All Articles Leadership Workforce How to master the art of the one-on-one meeting

How to master the art of the one-on-one meeting

Regular one-on-one meetings with employees should be goal-oriented and designed to provide a sense of support and connection. Use these 5 steps to make one-on-ones more effective.

6 min read



Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In 2021, Pew Research Center jumped into action to find out why so many employees were diving headfirst into the Great Resignation. Their investigation uncovered that two of the top three complaints related to management and culture. Nearly two-thirds of respondents voiced that a lack of internal advancement opportunities caused them to switch employers, while 57% felt they weren’t getting the respect they deserved.

As a pragmatic manager, I noticed that these discoveries — while disappointing — carried a grain of hope. Though both concerns are hefty and challenging, they can be mitigated with some thoughtful planning and integration of regular supervisor-employee one-on-ones.

The Power of the one-on-one

The one-on-one has always been a vital tool to promote employee professional development and lower attrition rates. In today’s workplace, one-on-one meetings are more important than ever, especially for remote teams. Teleworkers can quickly feel disconnected and isolated from their colleagues. Fortunately, one-on-ones offer them both connection and validation; reduce their likelihood of feeling like they’re not valued, noticed, or essential; and ensure that as their leader, you are aware of their progress as well as any roadblocks that may hinder their success.

The basic setup of the one-on-one hasn’t changed. During these private meetings, participants update one another on both immediate and forward-looking topics. When handled well, one-on-ones are the perfect time for managers to create bonds with workers. Over time, those bonds strengthen and lead to feelings of deeper trust and even loyalty. These meetings are necessary as they positively impact both company leaders and team members.

Case in point: Over the past eight years, I’ve had weekly one-on-ones with our president. During these meetings, we review my top projects from the previous week and for the coming week. By the end, I’ve set new objectives, ranked my chances of long-term employment with the organization and given insights based on recent experiences. I appreciate these one-on-one moments, which is why I replicate the process with my team members.

Mastering the one-on-one

Fortunately for employees and employers alike, one-on-ones aren’t just regular check-ins. They’re more in-depth and require foresight and planning. Consider the following tips to design and conduct meaningful and productive one-on-ones with your employees that will ultimately add support to the employee experience and decrease turnover.

1. Ensure all one-on-ones have a clear purpose

Without a set objective, your one-on-ones will seem disjointed at best and superfluous at worst. Each one-on-one meeting should focus on a specific agenda that is covered weekly such as projects that will enhance the skill set and performance of the position; activity required daily, weekly and monthly to succeed in the position; and additional forecasting. Separate sessions can be set up afterward for more in-depth coaching or corrective action.

Unsure how to define your purpose and want a little nudge? Hypercontext’s 2019 State of One-on-Ones notes that about 70% of managers use their one-on-ones for dealing with roadblocks and about 60% treat them as pulse checks. After all, you should be able to express why the one-on-one matters and explain the importance to your team as well for the best results.

2. Hold your one-on-ones as sacred

Never, ever miss a scheduled one-on-one. Don’t reschedule them, either. The moment you start putting one-on-ones on the backburner, you risk losing all their potential power. Ignoring one-on-ones tells your employees that they’re inessential and other things are more important than them. Actions speak much louder than words, and maintaining a set schedule for one-on-ones lets your employees know you are serious about their success.

3. Put away your phone

Listening doesn’t happen enough in business, but you can buck the trends and engage your active listening to set the stage for a calm, rewarding meeting. Whether your one-on-ones are in person or virtual, it’s important to remove all distractions and be present.

As part of your commitment to being the best possible listener, be ready to ask questions. For example, your employee may mention something in passing, like frustration with a project that didn’t get completed last week. Probe deeper to look for the source of the frustration together. This will help you and your team member become more self-sufficient and solution-oriented.

4. Avoid sugarcoating at all costs

Brené Brown has a mantra that you need to embrace during one-on-ones: “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” In other words, be honest with your employees. Never complain about them behind their backs. Just be candid and address concerns when they arise.

I once managed a sales manager whose employees kept leaving, so I shadowed the manager’s one-on-ones, team huddles and training sessions for a week. During our next one-on-one, I said, “I know you’ve been struggling with turnover. I’d like to review some of the feedback.” After some upfront sharing, we created an action plan. The result? The sales manager’s team retention improved.

5. End each one-on-one on a proactive note

Your one-on-ones shouldn’t just end. They should end with action items for both of you. The action items can then become the foundation for the following week’s one-on-one agenda. In my experience, requiring action items to be prepared with the desired impact, desired behavior and proof to be shown during the following week’s meeting help maintain the momentum of one-on-ones.

The risk of allowing a one-on-one to end without a measurable, specific game plan is that your employees will be less likely to push themselves. This will foster a culture of stagnation, which will only further trends of resignation.

Like all smart and effective managerial skills, one-on-ones are critical ways to make sure that the people you hire feel supported, safe and indispensable. One-on-ones have the power to help mitigate resignation in your business when used correctly. Ensure that you are taking the responsibility of employee development and retention seriously by listening to your employees, making sure they feel heard and understood and using one-on-ones to benefit individuals as well as your whole team.


John Schwepker is the executive vice president of sales at Abstrakt Marketing Group, a business growth company that provides lead generation solutions.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.