Stop dreading your one-on-one meetings.

I get it. The one word that every employee dreads… meetings.

Just uttering the word makes most people want to bang their heads against a wall. And trust me, I’ve had my fair share of terrible meetings after 20 years of leading teams.

Research backs this up, too. The average employee wastes 31 hours in unproductive meetings per month. And that’s just the meeting itself – the disruption before and after messes you up even more.

But not all meetings are bad.

Done right, a meeting can be an extremely high-leverage activity for any leader and one of the best ways to align the team and accelerate progress. You just need to cut out the non-essentials.

I wrote about that here: The only three meetings you’ll ever need.

In this article, I will dive into one of those three meetings – the one-on-one (1×1) between individual and manager. 

Finish this article, and you’ll never dread another one-on-one again! 

Why 1×1 Meetings Are Essential (But Often Done Wrong)

The 1×1 (one-on-one) meeting is one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s toolkit. In just 30-60 minutes, you can:

  • Align & influence behavior for weeks 
  • Understand progress against goals
  • Problem-solve issues before they become major problems

But most people get these meetings wrong. It’s very common to see one-on-one meetings with: 

  • No clear objective
  • An irregular cadence 
  • Too much fluff

And since time is a leader’s biggest constraint, you can’t waste endless hours on ineffective 1x1s (one-on-ones). 

It’s not “their meeting.”

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear about 1x1s is that:

The 1×1 meeting is “their meeting.” 

This means that, as a manager,  the individual controls the entire agenda, and you just show up. 

I followed this advice for a while, too. But, as well-intentioned as my people were, the meetings needed more structure to really be effective. The individual would usually show up with lower-level discussion items to fill the agenda and avoid the really hard, thorny issues that actually needed discussion. 

This is human nature. If you don’t force depth in these discussions, you won’t get it. People will naturally follow the easiest path in a meeting with their manager. There are exceptions, but it’s probably less than 10%. 

So what did I do instead? 

Let’s find out. 

The following section is for managers, and the next is for individuals. 

How Managers Can Crush 1x1s: 3 Key Rules

As a manager, the 1×1 is your chance to unlock each person’s true potential.  Apply these 3 simple rules to go from a weak meeting to a winning one. 

Rule #1: Be Consistent & Present  

The worst thing you can do is make your 1×1 (one-on-one) cadence inconsistent, constantly cancel 1x1s, or be distracted in the meeting itself!

Always give 100% of your attention. This is a fundamental rule of mutual respect. The person on the other side of the table will never give you their best if you’re unwilling to first. 

So, what does “consistent” mean? 

Many will advise you to have your 1×1 meetings weekly. This isn’t necessary. Having all of your 1x1s on a weekly cadence will COMPLETELY consume your calendar. 

Instead, aim for 60 minutes every other week. But “consistency” doesn’t mean the same location or format every time. Mix it up to keep things fresh. If you’re in the same physical place, rotate from office to coffee shop. If you’re virtual, switch from Zoom to Google Meet (that was a joke). 

But for new hires, start with weekly 1x1s for the first 3 months. This helps get them up to speed and hit the ground running. 

The other situation that requires a weekly 1×1 is a performance issue. If someone struggles to hit their goals, move their 1×1 (one-on-one) from every other week to weekly. This gives you more time to coach them out of the negative situation and sends a message that you’re taking this seriously. Once they are out of the red, move them back to every other week. 

Keep things informal and mix up locations when possible to keep things fresh. But never cancel – that says, “My other priorities are more important than you.”

Rule #2: Let them lead (but with structure)

Most “business experts” will tell you that the one-on-one meeting is “their meeting.” This means that the individual controls the entire agenda. All you do as the manager is show up. 

On one hand, the 1×1 meeting is your primary coaching opportunity. You should spend the majority of the meeting listening and the minority coaching. But that doesn’t mean letting the meeting agenda go all over the place. Coaching petty issues does no one any good. 

