One-on-one meeting dos and don’ts: Part 1 - Dos

As members my team grow into tech leads and managers I have begun to reflect on one-on-one meetings in an effort to help guide new managers and to also self-assess and improve the meetings I have.

I have been conducting one-on-one meetings in various capacities and roles for over eight years. These meetings have evolved significantly over this time. I have made mistakes, learned, challenged myself, and grown tremendously as a manager and leader.

During my first few years as a manager, I did many things right (I hope :P) and many things wrong (I know) in my one-on-one meetings. In this two part series I will outline 10 Dos and Don’ts (five each) for one-on-one meetings based on my experience as an engineering manager and leader. Part 1 covers five one-on-one dos, while Part 2 will dive into the don’ts.

Let’s grow!

Five one-on-one meetings Dos:

Note: The above is a tl;dr and also a table of contents, click to jump to a topic.

Do have them (and have them weekly)

First and foremost, if you are not having one-on-one meetings, start having them! Have them and have them weekly. If you are having them, great, here are a few ways to have high impact one-on-one meetings.

So why do one-on-ones matter?

One-on-ones are crucial meetings that

  • Build a rapport between you and your direct report(s). The most important aspect of any business is the people and having productive meetings with your greatest asset will help you better understand who you are working with, how to motivate them, and (more importantly) how to avoid demotivating them
  • Provide insight into the employee’s current level of morale, stress, frustration, excitement, etc.
  • Shed light on areas where the business is doing well and where it can improve - be it at the individual, team, or organizational level
  • Help you understand more about the person you are working with to better ensure alignment of their career goals and business objectives
  • Bring frustrations to light that can be addressed, resolved, and minimized to help facilitate a high functioning team and safe environment
  • Stay on target with current performance and development goals - be it monthly, quarterly, yearly, or another specific time frame
  • Provide coaching
  • Share formal and informal feedback

So we can see that one-on-one meetings are fundamental to the health of the team and organization. So where do we start? Here’s a list of questions for your first one-on-one. Already had those first initial meetings and looking for a bit more? Boom, I got you! Here are some great questions for effective one-on-ones with more below at the end of this post.

So now that you’re having them, great! In order to get the most out of the meeting, make sure that you switch them up.

Do switch them up

It is important to not let one-on-one meetings become monotonous. Some of my most insightful meetings have occurred outside of the office. So, grab a coffee, go for a walk, switch up the location of the meeting - all of these will help keep the discussion and atmosphere fresh.

Some suggestions include:

  • take your direct report out to lunch
  • conduct your one-on-one in a coffee shop (and offer to buy the coffee/tea/juice)
  • have a catchup over breakfast
  • leave the office and take a walk
  • sit and chat outside in a public space (park, atrium, etc.)

If the meetings are “boring” or not productive, as managers that’s on us. Switching them up and providing a safe space are essential to having effective one-on-ones.

Do provide a safe space

As a leader and manager, team member safety is your responsibility and your prime directive.

It is crucial to create a safe space in one-on-one meetings. The aim is to learn and grow. Regardless of what is discussed or mentioned or any feedback provided, do not get defensive, angry, or dismissive. This meeting is not about you, it is about your teammate. As a leader and manager, team member safety is your responsibility and your prime directive.

Here are some ways to help ensure the safety of your team during important conversations:

  • Conduct the meeting in a private place, be it an office or conference room. It is important that your direct report feels like they can share and open up. While many small organizations and startups favor an open office layout plan, be sure to find a way to have the meeting in private. No private office spaces? Step out of the office and go for a walk. Check out the section above for more ideas.
  • When first beginning one-on-ones with a new employee or teammate, explicitly state that these meetings are a safe space. I find that by specifically stating this, it helps to remove doubt and assumptions. The trust will build overtime and by listening, being present, staying consistent, and ensuring supportive and honest feedback - the conversations will become more and more open and effective.
  • Keep the conversation confidential. What is said during a one-on-one meeting must remain private. Unless otherwise stated - and agreed to by both parties - what is said during the meeting should not be shared. Avoid office gossip.
  • Let people talk in whatever manner and tone they want. Listen, be supportive, and avoid interrupting.
  • Pay close attention to the person’s body language and the way they respond. If you notice the team member becoming nervous or anxious, work to ensure they are as comfortable as possible. Check your body language as well, remain open.

This is a huge topic and not something that can be summarized in a few bullet points. There is a entire book, crucial conversations, which goes into great depth on talking, listening, and creating a safe space when the stakes are high.

Do focus on the moment and be present

We have all been in meetings that we may not have wanted to be in. Sometimes we are tired, not feeling well, or dealing with personal issues. I try very hard to leave these feelings outside of the meeting space and give my teammate my undivided attention. Appearing distracted or worse, not interested in the meeting can have a very negative impact.

With that being said, we are human. If you are having a bad day or a tough time, be honest, open, and let your teammate know. This will help build the rapport, potentially even making them feel more confident to open up in the future.

One way that I improved my ability to focus and “be present” was to give myself breaks in between meetings and to remind myself “it is not about me”. Leadership can be challenging as we are always “on”, pulled in many different directions, and juggling (throwing/dropping?) multiple balls in the air at all times. Be sure to take care of yourself, sleep well, eat well, and exercise.

Finally, work to schedule the meeting at a time that works for both parties. Is she a morning person? Does he have a packed Thursday? Ask your colleague what works for them and schedule meetings accordingly.

Do take notes

I have a folder for each employee and a notebook specifically dedicated to one-on-one meetings. I keep track of what was discussed, including:

  • what was on my direct report’s agenda
  • areas of excitement, frustrations, etc.
  • feedback from my direct report to me and from me to my direct report
  • follow ups, to-dos, and any next steps
  • something new I may have learned about my direct report’s likes/dislikes or their life in general

I find the notes are helpful in:

  • keeping track of progress made; useful for goal-setting, performance reviews, and career conversations
  • documenting follow ups and next steps
  • remembering what was discussed week to week (and month to month, year to year…)
  • finding areas to congratulate them when something awesome has been accomplished

If it works for you, definitely share the notes. Some team members want to see the notes I have written down, while others keep their own. Ask what works best for your direct report and proceed accordingly.

Bonus: Do come prepared and have an agenda

The agenda should be created by the direct report. As you know, this is their meeting, not ours. Ask them to draft an agenda ahead of time. This can be a set of questions they have, an area of focus they would like to discuss, or a specific follow up from a previous meeting. Here is an article you can share with your team that will help them come more prepared to one-on-one meetings.

If there are no questions or follow ups, be prepared with a few questions of your own.


As managers, conducting one-on-one meetings is the single most important investment we can make in our teams. They can help us coach and provide feedback, catch and fix issues, learn organizational shortcomings, see individual frustrations and excitements, share information up and down the company, and gain valuable insight into the health of our people and teams.

In this article, I have outlined five things to do for effective one-on-one meetings. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a place we can start from to make sure we are having the best meetings that we can. By seeing what we should and should not do, we can calibrate how we spend our time and how we conduct our meetings, to ensure they are highly impactful in a positive manner. What else would you add?

Check out Part 2 for one-on-one don’ts and see the additional materials below. Keep growing and keep learning. You got this!

Additional Resources