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  • Kate Gigax

The Silver Bullet of Management: One-on-One Meetings


One-on-one meetings are the norm in many organizations, but it’s quite common for them to be… sub-optimally utilized. Sound familiar? One-on-ones are tricky because there’s often debate over who owns the meeting and whether there should be an agenda.

In my practice I often hear from managers, “This is their time. We can talk about whatever they want, but they never bring anything.” Meanwhile, team members are often unclear on how to use the time or don’t feel empowered to take ownership of the agenda.

There aren’t actual silver bullets when it comes to managing others, but–done correctly– one-on-ones are as close as it gets.


First, let’s clarify ownership.

Managers and employees should co-own one-on-ones with clear roles.

Managers should:

  • Offer clarity on structure so the employee knows what to prepare for

  • Respect the designated time: no rescheduling or cancelling last minute, being present and being an active participant

Employees should:

  • Come prepared and bring discussion topics

  • Clarify when the manager should get involved and when their role is that of a thought partner or sounding board

  • Ask for what they need

One-on-ones are an opportunity for managers to connect and show interest in team members. To be a good leader, people need to want to follow you. And people follow those who are interested in them. It’s tough to create this level of connection without a regular one-on-one. Another reason why one-on-ones are so important is that most organizations would benefit from taking more time to recognize people and most people have an aversion to tooting their own horn. It’s on you as a manager to elicit those moments and achievements that are worth recognition, and one-on-ones are a great opportunity to mine the good that’s going on to recognize it.


These meetings are goldmines of information for you as a manager, as well. Do you ever wonder:

  • Are people burned out?

  • Enjoying their work?

  • Feeling challenged enough? Too much?

It turns out, they will tell you when you listen intently and create a setting where they feel comfortable. Cue the one-on-one. This is your chance to keep your ear to the ground for friction, blocks, and bottlenecks. It’s important to distinguish between people venting to you versus when they actually need or want your help. It’s common for well-intended managers to jump to action to “help” improve a situation when what the team member actually needed was a sounding board. If you’re unclear, ask “what would be most useful from me in this situation?”


Not sure how to set up your one-on-one? Below are three sample structures to consider for managers and employees alike. If your manager treats it as “your time,” take the initiative to suggest a structure that fits your needs.


Wins / Losses / Help

This is the perfect structure for a short check-in and gives plenty of space to celebrate the good, while giving the opportunity for managers and employees to collaborate and act in areas where more help is needed. This structure if optimal for fast-paced environments where it’s important for employees to remain unblocked.

Here’s how it works:

  • Wins: Where are things moving along or succeeding

  • Losses: Where are things are stuck, struggling or went poorly

  • Help: Where is assistance needed from the lead or others (this is a great opportunity for direct help or coaching)

5/15 update

Five questions that should take 15 minutes (or can be extended to 30 minutes). This structure is good for more senior employees or those who work autonomously.

Here’s how it works:

  • What’s good: Opportunity to brag, celebrate, recognize others… just start with a positive spin

  • Quick updates on priorities

  • Anything that is stalled or blocked?

  • What’s coming up that we need to discuss?

  • Where is support needed?

GROW Coaching Conversation

The GROW conversation model was created by Sir John Whitmore and colleagues in the 1980s. A GROW coaching conversation frames questions designed to open dialogue, generate a breadth of options, and drive solution-based conversation. This type of structure is ideal for employees who are new or developing and could benefit from having a thought partner. It’s a simple model to follow to coach team members to support goal attainment, performance management or problem solving.

Here’s how it works:

  • Goal: What is it you want to accomplish that I can help you think through?

  • Reality: What’s the current status, what have you tried, where are you stuck?

  • Options: Let’s brainstorm different ways you could approach this (challenge them to go for volume to generate several options and withhold your ideas until the end)

  • Way forward: What are you motivated to try as a result of this conversation?

It may take time to find the meeting strategy that works for you. One leader I worked with made her one-on-ones mobile meetings where she and her team member walked around the property for 20-30 minutes. We designed a time-blocked schedule where she not only held check-ins with her 8 person team in one day (and clocked 10,000 steps while doing it), but she also found it easier to avoid distractions and be fully present with her team on the walk.


I challenge you to revamp your one-on-ones to make them 10% more effective. What will you try?



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