Five Ways to Make Your One-on-One Meetings More Effective

Failing to use time with direct reports in a meaningful way — or, worse, skipping these meetings altogether — can lead to higher attrition and drag down organizational goals.

Reading Time: 8 min 


  • In the rush of day-to-day responsibilities and deadlines, pausing for a regular one-on-one meeting can feel like a waste of time. And for many, it not only feels unnecessary but also painful and stilted. According to research conducted at Humu, these feelings are so common that 1 in 4 people don’t have regular one-on-one meetings with their managers or direct reports at all.

    Unfortunately, things can go wrong without these regular touch points. People who don’t have one-on-ones with their managers are more likely to leave their organizations. And although skipping these meetings might give some time back to managers, they are more likely to miss out on opportunities to build trust and alignment within their teams. So, what can managers do to make regular check-ins more effective?

    In this article, I’ll share five science-backed steps that can help managers structure their one-on-ones with reports and team members so that people will feel energized rather than drained by these meetings in the year ahead.

    1. Meet more often.

    Our calendars are crowded as is, so it’s understandable that manager check-ins often take a back seat to urgent tasks perceived as having higher value. That said, this mentality can be counterproductive to the manager-employee relationship.

    In a recent Humu survey of 350 managers and individual contributors, employees who said they have one-on-ones at least once a week reported feeling better about these meetings than employees who have them less frequently. Having a predictable cadence of connection points can help reduce negative feelings, such as fear or anxiety, that might come up when meeting with one’s boss. In fact, individual contributors with weekly meetings reported feeling 20% less anxious, dreading them 17% less, and feeling 12% more successful at their jobs, on average, compared with those who met with their managers less often.

    2. Align on what you both want to get out of these meetings.

    The feelings of anxiety, awkwardness, or dread that these one-on-one conversations often generate stem from a misalignment in expectations. Managers and employees frequently lack a shared purpose and set of goals for this time together. For some, the conversation might feel forced or be shaped too much by external ideas of what a one-on-one should look like rather than what would be beneficial for both parties.

    Ultimately, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work; the goal of each meeting will vary based on the different human beings involved and the current situations they face. Some individuals might want to use check-ins to focus mostly on building a personal connection, while others might want to tackle career development and coaching. Taking the time to understand these individual needs matters for managers. Studies on the leader-member exchange theory highlight the benefits of tailoring your relationship with each direct report to build a meaningful connection based on trust. Humu’s research supports this: Employees with highly rated managers were more than three times as likely than those with poorly rated managers to say that their supervisors show that they care and take the time to get to know them. Managers should use their first meeting with a new direct report to understand their unique needs, interests, and feedback preferences.

    A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work; the goal of each meeting will vary based on the different human beings involved.

    By working together to set one-on-one meeting expectations and goals, both manager and employee will have less anxiety going into them and will gain a better sense of how to make them effective.

    3. Encourage two-way agenda-setting.

    Many managers forget to thoughtfully prepare for meetings with their direct reports and either rush to put together an agenda a few minutes beforehand or decide to just wing it. Often, this approach results in scattered conversations that don’t advance the employee’s goals. These agendaless meetings are usually the ones that employees dread most.

    To help make the agenda-setting process easier, managers should keep it simple but consistent, homing in on the topics that matter most for employee growth. Humu’s survey asked both managers and individual contributors which topics should be top priorities in their check-ins. They ranked the importance of conversation topics associated with six elements of effective management: feedback, recognition, structure, development, mission alignment, and personal connection.

    These results highlight a misalignment in how individual contributors and their managers prioritize key areas, such as what’s happening in the context of the organization, career development, life outside of work, and celebrating achievements. Development conversations, as well as connecting their work to the overall mission, are significantly more important to employees than to managers, whereas personal check-ins and providing recognition might be overemphasized by managers in these settings. The truth is that all manager relationships need each of these six elements to be successful, but the mix will vary based on the unique needs of each individual employee.

    To develop an agenda structure that allots an appropriate amount of time to each topic, managers can focus on five key questions when meeting with a direct report:

    • What’s going well? This offers a dedicated moment for self-reflection and recognition.
    • Where can I help? Use this agenda item to clarify directions and work through any roadblocks. This question touches on the core topics of structure (tactical details, prioritization), feedback, and mission alignment.
    • What are your top priorities these days? Aligning on priorities on a regular basis creates a clearer line of sight into employees’ work, as well as more understanding overall. If there is misalignment, this question can help managers identify long-term development needs or potentially important feedback.
    • Is there anything new or upcoming you’d like to put on my radar? Asking this question is another way to stay on the same page, and it helps managers identify potential issues before they arise. If there is a potential issue, managers can address it early and provide support.
    • How are you feeling outside of work? Including topics beyond day-to-day work helps build personal rapport and trust and can help mitigate the risk of proximity bias in a hybrid setting.

    These questions can frame the overall agenda structure, but direct reports should also be empowered to add more specific bullets to the agenda throughout the week between conversations. This allows employees to use the time effectively to get what they need while making it clear that they are jointly responsible for making the most of one-on-one time together.

    4. Focus on outcomes, not process.

    When discussing a project with a direct report, process-focused questions can come across as micromanaging and don’t ensure a successful outcome. Questions like “What are you doing today?” or “How are you doing this?” can make a check-in feel more like an interrogation than a conversation. Managers should focus instead on giving people a clear goal and letting them get it done in a way that makes the most sense for them.

    In earlier work on Google’s Project Oxygen, Humu uncovered the 10 behaviors that make a great manager. Empowering rather than micromanaging the team and being results-oriented were both on that list. These strategies are even more important when managing in a hybrid setting, where micromanagement can be more of a temptation for managers. For example, rather than outlining all of the project milestones and next steps, managers can discuss desired results with their direct reports and ask them to come back with a few possible options for next steps and their reasoning behind them. This enables the employee to have a voice in the project while also allowing the manager to check back in on progress and offer feedback or help course-correct.

    If an employee is struggling to achieve an outcome or identify the best course of action, managers can use one-on-ones to identify issue areas and brainstorm collaboratively about solutions. This approach creates the right conditions for psychological safety, allowing managers to lead with trust while providing direct reports with a safe space to experiment, fail, and improve. If employees don’t feel safe enough to be open about their missteps, they’ll struggle silently instead of using their manager as a resource to solve problems.

    5. Follow up.

    There’s nothing more frustrating for a direct report than discussing an issue or opportunity with a manager who never follows through after the initial conversation. Managers should take notes, review them after the meeting, and complete any action items stemming from the conversation before the next weekly meeting. Managers expect this from direct reports but need to hold themselves accountable as well.

    When an individual contributor sees a manager coming through on something they asked for in a meeting, that builds trust, which is crucial for the long-term success of any relationship. When a tough conversation is needed, following up with a report via email can also help smooth out any emotional rough edges, clarify the constructive feedback, and guide next steps for the employee.

    By reframing the understanding of the overall purpose and structure of a manager check-in, leaders can create more meaningful touch points with their people and drive better results. Meeting just for the sake of it won’t move the needle, but when one-on-one conversations are useful, consistent, and human, they can become something that both managers and employees actually look forward to.


    More Like This

    You must to post a comment.

    First time here? : Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.