1-on-1s for Engaged Employees: How Good Managers Run Them

1-on-1s are a great method to have a frequent conversation between manager and employee. As communication in the workplace is often one of the weakest spots of almost all organizations, managers can make a big difference by having regular, structured, yet informal 1-on-1s with their team members. It’s fairly simple: just take 1 hour every two weeks for each team member and have an informal conversation about engagement, workload, team dynamics, performance and learning and development.

Although it’s a time-consuming effort the returns of 1-on-1s are huge. Most people like to speak about their accomplishments and concerns. Have an open ear and actively listen to everything your team members have to say. You can guide the conversation to understand even better what is meant and provide immediate guidance and feedback.

An effective 1-on-1 needs a little bit of preparation and structure. You need to force yourself to keep having them despite all the workload you may have filling up the space on your desk.

The following steps can serve as a guide to run effective 1-on-1s that engage employees and give managers a better understanding of how things are getting done in the team and how happy and motivated people are. You will feel that people are very thankful to be heard and their motivation will increase significantly after each 1-on-1, so have them regularly.

Before the 1-on-1 meeting

It is important to prepare for one-on-ones. Here are the three factors to consider: the mindset, the schedule and the agenda.

The 1-on-1 Mindset

Don’t overthink the meeting, the conversation should be informal and rather free. There’s no need for a fixed agenda or meeting minutes. Of course it helps to keep track of what’s said and what you wanna talk about next time. Put yourself in the mindset that this conversation is happening in a relaxed and very natural manner. Plan to go for a walk, have a coffee or meet for breakfast. It’s really that simple.

Most important is to put yourself into the background and the employee into the focus. It’s more important to ask open-ended questions and listen rather than explaining and justifying recent decisions. Be open to step back and listen to your teammates as much as you possibly can. Come in with a clear mind and no bad feelings. As a rule of thumb, a manager shouldn’t really talk more than 10% of the meeting, guide it, ask the right questions but then simply listen and sense the employee’s motivation or concerns.

Recurring Schedule

During the first 1-on-1 you should briefly explain the purpose and set the tone right. Make sure this is gonna be an informal and recurring meeting that doesn’t require much preparation but just a certain openness, trust and honesty to share whatever is on top of mind.

It’s crucial to put 1-on-1s directly into your calendar recurringly and invite the relevant employees. This way you and your team have already committed to regular conversations and it’s gonna be harder to procrastinate. Try to stay disciplined and consistent.  

When setting up the calendar appointments add some basic info so people aren’t worried about this new meeting. Simply add:

“I plan to start doing one-on-ones in our team. Just informal conversations to get more feedback from you. We can talk about anything. What is bothering you? Your progress? Or whatever else that you find important. This will happen every two weeks. Let me know if you have any questions.”

It is advisable that you schedule enough time for these conversations. A session lasting from 30 to 60 minutes is reasonable. Andy Grove, former CEO and Co-Founder of Intel, actually advised to do one-on-ones for at least one hour.

I feel that a one-on-one should last an hour at minimum. Anything less, in my experience, tends to make the subordinate confine himself to simple things that can be handled quickly.
— Andy Grove, former CEO and Co-Founder of Intel

Try not to skip any meeting, rather rearrange if urgent things come up. Some managers serve their Friday to fully dedicate it to 1-on-1s. It’s a great strategy because you can directly recap the week and it lets people go more motivated into the weekend. Of course it’s also a good idea to kick-off the week with 1-on-1s on Monday when the mind is fresh and everything being said can directly have an impact in the days ahead.

Don’t forget to also connect personally. Build a strong relationship with your employees to create an environment of trust, respect and honesty. Sometimes it’s good to share some personal happenings to make the atmosphere more relaxed and less tied to actual work. This way employees will be more likely to open up as well if they have any problems today or in the future.

An Agenda is Optional

You can ask your teammates to shortly share with you what they would like to talk about so you have the chance to prepare critical topics like promotions or performance discussions. However, this is really up to the employee to set the direction of the meeting if they want.

If there’s no agenda it may be helpful to set one overarching topic that the 1-on-1 could be about. Think of the following

  • General engagement and motivation

  • Team dynamics

  • Learning and development

  • Your leadership style

  • Future ambition and past performance

  • Ideas and requests for change

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During the 1-on-1 meeting

As the manager, you should take the lead to set up an informal tone for the meetings. Focus on asking questions and listening attentively to understand the feedback. Don't forget to wrap up each meeting and prepare for the next.

Keep It Informal

Keep your 1-on-1 informal and private. It is best to find a relaxing place where you can hold a private conversation. Some ideas are to go for a walk, to have a coffee in the neighbourhood cafe, or to talk over lunch.

Ask Questions

It is a good habit to prepare some questions you want to ask. When conversations come to a certain topic, such as work habits or personal learning, you can use the questions to get the more feedback from your team.

A well-asked question is a powerful tool because there are so many things one does not think of sharing until being ask.

As mentioned earlier, one-on-ones can be about almost anything. However, there are some common topics that managers like to cover. Here is a list.

