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The Essential Components of Effective One-to-Ones

Effective one-to-one meetings between managers and their team members are pivotal in shaping the dynamics of today’s workplace. These interactions, when well-executed, foster strong relationships, enhance employee engagement, and drive organizational success. But according to an O.C. Tanner Report, 33% of employees dread one-to-ones with their manager!

Often mismanaged, disorganized, or seeming like interrogations, these meetings only serve to add more fuel to the fires of frustration. And it’s not unsurprising – so few leaders are given guidance or training on how to conduct one-to-ones, so let’s rectify this today.

Here are SocialTalent’s essential components for making one-to-ones truly effective.

Understanding the Power of One-to-Ones

One-to-one conversations are much more than simple check-ins or updates. They are the cornerstone of effective management and employee engagement. According to our resident experts, Jason Lauritsen and Linda Jonas, these conversations are key to “reducing uncertainty, creating clarity, and strengthening relationships” in the workplace. They provide a unique opportunity for managers to connect with their employees on a deeper level, understand their challenges and aspirations, and provide the support they need to thrive.

The Manager’s Role in One-to-Ones

Successful one-to-ones are not merely operational updates. Managers must steer clear of dominating the conversation, rescheduling at the last minute, or focusing solely on status updates. Such practices can make employees feel undervalued and overlooked. Instead, you want to show up prepared, unflustered, and ready to make the most of the session together.

In order to do this, there are three particular mindsets you need to adopt:

  • Work as a Relationship: Recognize that for employees, work is a significant relationship in their lives. Managers should foster this relationship with empathy and understanding.
  • Conversations That Matter: The focus should be on meaningful conversations that transcend daily tasks, delving into personal growth, career aspirations, and constructive feedback.
  • Cultivation Mindset: Recognizing that people are naturally inclined to succeed, the manager’s role is to identify and clear obstacles, providing necessary resources and support.

When the managers show up to one-to-ones in this manner, they can vastly make daily activities more efficient, build trust and psychological safety, and improve their direct report’s experience, motivation, and engagement.

Learn more: 7 Ways an Organization can Create Psychological Safety

Preparing for One-to-Ones

Effective preparation involves setting clear intentions for the meeting. It’s about having clarity both on why you are having the meeting and how you want to show up in that meeting.

Before the meeting, managers should reflect on the employee’s recent performances, challenges, and successes. This reflection aids in tailoring the conversation to be more impactful and relevant. It also gives you an opportunity to bring yourself up to speed on activities you should already know rather than turning the session into an update meeting that is a waste of the employee’s time.

Finally, a structured plan or agenda for the meeting, including topics and a comfortable setting for the conversation, is essential. It ensures that the meeting is focused and productive. It doesn’t have to be overly complex or formal – just to give employees a sense of what’s to come so there’s no anxiety-inducing sneak attacks!

As Linda Jonas states in her SocialTalent training course:

“Given the importance and potential impact of these conversations, they are worthy of some time in advance to set them up for success.”

The Art of Being Fully Present

Being fully present in a one-to-one is critical. It involves turning off notifications, choosing a quiet location, and being mentally prepared to focus solely on the employee. It’s about making the employee feel that this is the most important thing they could be doing right now.

Here is a quick checklist of dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t look at your phone or gaze into a second screen.
  • Do make eye contact, even in a virtual meeting!
  • Don’t conduct these meetings on the go – no one wants to be an afterthought. 
  • Do let others know that this meeting is important.
  • Don’t interrupt your direct report – remember, this is their time.
  • Do practice active listening; it’s not just about hearing, but understanding.
  • Don’t ignore confusion – uncertainty kills engagement; if you get the sense that meaning has been lost, reiterate.

How many of these are you guilty of?! So much of a good one-to-one relies on clear, concise, and considered communication – both with your direct report, your colleagues, and even yourself!

Learn more: 9 Ways to Communicate Effectively as a Leader

Conducting Effective Check-Ins

At the heart of every one-to-one is the check-in. This is the moment, usually at the beginning of the conversation, where you ask how the employee is – to which you usually get a perfunctory “good thanks” as a reply. In reality, this approach is wildly ineffective. It’s box-ticking at best.

So, let’s turn this moment on its head and get some real value from this interaction:

  1. Ask Insightful Questions: Start with open-ended questions that prompt detailed responses. Linda and Jason advocate for the “How are you on a scale from 1 – 10?” It’s a simple change but promotes more thought and avenues for greater understanding.
  2. Follow Up Effectively: Use follow-up questions to delve deeper into the employee’s thoughts and feelings. Are they at a 9? Talk about all the things going well! Are they at 5? Here you can explore the positives and negatives and work out how best to assist.
  3. Listen Attentively: Give the employee space to express themselves while listening attentively. 
  4. Offer Support and Encouragement: Conclude with supportive and encouraging feedback that is tailored to the responses they have given. 


Effective one-to-ones combine preparation, the right mindset, and the skills to listen and respond appropriately. They are a critical tool for managers, essential for fostering a positive and productive workplace environment. In fact, Quantum Workplace data suggests that employees who have weekly one-to-ones with their manager are 71% more engaged. These meetings are not just administrative routines but powerful opportunities for building relationships and driving organizational success.

As Jason Lauritsen concludes: one-to-ones are like: 

The swiss army knife of management tools. When done right, they can be the right solution to nearly anything you need to accomplish with your people: create clarity, build connection, demonstrate care, and cultivate performance.”

Want to learn how to conduct the best meetings? SocialTalent’s Leadership Training will help managers at all levels to excel. Reach out to us today to find out more.

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