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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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One-On-One Meetings

Richard Wanner

One-On-One Meetings

Author: Rick Wanner,


Above all, effective management, at all levels, requires effective communication. While many communications tools are available, one that is often overlooked by managers is the one-on-one meeting. One-on-one meetings between the direct report and their manager provide an uninterrupted private time to receive and discuss the employee’s status while at the same time providing a vehicle for personalized feedback and mentoring. The time is focused on meeting the individual needs of the employee while at the same time providing timely and accurate status to the manager.

1. Introduction
One essential tool for good management is timely and accurate communication. The majority of managers use group meetings to communicate with their direct reports and while group meetings may be useful for disseminating information of value to the entire group, the fact is that most group status meetings are not an effective use of your direct reports’ time. Group meetings are not focused enough to collect timely status, don’t provide information relevant to each person, and each person only gets a small portion of the time to discuss what is relevant to them. The end result is that group meetings are not effective for either the manager or the direct reports.

Some managers resort to management by walking around (MBWA) to fill in the gap between what they need and what they are getting from group meetings. While MBWA is better than nothing, there are a number of reasons why it is not the most efficient way to fill the information gap. Firstly, generally no preparation or forethought goes into the interaction so the result is not very focused. Secondly, in order to interact with the direct report you have to interrupt them. The direct report needs to switch context from whatever they were doing to a conversation with you, then back to their work once the discussion is complete. Taking all of this into account the interruption has been much longer than the time you talked. Third, the interaction is not in private. You will be talking to your staff member in their office, which in the modern IT workforce is usually a cubicle. It is usually very difficult to have an unguarded conversation in an open office environment.

Management consultant Mark Horstman refers to one-on-one-meetings as “the one common thread of all exceptional managers” (Horstman & Auzenne, One-on-Ones: The Single Most Effective Management Tools (Part 1), 2005). One-on-one meetings provide a focused way to improve communication with your direct reports. A one-on-one meeting is a regularly scheduled meeting between you and your direct report where you can focus on the work specific to that direct report. One-on-one meetings provide an effective way to get timely status updates for each direct report while at the same time maximizing their career development by providing feedback and coaching to maximize their productivity and contribute to their professional development

2. The Basics of One-On-One Meetings

One-on-one meetings between the direct report and their manager provide an uninterrupted private time to receive and discuss the direct report’s project status while at the same time providing a vehicle for personalized feedback and mentoring. The time is focused on meeting the individual needs of the direct report while at the same time providing timely and accurate status to the manager.

For managers who aren’t currently having one-on-one meetings, the biggest concern is that they can’t afford to give up the time to meet with all of their staff every week. As Kerry Gleeson points out, “If the only way colleagues can see you is by sticking their heads in during the day at random, you will be constantly interrupted” (Gleeson, 2003). Unless you are largely leaving your employees to their own devices, I would argue that they are already taking up more than one-half an hour a week of your time; five and ten minutes at a time. In my experience if a direct report knows they will get to talk to you in a scheduled meeting, they will collect their issues and deal with them there; knowing full well that for that brief time each week they will have your undivided attention. Ultimately, properly executed one-on-one meetings should free up some of your time for other pressing work. The fact is that one-on-one meetings can be a very powerful communication and mentoring tool if properly implemented. However it does require some practice and dedication to get them that way. Don’t give up too early. Expect it to take several weeks before you and your direct reports get into the habit of the one-on-one meetings.

The following sections describe the basics of setting up and delivering successful one-on-one meetings.

2.1. Scheduled and Never Missed
Consistently schedule one-on-one meetings for the same time each week. This develops the habit for you and your direct reports.

In today’s high-pressure environment the success of your team depends on the individuals in your team being successful. The purpose of a one-on-one meeting is to provide your direct report with the information to do his/her job and about providing you with the information you need to help him/her do his job. I would argue that one-on-ones should be the most important meeting in your calendar and should never be preempted. However, that is not always possible. If you need to preempt a one-on-one meeting, reschedule it as soon as possible after the original booking, or even better, before. This shows your commitment to the meeting. This commitment is important to the long-term success. Habitually cancelling one-on-one meetings undermines their usefulness and can disenfranchise employees.

