let the conversation flow naturally until you both feel relaxed and it’s time to move on to the work chat.

3. Use an agenda that’s both structured and fluid

As you move onto the formal topics, work to strike a balance between staying in line with your agenda without being too rigid.

Whether it’s work updates, career development, or issues and next steps, use the time to focus on the topics that add the most value, even if you’re overrunning versus your original plan.

4. Add your perspective by providing honest feedback

Especially at times when your employee is looking for guidance, don’t be afraid to provide your views in an honest and open way.

The key to landing this is to adapt your communication style to one the employee responds well to. Some people like more direct feedback, whereas others prefer a softer approach — you’ll work out what works best over time.

As a manager, your perspective is also key to guiding your employee in the right direction.

Given that you’ll likely have a view of the bigger picture weave in advice and guidance from your unique viewpoint to help push the conversation in the right direction.

But remember, you don’t need to do this all the time — too much and you’ll come across as overpowering and drift into micro-management.

5. End with action items and next steps

One of the biggest mistakes people make is not making one-on-one meetings actionable. By capturing and discussing key actions and next steps, you’ll ensure both parties know what to do next and expectations are aligned.

Capturing these also gives you a benchmark for the next session and helps you build out an iterative agenda as the weeks and months progress.

Pro tip: Keep your meeting notes in a project management too like Planio. This ensures that ideas aren’t lost and your team can actively track them.

Screenshot of Planio issue tracker called

For employees: Focus on your most important goals

It’s not just managers who need to come prepared for one-on-ones — a employee’s contribution is equally, if not more, important. If you’re gearing up for your next one-on-one with your manager, here are some tips to help you get the most out of it.

1. Decide on the goal of the meeting

One-on-one meetings are a two-way street, so make sure you’re getting what you need from it too. The easiest way to do this is to set your own goal for your one-on-one and come prepared to discuss it.

2. Avoid status updates and focus on the agenda

The last thing you want is for your one-on-one meeting to turn into a status update session. While that might have some value for your manager, it doesn’t have any value for you.

Vary the agenda and the conversation by:

3. Ask for feedback and areas for improvement

One-on-one meetings are perhaps the most valuable forum for gaining feedback on your performance and where to improve. There are many ways to ask for feedback, but like all things, it’s best to be targeted.

Rather than just asking ‘How am I doing?’ or ‘What can I improve?’ try asking:

4. Ask your manager to take notes

Be confident in asking your manager to take notes of your one-on-one meetings and share them with you afterward.

Meeting notes provide a clear record of what was discussed while also providing you with the perspective of the conversation from your manager’s viewpoint. This can help you identify any areas of misunderstanding and give you clarity on what’s most important to them.

Illustration of how to lay your meetzing notes out on paper. On the right side you have (from top to bottom) purpose, who is supposed to be there, key points from your agenda, questions that need to be answered. On the left side just the date at the top and space for ideas and thoughts. At the bottom you can place you actionable items.

After the meeting: Turn ideas into action

When it comes to one-on-one meetings, actions often speak louder than words.

As a manager, the worst thing you can do is make your employee feel like their input doesn’t matter, so you have to make sure you follow through on what was discussed.

Here are some ways to ensure you follow through on your one-on-one meeting promises.

1. Turn notes and advice into actions that the whole team can see

The most important post-meeting tip is to take your own actions seriously. Whether you’ve agreed to help solve a problem, review new ideas, or provide feedback, make the time to deliver on your promises.

As long as the information isn’t sensitive, you can also log key actions in the task management section of your project management tool. Not only does this provide a simple, easy-to-use interface to track ideas, but if the work progresses, it can be easily shared with others in the team.

2. Prepare the next agenda together, but leave space for new topics

Another great way to show you care about one-on-one meetings is to show enthusiasm for the next one.

Get ahead of preparing next week’s agenda by discussing the topics early and providing time for the employee to fully prepare.

To ensure it’s a two-way exercise, intentionally leave space in the agenda for the employee to add their own topics. This gives them an opportunity to discuss additional areas such as career development, feedback, or other projects.

3. Arrange for one-on-ones with executives (e.g. skip level/mentor meetings)

As a manager, the best way to show employees you care is to invest in their personal and professional development.

Allowing employees to expand their professional network is a great way to do this, with mentor or ‘skip-level’ meetings shown to provide value and give employees broader perspectives that can benefit the wider team.

The most common one-on-one traps to avoid

One-on-ones are an art and a science. While you can follow a specific structure to get the most of them, you’ll undoubtedly hit some roadblocks along the way.

As you start running one-on-ones, keep an eye out for these common mistakes:

Maximize your project’s success with great one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings are one of the best ways to build relationships, progress projects, and plan out career development.

But, these meetings only work if everyone puts the work in. Whether it’s prior planning, facilitating values-driven conversations, or actionable post-meeting tasks, being intentional with your 1:2:1’s will make them a success.

If you need some help, try using a project management tool such as Planio to schedule, track, and report on your one-on-one meetings, helping you stay organized by putting everything you need into one place.