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How to Have One-on-Ones That Center What Your Employee Needs

This article was based on episode 255 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get two months of Fast Forward membership for free. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

Despite their potential for building powerful relationships, one-on-one meetings are often seen as a low priority by managers. Not only do we undervalue these meetings, we often fumble this amazing opportunity by going about them all wrong. Way too often these meetings become about sharing information and updates on projects. We need to flip this dynamic on its head. In order to build psychological safety and rapport, one-on-ones must be set up to center the employee and their agenda.

Jason Wick puts it simply: In a one-on-one, we must treat our employee as our customer. We are there to serve them. Jason is the host of the Leadership Voyage podcast and has nearly a decade of management experience in a variety of industries. His passion lies in managing and guiding others to reach higher levels in their professional performance, both as individuals and as teams. Jason offers insight here into ways to prepare our teammates for effective one on ones through scheduling, messaging, and collaborative shared documents.


According to Jason, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how many one-on-one meetings a manager should have. You may decide to hold them weekly, for thirty minutes, or every other week, for forty five minutes. You may even begin with once a month before increasing in frequency.

If you’re onboarding a new employee or helping someone get through a difficult change, more meetings may be helpful during these transitions. Be sure to check in with your employee to see if they think they would benefit with more or less frequent get togethers.

Whatever frequency you decide, make these meetings recurring and consistent. Put them on the calendar and honor these time commitments.


Canceling a one-on-one sends your employee the wrong message. It tells them that they aren’t as important as something else on your to do list. This is especially true because of the power imbalance in a manager/employee relationship. Few employees feel they are able to cancel a one-on-one when they are feeling overloaded.

That being said, emergencies and unusual circumstances are a part of life. Before outright canceling, consider if you can just have a shorter meeting that day, or meet during lunch time. Perhaps it’s possible to delegate one of your other meetings or tasks to a colleague so that you can still have the one-on-one as scheduled.

If it’s necessary to cancel, make sure to be as honest as possible and apologize for the change. Rather than eliminating the meeting altogether, try first to reschedule it to a different day or time, or delay it to the following week, especially if you’re meeting less frequently.


Like any other meeting, we can best show up ready for the conversation when we’ve properly prepared. Jason suggests creating a shared document that both you and your team member can contribute to beforehand. Explain that you will both be expected to add any topics for discussion ahead of time.

While you want the meeting to be focused on the employee’s agenda, occasionally you’ll have topics or questions you’d like to cover as well. Jason recommends offering prompts and topics to open up the conversation beyond the work at hand. This can be about where the person sees themself in a year or what most bothers them about working at your organization. By adding those questions to the shared agenda, your team member can come prepared to share their thoughts.

Some people find it helpful to use the 10/10/10 model to give structure to the time. This includes a 10 minute agenda for the employee, 10 minutes for the manager, and 10 for open ended conversation. Whatever approach you take, make sure both you and your team member are aware of how the time will be spent to best serve them.

To help you prepare for your next one-on-one, take notes during the meeting. We are constantly taking in so much information that we’re bound to forget things they said before the next meeting. By rereading these notes for a couple minutes before the next meetings, you communicate how much you care by remembering what they previously said.


You want your employee to know that they are in the driver’s seat for their growth. This means they need to take control of the one-on-one meeting. Give them space and avoid dominating the conversation. This can be challenging for managers who naturally speak a lot when meeting with colleagues who are more naturally quiet. Focus yourself on deep listening and asking questions instead of taking over the conversation.

The one-on-one is also a great time for managers to learn how to better support their team members. For many employees, it’s uncomfortable to bring concerns to their boss. By asking questions such as, “What can I do differently to better support you?” or “What’s one thing you wish I did more of?,” you can open the door for meaningful feedback. This will set the stage for open-ended discussions in which your employee feels heard and in control at work.

Of all the things that we do as managers, one-o- ones are the foundation of our employee relationships. In order to build social capital, these frank, trusting conversations are essential. If you’re going to start one-on-one’s for the first time, make sure to inform your employees about this plan, rather than surprising them with an unannounced calendar invite. If you’ve been having one-on-ones, but they’re primarily focused on the work, now is a great time to revamp them. In both cases, explain the purpose of these meetings and the employee-as-customer approach.

Start small, with once or twice a month. Honor these time commitments and try as much as possible to never cancel unless necessary. Allow your employee to drive the agenda, and prepare by collaborating beforehand on topics to discuss. Take notes so that you can jump right back to where you left off at the next meeting. This flow will transform the relationships you have with your employees. The one-on-one meeting is a simple tool that can profoundly affect how your employees feel about you and their place in the team.


Get access to Mamie’s one-on-one reflection questions and Jason’s one page overview of 8 ways to ruin (or restore) your one-on-ones when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 255 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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