2.2. Safe Environment
One-on-one meetings should be primarily about accurate status for the manager, and continuous improvement for the employee. In order to get the maximum benefit from the one-on-one meeting you must create a non-threatening meeting environment. Provide constructive feedback on how to prevent issues from recurring, not blame for what has occurred. If you start with the blame game, your reports may close down, and then you won’t get the information you need until it is too late to fix it.

If you need to discipline a direct report, set up a time separate from the one-on-one meeting time to discuss disciplinary issues.

2.3. Eliminate Interruptions
This is your time with your direct report. If you want to get maximum productivity out of your one-on-one meetings, you need to make your direct report feel like for this half an hour they have your undivided attention. This means absolutely no interruptions. Close your door, and ignore your phone.

2.4. Scheduling
When should you schedule your one-on-one meetings? Management consultant Mark Horstman suggests that one-on ones should be one half hour, once a week, scheduled, and have a specific agenda (Horstman & Auzenne, One-on-Ones: The Single Most Effective Management Tools (Part 1), 2005). The best answer is whenever fits best in your schedule. Personally, I have always preferred to have my one-on-one meetings relatively early in the week and relatively early in the day. The reason I like early in the week is because it gives you lots of time to work on and resolve any action items while they are still fresh in your mind. That said, in my experience, Monday mornings don’t work. People are just back from the weekend and their brain is not yet firmly in work mode. There are two reasons why I like early in the day. Firstly, I am a morning person, and I believe that my direct reports deserve my attention when I am at my best. Secondly, I find that the majority of the rest of my meetings are between 10 AM and 4:00 PM, leaving the times early in the day free for me to use for one-on-ones.

I also like to block my one-on-ones together. In the past when I have very few reports, I schedule one-on-ones back to back on Tuesday mornings, starting about one half an hour after the start of the day. When I had more than four reports, I would schedule up to one and a half hours a morning between Tuesday and Thursday.

Ideally I prefer to meet with each of my staff every week. If you have a large number of staff, more than you can fit reasonably into one week, you will most likely need to be somewhat creative in the booking of your one-on-one meetings. Realistically if you schedule one and one half hours a day, 3 days a week for one-on-ones, then you can only manage 9 one-on-ones a week. In the past when I could not manage all of my meetings in one week, there are a number of approaches I have taken. One approach is to schedule the meetings bi-weekly instead of weekly. This interval is certainly better than not holding the meetings. However, what I find works well for me is to divide my direct reports into different groups and schedule some weekly and some bi-weekly (Rothman, 2002). Most managers will find they have a group of employees that are predominantly self sustaining. They will do the right thing if left unsupervised, and will ask for help when they need it. Consider scheduling these employees bi-weekly and meet with the remainder weekly. I have also been known to vary the frequency based on the criticality of what a direct report is working on and the part of the project cycle they are working in.

Whatever you choose, it is important to remember that the longer you go between sessions, the less timely, and less accurate, the information will be, and the less likely it is that you will be able to intervene in an issue while it is still young.

2.5. Preparation
My preparation for a one-on-one meeting begins the second that the previous meeting for that direct report ends. I keep all of my direct reports’ one-on-one folders in my desk, and whenever I think of something I need to talk to them about in the next meeting, I take out their folder and make a note on the next one-on-one form.

I also use my employee’s weekly reports as an input to the one-on-one meeting. I schedule my direct reports to send their weekly reports the end of the day before the one-on-one meeting. This gives me time to review the report before the meeting.

Personally I have never dictated my employees’ weekly report format, but Deb Richardson (Richardson, 2010) suggests a report template which corresponds pretty well to the format of my one-on-one meetings. She divides the report into the following categories:
  • Accomplishments & status - a list of current projects, with one or two sentences describing progress and status on each.
  • Blocked/Waiting on - a list of roadblocks currently stopping projects from progressing.
  • To do - a high-level to-do list of what you would like to accomplish in the next week
  • Areas to develop - areas of development and what activities you have undertaken to develop in those areas.
  • Quarterly goal tracking - Whether you establish goals, monthly, quarterly or yearly, you should be making steady progress toward fulfilling those goals. This is a place to track that progress.
One advantage of this method is it permits the employee to set the agenda before the meeting and highlight areas they would like to talk about in the meeting (O'Duinn, 2010).

As for actual preparation immediately before the meeting, your mileage may vary, but I find that only a few minutes is required immediately before the meeting. I review the personal information, review the previous minutes and action items, review the weekly report, and review my notes added during the week. This puts me in the correct frame of mind for the meeting.