Instead, the manager needs to provide an overarching structure for the 1×1 agenda and then let the individual lead from there. Here’s what I suggest:

  • 15 min: Goal progress  
  • 30 min: Their agenda items   
  • 15 min: Your feedback

For the first 15 minutes, the individual will give you an update on how they are doing against their goals for the quarter and year. I use a simple green, yellow, and red light system. But whatever you choose, make sure that progress is communicated clearly and issues are raised early. This is your early detection system. 

Then, for the next 30 minutes, you can let the individual set their own agenda. This empowers them to bring important items to the table. But there are two key things to keep in mind: 

  1. If the discussion items they bring to the table are low-level or administrative, you need to challenge them to bring their biggest blockers forward. You need to make them feel comfortable that they won’t get penalized for being vulnerable. You are the coach in this situation, and they should feel supported. 
  2. If the person is continuously missing their goals week over week, then you’ll want to dedicate more of the agenda time towards helping them get back on track. I call it: “Get back to green”. This means getting them from a red or yellow status (off pace or slightly off pace, respectively) to a green status (on-pace). If need be, I’ll dedicate an entire meeting to helping them get back on track in a certain area. Goal achievement should ALWAYS be the priority. 

And then, for the last 15 minutes, I usually pick one item in each of these two buckets: 

1. Praise them on something you observed since your last meeting
2. Give feedback on something that needs coaching since your last meeting

one-one-one meeting agenda

Rule #3: Give & Take Feedback 

These meetings are perfect for candid, caring dialogue about growth areas. 

Take notes between meetings on wins to praise and opportunities to coach. Then, use the last 15 minutes to discuss.  

You also want to get honest feedback on how you’re doing as a manager.

Ask questions like:

  • How can I help you hit your goals?
  • Are you waiting on me for anything?
  • Anything you’d like to better understand about the business?

Here’s your 1×1 meeting agenda template to use:

Now, over to the direct reports…

How Direct Reports Can Crush 1x1s: 3 Key Rules 

While managers set the stage, direct reports own these meetings. Follow these rules to shine:

Rule #1: Come Prepared  

Now’s the time to showcase your leadership abilities! Always bring:

1) An agenda
2) Ways your manager can help you  

Start with goal progress, then cover pressing topics. Focus on addressing blockers (things holding you back).

And don’t be shy about asking your manager for help.

Rule #2: Ask For Help Early & Often

Asking for help shows self-awareness, not weakness.  

But be clear about what you’re asking:

  • I’m making you aware of a problem I’m facing, but I’ve got it handled  
  • I’m facing a problem and need your help to implement my solution
  • I’m facing a problem, and I don’t know how to handle it

This extra detail will help your manager respond in the right way.

The third might require a separate problem-solving meeting, but that’s OK.

Rule #3: Use For Personal Development

Don’t be afraid to add personal development items to the 1×1 agenda. Leverage this time to learn as much from your manager as possible. 

Don’t be shy about asking:

  • For coaching to improve a skill   
  • For book, blog, or podcast recommendations
  • To brainstorm career growth questions

1×1 time is precious developmental space – take advantage!

3 More Pro Tips for Awesome 1x1s   

Here are a few final tips to make your 1x1s epic:

  • Jot down 1×1 topics throughout the week in a shared note. Capture things while fresh
  • Start each meeting with a non-work question to connect as people, not colleagues, first
  • Once a quarter, extend to 90 minutes to focus purely on career development

There you have it – a complete playbook to inspire powerful 1x1s that unlock potential.

Remember, these low-key meetings allow you to:

  • Influence behavior & progress for weeks through coaching & feedback  
  • Resolve budding issues before they balloon into major problems

So don’t wing it! Apply these rules for managers and direct reports to start seeing 3x the impact from your 1x1s.

When used effectively, this underutilized meeting can single-handedly boost team performance more than almost anything else you do as a manager. 

Now get out there, be consistent, and start crushing it!

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