Making The Most Out of a 1:1


One of the most meaningful things that a manager can do with their direct reports is a one-on-one (typically written as 1:1). These meetings provide a valuable opportunity to establish open lines of communication, build trust, and address concerns or issues before they become bigger problems. But there are a lot of misconceptions about what a 1:1 should be, and even what you should talk about.

There are a metric ton of books, resources, podcasts, and blog posts about 1:1s and how to run them. My approach to 1:1s is simple, but effective, and can be distilled into two questions: what can I do to help my reports, and how are they doing day-to-day?

Why Are 1:1s So Important?

The higher you move up into an organization, the harder it is to really get a pulse on how your individual employees are doing. Meetings, projects, and other ‘necessary’ day-to-day things creep in, and more often than not the “big picture” takes precedence.

A 1:1 centers the craziness of work around the relationship between the employee and manager. It’s also a good chance to “work on work” – seeing how the employee is meeting goals, building trust, and showing the employee that you’ve got their back personally and professionally.

Mitch’s Tips for Effective 1:1s

I run my 1:1s a bit differently than a lot of managers. I have a few simple rules that I abide by, no matter what:

No Project Talk Unless It’s Absolutely Necessary

You already have tons of meetings throughout a week to talk about projects. Now’s not the time for those, unless there’s something so absolutely critical that it will disrupt the flow of the meeting. Save the project talk for Slack or the weekly check-ins.

Make it Personal, but Not Overly So

You don’t have to just talk about work. My favorite 1:1s are where we discuss games, Star Wars, family (as comfortable as they feel like discussing), food, hobbies. My reports aren’t just robots or numbers; they’re real people with a life outside of work. I like being able to learn what makes them tick or what they enjoy doing.

This is THEIR 1:1, Not Mine

While I may have an ‘agenda’, it’s loose at worst, and completely thrown out at best. I’ll weave in questions I have to current conversations as I can, but I want my team to feel like they can talk about anything and everything in our meeting, included. Need to kvetch about a client? Want to show off your pupper on Zoom? Let’s do it. There’s always time for a bit of fun in the meeting.

1:1s Are a Safe Space

A good 1:1 should be a space where the team member feels comfortable discussing the hard topics. That doesn’t mean that you won’t escalate some topics as need-be to leadership; It does let the team member know that you hear and empathize with them, and that if something needs doing you will have the resources to see it through. If a team member doesn’t feel comfortable sharing with you in a 1:1, that is most likely a failure on your part to garner that sense of trust and acceptance.

The 1:1 Meeting Rundown

As mentioned before, I try to keep a loose agenda to my 1:1s – and sometimes, they don’t get followed. That’s OK. I do have a set list of things that I want to walk out of the meeting with, and I’ll do my best to ensure those questions are answered before I end the call.

“How Are You Doing”?

I start every 1:1 with a “mental health” check-in. Project work is flowing, things are happening, and code is being written. It can be a bit much if it comes in overwhelming droves. I make it a point to stop, take a (literal) deep breath, and see how my team member is doing.

I specifically tell team members in the meeting, “This is a chance to take a deep breath from the stresses of work. How’s it going, and how are you doing“? We get so caught up in the work that we sometimes forget about the people behind it, and a 1:1 serves as that reset point.

If work is going great, we can move on quickly, If there’s a task, a project, or some other form of stress, then I try to start digging into it. I’ll allow some project talk here, but only as a whole. I want to keep the conversation about the team member and how they’re affected by it.

By mid-meeting I’ll have an answer to this question, or at least the information I need to take the question outside of the meeting if that’s what it takes.

“What Can I Do To Help You”?

This is where I specifically ask if the team member needs anything. This could be access to a resource that is blocking them. It could be a task that needs some extra eyes, or a pull request that needs a reviewer. It’s a tangible question with tangible answers.

If nothing short-term comes to mind, I look longer term: can I get the team member some educational resources to level up their knowledge? Are they in need of some mentoring to take their work to the next level? Are there some team dynamics I need to investigate to ensure everyone is working smoothly?

Overall, I’ll leave the meeting knowing that I’ve either done what I can to help the team member, or have a clear to-do list to act upon as soon as possible to help them out.

This is also where I talk to the team member about goals. I try to have at least one short-term goal and one long-term goal set up for every team member. This gives them a longer term path to walk (“Level Up My Tailwind CSS Skills”) and an actionable step they can take now (“Watch This YouTube Video About Tailwind”).

A good 1:1 isn’t a formal meeting. It’s a way to check in on the most valuable thing in your company – its people. It’s a cozy fire along the long trek of their career they can use to rest their weary bones and make sure they’re heading a long the right path. An effective manager knows that at the end of each 1:1, their team member has let them know a few things: how they are doing, what the next steps are for them, and how they can level up to become something better than they are.