How to run Effective 1-on-1's

Last updated 11/03/2018

How to run effective 1-1's

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, remarked 1:1's have a 10X return on investment for managers. Although it can be one of the highest leverage things a manager can do, it also tends to be one that many company's don't properly understand

To help you get that 10X return, we'll cover:

  1. What the goals for the manager should be for 1-on-1's
  2. How to coach employees on how to effectively use the time
  3. A set of rules on how to run 1-on-1's that you can integrate into your process
90 minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate's work for 2 weeks, or for some 80+ hours.

- Andy Grove

But why is it so high leverage? What are the goals of 1-on-1's?

Many managers are not sure about the exact goals of 1-on-1's which dilutes their usefulness. Some of us are running 1-1's simply because our boss told us to.

To use 1-on-1's effectively, we need to first understand why we as managers need to run 1-1's.

Manager Goals for 1-on-1's

Check in on employee happiness

It costs 6-9 months of salary for a company to replace an employee according to some studies (such as SHRM).

That means, losing an employee who's salary is $100k could cost the company up to $75k!

So please please check how your team is feeling. If their unhappy, really dig into the reasons why and try to turn it around.

You'll be able to preemptively solve employee retention problems as long as you ask. The worst case is that you'll know ahead of time that you may lose an employee and can plan for it.

Get intel on whether there are problems on the team

In a similar vein, some employees aren't comfortable with telling their manager the whole of what they're unhappy about. It's good to ask for feedback from the ground floor from peers to better assess the situation of the team.

By asking individuals what they see as problems on the team and who they suggest you need to check in on (in terms of being unhappy), you can get hints that you need to probe deeper with some employees who have a tendency keep their grievances to themselves.

Coach Employees on Personal Goals

Every employee has a goal and it's your job to coach them on it. Being aware of their goals and helping them with it will not only make them more effective, but will also improve job satisfaction.

Beyond giving feedback on how they can work on their goals, part of the coaching usually requires that you provide opportunities that allow the employee to try something out.

Usually this comes at a cost of losing a certain amount of dollar value (opportunity cost of your employee's time on working on something they're very good at) to allow an employee to gain experience at something.

The trick is to find a balance between what is an acceptable investment in the employee to the company. You're not going to risk letting a new salesperson run a 100+ person sales team. That could bring down the whole company.

But letting the same person run a team of 5 people is a much smaller risk that gives them managerial experience - potentially providing your org a with a future sales manager.

Keep your team aligned

Dharmesh Shah of Hubspot fame gives a great overview on why aligning the team is important in this talk on Aligning Vectors (slides here).

If you imagine your team as the wheels on a car, if four of your team are going in the same direction, their efforts multiply in the same direction. If they're going in four different directions, the efforts cancel each other out.

The worst case is that your team is all going in the wrong direction - multiplying effort towards some negative outcome.

Thus it's important to look for clues of how the employee is thinking about what the goals of his or her work are. If you see anything that doesn't align with the team's direction, it's your job to:

  1. Verify that they are thinking about it incorrectly
  2. Provide your viewpoint of what the goals are and why their viewpoint doesn't align. Sometimes you should also explicitly state directional goals to keep the team knowing where they're trying to go.

Provide feedback for your employee's ideas

Many times, your employees have ideas running in there heads but aren't sure how to proceed with it. You should be there to be a sounding board. However, you shouldn't tell them what to do. Instead it's often most effective to serve as a reminder of the principles to make a decision off of.

Usually these ideas are for problems have multiple answers - each with their own drawbacks. Your goal here then is to frame the drawbacks in terms of the team's goals, the company goals, the employees personal goals, and the company's values.

For example, oftentimes there is a decision to be made that makes something better for the customer at a cost to the bottomline. Depending on your company's North Star, framing the problem in terms of the company's values and goals will make the answer of what to choose more immediately clear.

By not prescribing the solution but by help building a thought framework for your team, you are training them to think this way in their day to day work without needing your guidance.

Employee Goals for 1-on-1's

Once you know your goals, the most important thing you need to continually do is to remind your employees what 1-1's are for.

