When the work we do feels meaningful, we’re challenged by our goals, and supported in achieving them, this creates a powerful experience. One of the best ways for leaders to foster meaningful, challenging, and supported experiences for employees is via their one-on-one conversations.

Set goals for yourself before you head into your one-on-one meetings

Your actions demonstrate your priorities – remember that one-on-one discussions are primarily for your team members, and you secondarily. Think about the way that you’re showing up and being present for the person in helping them with work issues, development challenges, or whatever is part of their agenda. These discussions should be foremost driven by the employee, with you, as their leader, providing guidance, support, and any feedback that will help them be even more effective. The tone you set can open up new options or it can potentially disengage the other party. Be clear of the kind of culture you want to foster through your actions and what you’re prioritizing as your outcomes for success.

One-on-one discussions are a great vehicle to help your employees stay connected to their purpose and the meaning of their work in the context of the organization and team.

Think a bit about roles and formality – what tone do you prefer and what styles might you need? Reflect on the kind of messages you want to display through your actions and intentionally ask people for feedback about your style and how it’s working.

Use the opportunity that this time represents to add some variety into your daily routines. Mix things up and use the time to cover topics while you’re taking a walk together. Make use of community spaces that offer some privacy like your company’s break-areas or cafes and coffee shops to give these times a clear re-focus. When you’re not in the same spot, take advantage of technology for higher fidelity interactions like video conferences.

Use technology sparingly (except in cases where you’re remote from each other and need it to connect), consider the unspoken messages you’re sending: Put interruptions on hold as much as possible – make the quality of your interaction your priority.

Keep one-on-one conversations paramount; avoid the temptation to make them an afterthought or an optional. Our work is so often interdependent on the others that we work with we can’t opt-out of interactions that show others their importance to us through our actions and our willingness to support them.

3 suggested goals for your one-on-one conversations:

  • Balance
  • Alignment
  • Support

Effective one-on-one questions:

Balance covers a lot of ground and is a section that you can encourage your employees to think about for themselves before you meet. Below are a variety of questions that provide good ‘food for thought’ with respect to balance:

  • Well-being
    • What ways are they getting mobile and taking breaks?
    • Are they making use of their allotted time-off?
    • How are they feeling about work recently?
  • Workload balance
    • What does their workload feel like to them and does that match with their assignments?
    • Is there work that’s lingering on their to-do list?
    • Are there any side projects that aren’t on their official list or work where roles are unclear?
  • Personal development priorities
    • Spend time defining a meaningful purpose and outlining development goals during one-on-one meetings. If you don’t have your own template use ours: Personal Development Plan
    • Check-in on progress: ask what kind of barriers can I help clear?
    • Help re-prioritize as things change or goals are achieved – What things might they be swinging at that are low impact and can be put aside?

Alignment is a section where you can provide insight and support. As a leader, your part is to put things in context. Set the expectation with your employees that they should look-out for things they want to understand better with your help. To help with alignment, consider the following:

  • Team goals
    • Zoom out to the big picture of what your team does and link each employee’s individual goals into the ones of your team and the meaning of those efforts
    • Ask them how they can share or showcase their work with the team – what lessons have they learned that they can share with others?
    • What efforts might be going on behind the scenes that will behoove them to know about?
  • Company Announcements
    • Recap any recent changes or updates – clarify the relevance and meaning for their work
    • Discuss upcoming events or deadlines – ask them if they know where to go for more information
  • Business Environment
    • Pick a recent headline or news article relevant to your business and talk about what it means for them and their work
    • Talk about trends you’re both seeing and how you’re experiencing them

Support is a present in balance and alignment, but devote some specific time to this to round out your time together. Reinforce the connections to the network of available support resources. Close out your meeting with some clear messages:

  • We’re all in it together
    • Share about your own journey and the experiences that you’ve had when in similar spots
    • Identify other team members with relevant knowledge and abilities that can help master new goals
  • Celebrate Milestones
    • Recognize personal milestones – ask about anniversaries and other dates and times of year that are important to them
    • Cheer on progress towards goals – ask about ways you can acknowledge their progress that are meaningful to them
  • Commitments & Agreements
    • Show that you’ve been actively listening – say back to them what you’ve discussed
    • Agree to a commitment for their next priority for their development plan

Suggestions for giving specific and constructive performance feedback to an employee during a one-on-one.