2.6. Format
As a rough guide, the one-on-one meeting should be divided into thirds. One-third for your direct report to discuss their projects’ status, obstacles, and goals; one-third for you to pass on information that you think may be of value to your direct report, discuss items of special interest to you and delegate new work; and one-third for assisting the employee with development opportunities. In my experience these breakdowns are only guidelines. Some meetings will be largely focused in one or two areas with little spent on the others. The important thing is not to neglect any one of the areas since each are important to the success of your direct report and to the overall success of your one-on-one meetings.

2.7. Questions
What questions you ask in a one-on-one meeting depends a lot on how well you know your direct report. In general I start with open ended questions and then focus in the areas that are important to me and to my direct report. Ask specific questions about work done the previous week and what is coming up. Ask about obstacles and if you can help remove the obstacles. Ask if there is anything in particular your direct report would like to talk about.

2.8. Two-way Street
The one-on-one meeting is not just a good time to get status from and provide feedback to your direct report, it is also a good time to get feedback on your performance and find out what you can do to help your employee succeed. The more comfortable your direct reports become with being frank with you the more successful you will be. Of course, only ask if you really care about your direct report’s opinion on your performance and are prepared to change if appropriate.

2.9. Wrapping up the Meeting
At the end of the meeting be sure that the actions from the meeting are recorded, and review the actions with the direct report so the actions are clearly understood.

Ask the direct report if there is anything else they would like to discuss.

2.10. Post-Meeting
For the one-on-one meetings to be successful what you do after the meeting is at least as important as the meeting itself. Using whatever method you do to track your work; the actions you are responsible for need to be worked on. One of the quickest ways to erode the effectiveness of your one-on-one meetings, and most likely your relationship with your direct reports, is to agree to actions on behalf of your direct reports and not follow up on them.

Personally, as a Getting Things Done (GTD) (Allen, 2001) advocate, I book fifteen minutes each morning to follow-up on these and any other actions I may have, and make some progress every day.

Remember that your preparation for the next one-on-one meeting begins when the previous one ends.

3. Conclusion
Like most good things in life, one-on-one meetings are not easy. If the work is put in to properly implement one-on-one meetings, they will provide an effective vehicle for timely and accurate communication with your direct report while at the same time providing a forum for feedback and coaching for both of you.

4. References
Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. In A. David, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin Books.

Debow, D. (2010 18-August). 3 steps to a totally awesome team. Retrieved 2010 4-November from Rypple:

Gleeson, K. (2003). The Personal Efficiency Program (3rd Edition ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2005, July 3). Manager-Tools One-on-one basics.pdf. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from Become a more effective leader:

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2007 16-December ). One on One Scheduling Guidance (Part 1 of 2). Retrieved 2010 5-November from Manager Tools:

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2005 3-July). One-on-Ones: The Single Most Effective Management Tool (Part 2). Retrieved 2010 5-November from Manager Tools:

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2005 3-July). One-on-Ones: The Single Most Effective Management Tools (Part 1). Retrieved 2010 5-November from Manager Tools:

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2005 10-July). Questions and Answers on One-on-Ones. Retrieved 2010 5-November from Manager Tools:

Horstman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2008 24-February). The Management Trinity - One on Ones. Retrieved 2010 24-November from Manager Tools:

Hostman, M., & Auzenne, M. (2007 23-December). One on One Scheduling Guidance (Part 2 of 2). Retrieved 2010 5-November from Manager Tools:

O'Duinn, J. (2010 26-April). Rethinking one-on-one meetings. Retrieved 2010 4-November from John O'Duinn's Soapbox:

Richardson, D. (2010 25-February). Retrieved 2010 4-November from

Rothman, J. (2002). No More Meeting Mutinies. Software Development Magazine.

5. Forms
Two forms are included in this section.
  • Personal Information form intended for keeping basic personal information on employees for use in one-on-one meetings
  • One-on-One form to be used as a preparation and minute template for one-on-one meetings. Although I have been using forms of various sorts for years, this version is somewhat influenced by the Manager Tools One-on-One form. (Horstman & Auzenne, Manager-Tools One-on-one basics.pdf, 2005)
Please feel free to use them for your one-on-one meetings or modify them for your personal use.