If you're managing IC's, chances are that they don't have a great understanding of what they're supposed to do with the 1-1 unless you tell them or their understanding is from a previous job that might have a different philosophy than you.

Things to remind employees about 1-on-1:

  • 1-on-1's are open discussions to bring any problems or feedback or questions. This is your meeting.
  • Unhappy? Please let me know.
  • Other teammates unhappy? Please let me know.
  • Open conversation on your personal goals. Tell me what you want to do, and I'll work with you to accomplish it. This is a two-way road where within my realm of power, I'll help you achieve your goals in a way that aligns with company goals.
  • I'm your sounding board. Feel free to let me know if you have any ideas or things you've been pondering, and I'm happy to be a sounding board for you.

You could even just print out this list and tell your team the words from this list verbatim if you haven't discussed with them what 1-1's are for.

Rules of Engagement

It's a good idea to set some guidelines for yourself for 1-on-1's to make sure they happen and that the are run effectively. While there are no hard-fast rules on how to run your 1-on-1's, here's a couple rules that work well for me.

Rule #1: You can't cancel the 1:1 as a manager

If you really must, reschedule it but you should never cancel your employee's opportunity to provide feedback to you and get coaching from you. If you think about it from a servant-leadership perspective, this is one of the ways you serve your team.

Rule #2: Come in with an open agenda

Start the conversation by letting the employee talk about anything they want. If you start with questions, you're directing the conversation's topics and makes it harder for the employee to really tell you what's happening.

It tends to end up with employees never telling you the problems they are having at work (since you don't know about the problems, you can't ask about them)

Rule #3 Come in with probing questions

Many 1-1's end up with the employee saying they have nothing to talk about.

It's up to you to engage the employee when the employee says they have nothing to discuss. You may find in 10 minutes that everything really is going fine but you'll want to spend some time checking before you reach that conclusion. Generally, you can use the same set of questions as the starting point for the meetings.

A starting point could be:

  • So what did you want to talk about today? (Open forum for employee to discuss anything)
  • How's work been recently? (Personal Happiness)
  • How's (Jon/Jill) doing? Everyone else seem to be doing fine? (Surveying for other Team Happiness issues)
  • How are we progressing on your (insert personal goal here)? (Tracking progress personal goals)
  • Are there any new things you wish to accomplish here on the job? (If there are no current personal goals to discuss)
  • Any project you're working on you want to run by me? (Feedback. Serve as a sounding board for project ideas)

If you've never asked before, or haven't asked in awhile, it's always good to check in on what promotion track the employee wants to follow. It adds context to your discussions as you know the promotion track they want to go for.

Also make sure to ask they want to move to other departments and not just up in their current department.

  • What promotion track would you like to follow? Or do you want to switch into a different role? (The classic "Where do you see yourself in 3 years" is also great, but many employees don't know what's available as a promotion track beyond getting better at their current job.)

You may not use a single question from this list or maybe only a few before you find a significant topic to discuss. And that's ok. You don't need to run through all the questions on every 1-on-1. You're just trying to dig for something substantial you can help with.

Rule #4 Do them regularly

Schedule it on your calendar. Set it as a recurring calendar invite and make sure it happens.

Every two weeks, every month? If you're not sure, just pick a schedule to start with and adjust it to fit what your team needs.

Rule #5 Take meeting notes

You should take meeting notes so you have a history you can review on how the conversations have evolved with a specific employee. These notes should also contain information on what needs to happen as a result of the meeting.

  • What are concerns did the employee with that you need to address?
  • What tasks have you and the employee come up with to furthers their personal goals? (and use that to check the progress at the next 1-on-1)


  • Make sure you know why you are running the 1-on-1's
  • Make sure your employees know what 1-on-1 meetings are for and how they can prep for it
  • Set up rules for yourself on how you conduct 1-on-1's

P.S. I wrote this to help new managers on our team understand how to conduct 1-on-1's and for employees to understand both how they should approach the 1-on-1 and their manager's view on 1-on-1's. Feel free to pass this on to others on your team :)

P.S.S. Have any thoughts about how we as managers can run 1-on-1's even more effectively? Let me know in the comments below.

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