You may find yourself needing to provide some course-corrections for performance during a 1-on-1 meeting. Follow a constructive dialogue approach and remember when we’re talking about ‘constructive feedback’ the ‘constructive’ part is the keyword, you want to focus on building your people and outputs to be better and avoid critiques that are counterproductive.

Prepare yourself to give feedback:

1. Look at separating the objective from the subjective – “I feel like you’re not trying to be on time.” is a subjective statement that’s making assumptions about the other person’s intentions. “I’ve seen you run 10 minutes late on our last three calls together.” is an objective statement that helps keep the conversation focused on the outcomes.

2. Focus on the solution – “I’ve seen some recent typos in your messages. I’d like to see you proof your work more thoroughly by making it a habit to run a spellcheck before you send.” – here you’ve identified the problem and set an expectation for the resolution in the future.

3. Be clear and avoid beating around the bush – it is always valuable to practice directly stating what you’ve observed and what you want to be changed.

4. Right-size your reaction – some of the heat-of-the-moment may have worn-off after you’ve thought through the objective facts and targeted a solution (if you were feeling an initial burning desire to give negative feedback). Make your feedback as real-time as possible while keeping it prioritized and in context. “Your deliverable was a day late and that impacted the other members of our team. Our goal is to always meet the timelines that we promise. Because you were sending updates to your task tracking we were able to adjust.”

Give the feedback:

5. Pick the appropriate time and place – aim for the highest fidelity interaction available to you and set a goal for whether the conversation should have a more or less formal tone as you are delivering your feedback.

6. Keep it clear – things like feedback sandwiches that put negative feedback between positive feedback can obscure your message about your desired change. Be balanced and objective rather than trying to soften the blow and muddle a message.

7. Meet people where they are – You don’t need to sugarcoat your constructive messages, but remember to treat others how they’ve communicated they like to be treated. Plan some time during your feedback session to listen and further understand the context or barriers that may be in the way of the outcomes you want. Make some space for the feedback session to be a two-way forum where other solutions can be generated. If you sense defensiveness, reframe towards solutions.

8. Point out available support – if you’re bringing the feedback conversation to someone you are the first lifeline for them. Talk to the employee about the other support that they have around them at work – whether that includes training resources, their network of co-workers, mentors, HR team members, or employee assistance benefits.

9. Make agreements – before ending your meeting make sure that you can both agree to what will change in the future. Ask them to put it into their own words and identify when and how they can practice the behavior change. Accountability increases when given a voice in the agreements. Balance your formal and informal methods here – consider when a verbal agreement will do, when you may want something in writing, and when you’d document something in a performance management system. Often times a brief written message after a conversation can serve as a reminder on both sides for what, where, and when feedback occurred.

Track the impact:

10. Follow-up on the agreements – mark on your calendar when a sufficient time will have passed to practice the change and look at objective examples together. Whether this is a formal follow-up or an informal check-in make sure that it happens – this feedback follow-up behavior from you demonstrates your commitment to your employee’s development.

11. Ask for reactions from the employee – Help them reflect upon whether the change was easier or harder than they thought it would be to make. Identify the support they used to make the change a habit. Talk about barriers that might still exist and that they need help clearing away. Discuss setbacks and what was learned from those setbacks.

12. Take notes for your own style – You may learn about resources and lifelines that are new to you as you continue to practice delivering feedback. Check-in with your employee(s) about what it is like on their side receiving feedback.

13. Work to keep improving your side of the street – self-reflect on what’s working for you in the same way you’re asking your team members to reflect on what’s working for them.

14. Celebrate success – Acknowledge when you see the changes in practice – send a quick ‘thank you’ message or acknowledge it in conversation. As appropriate, acknowledge privately or publicly with your other team members to share the journey you went on together and talk about what worked.

15. Acknowledge when you need to seek additional help – If the desired change isn’t happening it helps to outline a plan ahead of time. Be specific about the timeframes and what will happen when and have that in your back pocket. Explore the resources available for you to tap into like self-paced trainings, advice from conversations with HR, or suggestions from your mentors.

Great one-on-one meetings are another piece of the employee experience puzzle. Teams within your organization create feedback dynamics on their day-to-day work and project-specific work. Your annual employee performance review system may have formal ways to log and track individual goals but the 1-on-1 time you devote throughout the year will keep those performance review conversations from having any big surprises at the end of the year and will support a sense of pride, achievement, and purpose with your employees.

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