The 3 Minute Guide to One-on-Ones

One-on-one meetings are the centerpiece of the manager/direct-report relationship. When used well, they’re a high leverage tool to efficiently keep top performers thriving, and a fast way to catch when team members are struggling.

But what the hell do you actually do in a 1:1? Many people who’ve had (or have been) newer managers have enjoyed the dystopian corporate experience of sitting in an awkward meeting wondering what to say – a bad 1:1 meeting can feel like the world’s worst blind date. On the other hand, when run effectively, good 1:1s can lay the bedrock for multi-decade working relationships. This post is a quick 60 second guide on how to run effective one-on-one meetings and make the most of this simple tool.

Why Have One-on-Ones?

The 1:1 is a time for managers and their directs to discuss ongoing projects, blockers, career growth, questions about the business, or anything else that is relevant to either individual’s job. They’re the best (and sometimes, only) forum for discussing important topics that are sensitive or unstructured.

The best 1:1s combine elements of all of the following high-leverage activities:

  • Strategy meetings
  • Career planning
  • 360 reviews
  • Retrospectives
  • Project check-ins
  • Shared problem solving or brainstorming sessions

Maintaining a consistent cadence of 1:1s is like regularly servicing your car. Although your car can absolutely crap out on you regardless of how well you maintain it (as the proud former owner of a minivan that died while doing 60 on the highway), you’re less likely to wake up to a preventable, unexpected disaster if you stick to a regular pattern. When a team falls apart or starts to quit en masse, infrequent and inconsistent 1:1s are a common comorbidity.

Effective One-on-Ones

It’s easy to waste 1:1 time – the most common pitfalls that I see are using them as status check-in meetings (which can transition into inquisitions, depending on the manager), turning them into complaining sessions for the direct report, or allowing them to drift.

For more effective 1:1s, I recommend that:

  • All managers should block time with all of their direct reports on a regular cadence. I prefer weekly or biweekly, but can imagine situations in which 2x per week would make sense – eg for interns, or very junior employees. I could imagine a lower frequency for tenured, senior individual contributors with whom a manager already has a lengthy prior relationship. The higher your chance of encountering an important problem without an obvious solution, the more often you should have a 1:1 with your manager.
  • The 1:1 meeting’s agenda should be run by the report, not by the manager. It’s fine for the manager to bring agenda items, but the first priority is for the direct report to steer the conversation to the topics that enable them to be most effective.
  • 1:1s should be optional unless there’s a pressing item from either party. If there’s nothing to discuss, there’s no reason to ritualistically hold the meeting anyway. However, the time should always remain blocked on calendars so that the direct report has a zero-friction avenue to get time with their manager.
  • 1:1s are intended for deep dives into important problems: topics such as how to unblock projects, resolve interpersonal issues, or decide on strategic direction. Avoid transactional topics such as status reports that could be handled in a different forum.

My Quick 1:1 Trick

I use a specific document structure for all of my 1:1s (upward, downward, lateral). For each 1:1, I create a private document shared between both participants only with the following structure:

Long-running items

  • Long-running item 1
  • Long-running item 2

Next Meeting

  • Item for next week 1
  • Item for next week 2

Meeting on 20xx-xx-xx

  • Prior discussion point 1
  • Prior discussion point 2 (<= tag action items for one or more participants)
  • Prior discussion point 3

Meeting on 20xx-xx-xx

  • Prior discussion point 1
  • Prior discussion point 2
  • Prior discussion point 3

This document forms the core of a simple repeatable process. At each meeting, you should:

  • Review all outstanding action items.
  • Create a new entry (“Meeting on 20xx-xx-xx”) with all of the agenda items that were previously listed under “Next Meeting.”
  • Add any new agenda items.
  • Discuss all agenda items, in order from most critical / most tactical to least important / most open-ended.
  • As follow-ups arise, tag the person who will be accountable for moving the ball forward in the doc with an action item. Confluence, Google Docs, Notion, and others all have this functionality, but if you’re using another note-taking app that doesn’t, you can send follow-ups via email.
  • Any long-running items should be logged at the top of the doc under “Long-running items.” Review these periodically.

In between meetings, both participants should add items to the “Next Meeting” list. If there are no items on the agenda, that’s a great sign that the meeting can be skipped. Having these notes in a doc also facilitates asynchronous or offline follow-ups.


The first advantage of this documentation system: it’s simple and automatic. It condenses a full working relationship into a single, known location.

Having a doc with extensive notes also provides transparency, which leads in turn to accountability. If a team member is thriving, the 1:1 doc will grow to contain a list of their accomplishments over time. If a team member is struggling, the structure provides an obvious place to document necessary next steps and a roadmap to get back on track.

Having this simple structure for 1:1 docs helps to ensure that they don’t meander and that all action items get follow-up. It’s a simple tool for transparency (which leads to higher levels of accountability), and I recommend that you try it if you don’t already have a system that you like.