1. Work habits

You want to understand how each of your team members operates. Once you learn their productive modes, you can support them to work more efficiently. Here are some questions regarding work habits:

  • Which part of the day do you feel most productive? When do you feel that your energy and focus are at the lowest level? What are the changes that can be made so you can take the best out of a work day?

  • What were your biggest time wasters or roadblocks last week or the week before?

  • What do you do when you get stuck on something? What is your process of getting unstuck? Who is the team member you turn to for help?

2. Team collaboration and relations

You can increase team productivity by improving the interpersonal relationship amongst team members. Ask the right questions to uncover the hidden challenges and opportunities.

  • Who inspire you in the team? Whose opinions do you respect? What have they done?

  • Is there anybody in the team that you find it difficult to work with? Can you tell me why?

  • What do you think about the amount of feedback in our team? When do others give feedback to you? Would you like to hear more feedback from other team member and me?

  • What do you think would help us work together better? Any suggestions for improvement in the way we work together?

3. Team’s happiness

Personal happiness has an undeniable impact on productivity and engagement. When is a better time to dig into a happiness issue than a 1-on-1 conversation? Grab the opportunity so you can help your team be happier at work. Here are some questions you can use:

  • Are you happy working here? Are you happy with your recent work? Why or why not?

  • What keeps you engaged with your daily work? What can I do to help make daily tasks more engaging?

  • What kind of projects do you enjoy working on? What motivates you to work on a project? Can you name three things we can do to help so you can enjoy your job more?

  • What is the best accomplishment you had since you are here? Do you feel appreciated for it?

  • What are the things that worry you? Anything on your mind? Have you ever felt undervalued here? Why?

4. Short-term goals

Your team’s feedback on their short-term goals will keep you aligned with their progress as well as their frustrations on the projects. It is healthy to address frustrations timely. Ask some questions, like:

  • How is the project going? What can we do to help?

  • What are the main bottlenecks? Can we do anything to move it along?

  • What are the projects you would be interested in working on next?

5. Long-term goals

Long-term goals are important to a person’s sense of fulfillment and happiness. Your team members like to see that they are making progress toward their big life goals. You want to learn about their goals, and whether their current job fits into those goals. Here are some questions you can use:

  • What do you want to achieve in the next 3 years?

  • How do you think about your progress on your big goals? What needs to be done to move towards the goals? What can we do to help?

  • Which part of the work here do you feel as most relevant to your long-term goals? What kinds of projects do you want to take part in to move toward your goals?

6. Personal development plan

You want to find out if your team members take learning and development the same way as you do. Some of the following questions can help you learn more about their motivation.

  • Do you feel like you are learning at work? What are the new things you learned lately? What are the areas you want to learn about?

  • Whom in the team do you want to learn from? Whom do you get valuable feedback from?

  • Do you think that you receive enough feedback? Is feedback helpful for your personal development? What can I do to help you get the feedback you want?

  • Would you like more coaching? What aspect of your job do you like more help and coaching on?

7. Manager improvement

It is crucial for you to know how your team thinks about you and your management style. It is challenging to get honest feedback specifically about you from a direct report. Set the right tone and choose your questions wisely. Here are some examples:

  • What can I do as a manager to make your work easier?

  • What do you like about my management style? What do you dislike?

  • What is the percentage of my involvement in your daily tasks? Would you prefer more or less?

  • How can I support you better?

  • What is something I could have done better? What are the situations that I could have helped more but didn’t?

Listen Actively

You should listen to your employee’s insight carefully. It is important to remember that you don’t just listen to be polite. You want to really understand what is being shared. Active listening involves:

  • Asking clarifying questions, something like: "Let me know if I got you right. Do you mean that you would rather see me being less involved in your daily task?"

  • Paraphrasing giver’s view, such as: "So you are saying that I should give you more autonomy in making decision regarding your daily tasks."

  • Acknowledging their feelings, for example:" I understand your strong feeling about your independence at work."

Clarifying questions and reaffirmation bring you closer to what is being expressed. By showing your recognition and respect toward one's feeling, you are to build a stronger relationship with your team.

Wrap Up & Suggest Next Moves

At the end of the meeting, you should wrap up the talking points. It is also essential to suggest an action plan till the next meeting.

After the 1-on-1 meeting

Make notes about the discussion points and the action plan. If you have done this already during the meeting, log it on your note system. You want to make sure you can easily review the items and act on what is needed. Make sure you do the legwork before the next meeting.

Also, remember to make it happen for the next meeting! Like we said earlier, it is very important to keep one-on-ones going.


One-on-ones are a great tool for managers and employees. The weekly sessions are for you to check in with the team’s morale. They are also about getting to know the people you are working with better. You can also save one-on-ones for higher-level things like career development and continuous learning. Employee’s feedback is extremely important for managers. Effective one-on-ones are one of the best ways to seek for feedback (as well as giving it). Learn to do one-on-ones the right way so you can get your employees engaged and let them know that you value them. This will have a huge impact on your whole team.


Learn how to motivate, engage and develop your team through feedback in our free eBook.



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