A Guide to Great 1:1 Meetings

Bruce Tulgan
May 01, 2019

Bruce Tulgan

Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

More and more leaders are getting the message: in order to be effective, you must have regular 1:1 meetings with each of your direct reports. Managers and employees rely on those 1:1 meetings to stay on top of the details of every ongoing project, spot small problems before they turn into bigger ones, and create an upward spiral of success that benefits everyone.

The problem is that many managers struggle to make their 1:1:s effective. Even if they are taking the time to regularly meet with their people, these leaders are simply not getting the results they need. Most often, the managers I speak to have two big questions: how do I make enough time for 1:1s and what should I talk about in my 1:1s?



How to Make Enough Time for 1:1s

Probably the most common complaint I hear from managers is that they simply do not have enough time to manage people every day. To that I have two questions. First, do you have at least one hour every day you could spend managing? Second, if you don't have an hour a day, what ways can you find to make that time?

It likely isn't practical, especially if you're responsible for managing a very large team, for you to spend much longer than fifteen minutes in each 1:1 meeting. Of course, some 1:1s will require a longer conversation, particularly at the outset of a new project or when delegating a new task. But in general, if you are meeting with each person at least once every two weeks, you should need no more than about fifteen or twenty minutes per meeting. With that in mind, you could meet with about four to five people in an hour. That means, with an hour a day, you could make time for twenty-five 1:1s in a week!

So, how do you get that hour per day in your schedule? Start by auditing your daily tasks. Figure out what tasks you are spending too much time on, not enough time on, or that you could eliminate altogether. Once you've made the necessary adjustments, determine whether there are any remaining tasks that could, or should, be delegated to someone else. Take the initiative and do a great job of delegating that task, maybe as part of your first high-structure, high-substance 1:1 meeting with that person.

Once you have that hour a day for managing, now you must figure out how to spend that time.


What to Talk about in Your 1:1s

Of course, the specifics of what you talk about in every 1:1 is going to depend on the person, their job, and their role on a particular project. Some amount of customization is required. But there are five questions you can ask direct reports at the beginning of any meeting to help jumpstart the conversation:

  1. Are there problems that need to be solved?
  2. Have steps been taken to ensure there are no problems hiding below the surface?
  3. Are there resources that need to be obtained?
  4. Are there any instructions or goals that are not clear?
  5. Has anything happened since we last talked that I should know about?


Remember, as the manager it is primarily your responsibility to make sure that everyone has the information, resources, and support they need in order to get the job done well. It's important that you ask the right questions, really listen to the answers given, and always lead the conversation towards solutions or next steps. Be specific - don't leave anything up for interpretation. After all, your direct reports are relying on you to guide them in the right direction.

But don't do all the talking! Even if the main focus of a 1:1 is to give performance feedback, you have to work together to make sure that whatever solution you come up with is actually a good one. Keep in mind these basics of performance coaching:

  • Tune in to the individual you are coaching and ask the right questions. If there is something you don't know for sure that would inform your understanding of how this person is performing, ask for clarification. Don't assume.
  • Focus on specific instances of individual performance, not generalized thoughts about a person's overall performance.
  • Describe those specific instances of performance honestly and vividly, from your perspective. Follow up by asking your direct report if they believe the description to be accurate, or if there are any gaps in your understanding.
  • Work together to develop realistic concrete next steps.
  • The last pitfall to avoid is thinking that you don't need to meet with someone this time around - that you will catch up on everything the next time they're due for a 1:1 with you. Don't make the mistake of assuming everything is on track! At the least, you need to make sure that things are going as well as you think they are.


    What to Do After Each 1:1

    The steps you take after each 1:1 are just as important as the meeting itself. After all, one of the functions of great 1:1s is to track individual employee performance on an ongoing basis. The only way that happens is if managers take the time to ask three questions after each 1:1:

    1. Did the employee meet each goal that was set prior to this meeting? Did they do all the required tasks?
    2. Did they complete their tasks according to the guidelines and specifications provided? Did they follow standard operating procedures, or improve upon those procedures?
    3. Did they meet the deadlines set in advance?

    And of course make a written record, perhaps by way of follow-up email, of what was discussed and agreed upon in each 1:1 meeting.


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