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How to Have Productive 1-on-1 Meetings

6 minute read

How to Have Productive 1-on-1 Meetings

tl;dr - Gather additional feedback privately, understand your employee’s challenges, and help them grow professionally through 1-on-1 meetings. By hosting regular 1-on-1s, you encourage your team’s engagement and productivity.


It’s pretty well understood that 1-on-1 meetings are important to have with your team. But why are they so important? And how do we make them productive?

Benefits of 1-on-1s

Employee Retention

Working professionals want a positive relationship with their manager, but a manager/employee relationship disconnect is one of the leading causes of turnover. A survey by Gallup revealed roughly half of the 7,200 adults stated they left their employer to get away from their boss.1

The same study also showed they were three times more likely to be engaged when a manager holds regular meetings with them.

Whether they’ve expressed it to your or not, your employees want a career trajectory. 1-on-1s give them a place to discuss their ambitions and professional development privately.

Analyze Your Employees Without Any External Filters

For your own benefit, get to know your employees without relying on a previous manager’s conclusions or other second-hand opinions. Through weekly meetings, you can understand what they truly value, their working style preferences, and who are your company’s potential next leaders.

Improve Productivity

By hosting 1-on-1s, you create another avenue for accountability. Challenge your employees to problem solve on their biggest current roadblocks and reflect on what times of day they’re most productive.

Your company may not be able to offer “20% time” for experimentation like Google does, but you can still champion research and priorities for your team. Someone on your team may conceive of the next product feature your customers flock to.

Scheduling 1-on-1s

When scheduling 1-on-1s consider the following factors:

  • number of direct reports
  • role maturity (a newer hire or recently promoted person may require more initial attention)
  • frequency
  • for senior leadership how often you wish to have skip level meetings to help with morale

Schedule in advance with a regular cadence so your team members can expect and prepare for meetings. Each half-hour minimum timeslot should be on the calendar.

Yes, all hands on deck scenarios and pressing deadlines in product releases happen. Do not cancel 1-on-1 meetings. For the continued health of your team, instead, reschedule them.

Before scheduling your first round of 1-on-1s make sure your team understands what to expect out of these meetings. And there is a point to them.

Give your team members a heads up on what to anticipate and anything you would like for them to think about before the first 1-on-1. As you create a rough outline loosely write down specific time increments for specific discussion points you hope to hit.

In-meeting Tips

Be Fully Present

Hold the meeting somewhere you both can be comfortable whether it’s their favorite coffeehouse or a quiet, private room. Set your phone to silent, set yourself to “away” on Slack, and temporarily cut off any other distractions.

Open Conversations

Start the meeting with positive feedback or a personal conversation. If there is something they did well or you appreciated, be specific. This way you encourage good behaviors. For example, if you notice they removed some duplicate code or tightened up a long method, let them know.

Keep Questions Open Ended

“You failed to stop for the police, right? So you ran away from them?” Interrogators use leading questions to get their desired answer.

If you wish to find out what your employees are actually thinking, keep your questions about their feedback and career goals open-ended.

Some example questions include:

  • How do you feel about the work you’re doing right now?
  • What is one thing that would make your life better here?
  • How can I help you?
  • What are we not doing now that we should be doing?
  • What was your biggest roadblock this week and how did you handle it?

You can also discover what feedback they want from you and if they have any to share about their co-workers or you.

Take Notes

Write down employee’s professional goals and any action items to track their progress. If there is no follow up, 1-on-1s become useless to your team. Recording goals and action items helps you be mutually accountable and vested. Your notes will help you as you prepare for their next 1-on-1 in case something slips from your memory.

Goals should be specific, ambitious but relevant, and have a target date for completion.

Meeting With Introverts

Even the most introverted individuals can respond to questions that interest them. But first, you have to be comfortable and genuine. Are they not ready to answer any questions initially? You can help open them up to you by sharing a funny story and having open body language.

Once the conversation starts to roll, show you are actually interested in their point of view in your specific follow-up questions. Many introverts enjoy discussions but don’t like talking just for the sake of talking.

Going back to achievable but ambitious goals, you can help introverts by providing direct, incremental feedback on what they need to improve on.

For example, one of your talented team members is a terrible public speaker, but they want to be a senior leader in your company eventually. It’s not the end of the world. However, they need to crawl, walk, and then run to set themselves up for success. Crawling, in this case, would be first doing a presentation at the next 1-on-1 meeting. Walking could be presenting to the rest of your team. And by the time they’re confident enough to present during a company wide meeting, they are hopefully running full speed.

In helping them with their professional goals, acknowledge their feelings and dread about potential presentations. Then tie it back to what they’re looking to accomplish. If they wish to be a CTO, they need to be comfortable making presentations.

Take Action

Ultimately 1-on-1 meetings should be mutually beneficial. By providing time to share their challenges and goals, you’re actively building positive relationships with direct reports. You have a place to privately share feedback constructively without anyone feeling like they are being thrown under the bus. And you can better serve your employees as you get to understand what motivates and discourages their performance.

Set action items to develop skills that benefit them and the rest of your company. Some team members may have goals in mind ready to share. Others may not be quite as comfortable with you initially. Observe how they respond to different catalysts like direct feedback and open body language.

Challenge employees to complete specific goals, prepare for each meeting, and reflect on how they’re doing. Gauging their self-awareness and individual strengths can help in assigning tasks and identifying where team members may fit in future company roles.

Even if you can’t promote now, keep your employees engaged by regularly incorporating career development into their professional life and show you care by holding them accountable.


1 https://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2015/04/02/what-do-workers-want-from-the-boss


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