How to have the most effective 1-1’s with your employees

Erin McGee, 5 min read

How to have the most effective 1-1’s with your employees

“Our weekly conversation about how you're going- the good, the bad and (hopefully not so) the ugly.”

These meetings aren’t a performance review, nor a straight up feedback session, or a status report. We don’t have to talk about anything specifically, and we can even choose to talk about nothing at all. We can talk about our families, our pets, our projects, things that excite us, or niggly feelings we can’t quite shake.

A reason why our 1-1’s aren’t real 'meetings' is that they don’t have a set agenda. A meeting without an agenda?! I can hear the gasps from you productivity buffs keeling over at the thought (don’t worry, we’re sticklers for efficient meetings too!)

That’s not to say there aren’t any tangible outcomes of our weekly catch ups – there most certainly are. Lachy diligently writes notes throughout, then transfers them to Dropbox Paper and shares them with us individually to recap what we spoke about and make any action items tangible. The purpose of not having a set agenda is to create the space for the employee to feel comfortable discussing what they want to talk about.

Here’s an example of some post-chat discussion points from a 1-1 Lachy and I had way back:


As you can clearly tell, the conversation can be as specific or as broad as we like. I find that making notes before the 1-1 helps me keep my mind on track and not forget any major points I want to discuss.
There’s no set way to run 1-1 meetings. Each team has different needs, personality types and schedules that need to be considered. However, there are a few key themes that make up an effective 1-1:

1. Set a regular, scheduled time (and stick to it!)


Managers are busy.

So busy that sometimes commitments like 1-1’s tend to fall by the wayside.
Consider Dave, an employee with a 1-1 at 3pm on Monday afternoons. He’s had an issue with a design decision that was made on one of his projects and is keen to get some advice on how to tackle it from his manager, Tim. He’s prepared a few notes to chat about, then receives an IM from Tim:

“Hey, I’ve rescheduled our 1-1 for Thursday. Super busy. Sorry!”
Frustrated, Dave replies “No worries!” and gets on with his day.

It may feel like a little chopping and changing of schedules is harmless, which in many cases it may be. However, it’s crucial to not let it become a regular occurrence. In a situation like Dave’s, he may not have a chance to have his voice heard before the issue falls through the cracks.

And can you imagine if this happened to Dave regularly? He’d likely think that he wasn’t worth 30 minutes of Tim’s time.

This can end in a snowball effect that can cross over with other employee’s concerns too. If somebody else had the same concerns as Dave, or even an opposing viewpoint, rescheduling the only time they have to speak up means taking your finger off the pulse of your team.

Being diligent with sticking to the 1-1 schedule also opens up opportunities for both managers and employees to become comfortable with regular feedback – something we all (usually) suck at. We’re conditioned to expect feedback to be infrequent and usually negative, so having a regular time to practice giving specific, actionable feedback in a safe space is a great way to improve.

2. Be prepared (but not too prepared)


Agenda-less meetings don’t always have to end in disaster.

In the case of 1-1’s, having too much structure risks important topics missing out on their fair share of attention. As a manager, it may be tempting to pack the 1-1 meeting agenda full of topics you’ve thought of – except this way it can easily turn into the manager’s meeting when it should really be the employee’.

However, it is important to have a couple of broad areas to start the conversation and help the employee get to what they really want to talk about. Two things that Claire Lew from Know Your Company has written aboutis uncovering tension and energy. She describes tension as moments someone has felt frustrated, angry or bored and energy as being motivated, proud or excited.

Don’t be afraid to venture off script, either. If a topic comes up that needs to be addressed- dive right in. With enough trust and honesty between the manager and employee (and enough practice), problems can be solved together.

And if you’re an employee?
This is your meeting. If there’s anything specific that comes up throughout the week, make sure to write it down so you can get the most out of your 1-1 time. Take the action items from the last catch-up, review them and head into the next meeting feeling prepared.

3. Follow up


Even if you’ve had an awesome chat and come out feeling accomplished, without doing anything specific as a result, the usefulness of the 1-1 goes way down.

As I mentioned earlier, we end most 1-1’s with a few action items to work on throughout the week. Most notetaking programs (Evernote, Bear, Dropbox Paper) have a nifty little checklist feature that makes creating these super simple.

And for the most successful 1-1’s, following up on what you’ve talked about should be the responsibility of both parties. Both manager and employee should keep their action items front of mind throughout the week and be checking in with how they’re progressing.

In my opinion, this last one is the most important…

4. Listen!


Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately not.

The freedom to speak without interruption is seldom enjoyed.

This is because most of us like to talk about ourselves. We spend too much time in conversation merely ‘hearing’ what the other person is saying and waiting for a moment to interject with our opinion or a similar experience.

We don’t do this out of selfishness, but a pesky human desire to empathise with the person we’re speaking with.

Practising active listening in 1-1’s lets the employee talk the majority of the time, and will produce more thoughtful action items since the listener’s priority is to really listen.

Actually being listened to makes us feel heard (funny that). And when we feel like we’re being listened to, we engage – because it means what we’re saying is of value to somebody else.

Investing the time and energy into 1-1’s will pay huge dividends for your team’s performance, their happiness and the culture of the company you work for.

And one day, all of your employees will be as happy as Dave.


Erin McGee

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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