Your One-on-One Meetings Aren't Productive. Here's What to Do

Kathleen O'Donnell
May 21, 2024
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If you’re holding occasional one-on-one meetings with your direct reports and wondering why they’re not getting the results you’d expect, well, we’ve got news. There are 1:1s, and then there are effective 1:1s, and the difference between the two is pretty vast. 

Unfortunately, a majority of 1:1s fall under the ineffective category. Nearly half of direct reports rate their 1:1s with their managers as suboptimal, according to Harvard Business Review research

But you’re not doomed to fail: you just need the right strategies for more productive 1:1s. With these do’s and don’ts, your check-ins with your team will drive higher role clarity, performance, and connections without any time wasted. Here’s what you need to know to hold better one-on-ones. 

Do: Make one-on-one meetings frequent and unmissable 

First, let’s talk about how often you should be having 1:1s with your direct reports. Ideally, you should check in once a week for 30 minutes with more junior employees, employees who are new to the company, and remote employees. And if you’re the one who is new (either to managing in general or to the company or team), you should be checking in with everyone weekly. 

Those conversations are critical to building trust and deepening your relationship, and for new employees who need more guidance, for offering regular feedback

If you have more experienced employees who are on-site a lot, you could get away with a bi-weekly check-in, but be sure it’s longer so you can fully catch up (45-60 minutes is the sweet spot, according to Gallup research). 

And don’t just schedule 1:1s—make them unmissable for both sides. Yes, things get busy and emergencies come up. But try your best to avoid canceling or pushing these meetings. On the occasions when you do have to cancel, reschedule the check-in right away or as soon as possible. Don’t let the cadence slip or it will be harder to get back into. 

And don’t just schedule 1:1s—make them unmissable for both sides.

Do: Spend most of your time listening 

1:1 check-ins are, ideally, a time to connect more deeply with your employees and find out what’s going on with them, what motivates and engages them, what they’re struggling with, and what kind of future they see for themselves at your organization. And if you’re spending most of your check-ins talking, you’re not going to find all of this out.

Work on purposefully opening space for employees—you can use these 1:1 questions to drive deeper conversations and get out of those awkward pauses. But it’s also a good skill to get more comfortable with a few moments of silence as you wait for a response. Sometimes it can take a beat for your report to gather and express their thoughts.  

Do: Set a comfortable location for a chat 

Location matters when you’re trying to enhance connections and get past a surface-level conversation—most people will share less if they’re in a highly public space or subject to a lot of interruptions. If you have a private office, that’s a good option, or choose a comfortable, quiet space in the building for in-person employees. For conversations with remote ones, be sure to silence non-essential notifications and give them your undivided attention. 

Interested in shaking things up with a walk outside or a little coffee break? Some employees might love this, while others find it distracting—ask to be sure it aligns with how they focus best. 

Don’t: Set the agenda yourself 

Agendas are a really helpful tool in 1:1 meetings. Even though they might seem excessively formal for a check-in, they help keep everyone on track so you get to the most important topics. But you shouldn’t be dictating the agenda every week—it should be a collaborative effort with your direct report to drive those. That way, you can balance what you need to get out of the meeting with what they need, and want, to talk about. 

Don’t: Focus only on what you need  

A common trap that managers (especially burned-out ones) fall into with 1:1s is centering them mostly around what you need from your direct report. While that’s fine and helpful once in a while, you also need to ensure that the meeting is focused primarily on the employee. 

What do they need, how do they feel, what are they working on? What are their career goals and aspirations, and how can you help them progress towards them? What meaningful feedback do you have to share with them? These should be the main subjects of the check-in. 

Don’t: End without takeaways and action steps 

Some of your check-ins will be more of a chat, but often you’ll end up with next steps and action items that you, your direct report, or both need to do something about. Make sure the responsibility and timeline for those items are clear before you leave the meeting so your employee knows exactly how to move forward. That keeps the momentum going while making your meetings as efficient as possible for everyone.  

Do: Always be improving 

And finally, once you’ve made these critical improvements to your check-ins, don’t forget to ask for feedback to see how employees feel about them too! Whether you are asking them directly, in pulse surveys, or another means—the point is to check in with them to be sure your one-on-one meetings are providing the value both of you are hoping for. (Yes, checking in about check-ins is very meta 😂). 

It’s especially important to check in if this 1:1 process is new, or you’re a new manager, or you have new employees, because you have less of an existing relationship. Asking them occasionally how helpful they’re finding the meetings, or what you could do better, will ensure everyone is spending time in productive 1:1s, not pointless ones. 

The takeaway

Better one-on-one meetings benefit both you and your direct reports immensely. You’ll help your employees feel supported and seen, keep ahead of any critical issues, and have the opportunity to offer more frequent feedback to drive employee engagement. 

Just keep these do’s and don’t in mind, and you’re well on your way to 1:1s that ignite performance and empower employees. 

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