How to Have an Effective 1:1 with a Direct Report

What leaders can do to better support their employees via their communication


Garrett Mintz , Sun 28 November 2021
I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest on the IBJ podcast a month ago to discuss the topic of the Great Resignation and why people are making career changes in droves. One of the consistent themes my fellow guest, Mandy Haskins, and I identified was how critical of a role that the manager plays in whether people stay or go.

One of the most important components for being a strong manager that engages their team and helps them feel connected to the work is their ability to have effective one-on-one meetings with their direct reports. 

This article is going to explain why having one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports is so critical to being a strong manager. Next, I’ll present some tips on how to have effective one-on-ones and how you can assess the quality of those important meetings.

Gallup came out with research that identified that 70% of employee engagement variance is based on the relationship between the manager and that employee. The adage “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses” is absolutely true. And the best way to ensure that you are consistently connecting with and having a pulse on your people is by having regular 1:1 meetings with direct reports to understand their feelings about work and their own path within the organization.

What is 1:1?

A 1:1 is time taken between a manager and direct report to discuss updates between each other and their overall feelings about the work. However, not all managers treat these meetings with the same significance. Some managers define a 1:1 as a quick chat about upcoming tasks. On the other hand, some other managers create an agenda to discuss key components of the employee’s work, keep notes from previous conversations to follow up on, and share a vision for the employee (and have the employee share a vision with them) that includes their role in the organization and their role within the particular team or department. 

The problem here is that the difference between the former and latter examples of 1:1’s is vast: you simply can’t get a good read on the situation without putting in the work to have effective 1:1’s. So I wanted to take some time to identify what an effective 1:1 looks like, what you should be discussing, and how you can assess the value of those meetings over time.

What does an effective 1:1 look like?

An effective 1:1 is a meeting between manager and direct where report the manager has asked the direct report to share some updates about their work and tasks to the manager before the meeting has started (i.e., updates on goals, perceptions of task performance, team productivity, team cohesion, and feelings about their ability to help others without being asked - organizational citizenship). This key step gives the manager context on to what has been accomplished since their last meeting and how they are feeling about work from a high level.

When the manager and direct report meet, the manager has questions prepared to ask their direct report that will help the manager better understand any gaps between the manager’s perspective and the direct report’s experience. For example, consider a case where a direct report shared before the 1:1 that they are feeling a little down on their task performance this month. However, their manager feels that the individual did a fine job and didn’t notice any signs of lower task performance. Effective managers can learn more about the cause of this gap in perception by asking questions like these in the next 1:1 meeting:

·         What areas do you think you performed well this past month and what areas do you think you could improve?
·         What aspects of your work do you like most? How do they play into your strengths and vision for where you'd like to be?
·         How do you feel about your work and the people you work with?
·         What areas of your work would benefit from greater clarity from myself or other team members?

What is critical about the questions a manager has prepared for the conversation is that they are not simple yes/no questions, nor are they “why” questions. Yes/no questions are not as effective in a 1:1 because managing and understanding your direct reports requires some curiosity from the manager to get useful answers. Binary questions leave out the details that provide needed context and understanding between manager and direct report. 

“Why” questions are also not as effective in a 1:1 because they insinuate that something needs to be justified. For example, if the manager would have asked “Why do you think you performed poorly over the past month?”, the subsequent response involves backtracking and providing a justification for why they scored themselves the way they did. It puts the employee on the defensive and hampers shared understanding. It also disincentives’ employees from being honest in future conversations and doesn’t lead to any greater understanding between manager and direct reports. What/How/Who questions are much more effective for 1:1’s because they emphasize curiosity and help a direct report feel comfortable sharing an honest assessment of themselves, their team, and their experience.

How does one measure the impact of a 1:1?

Management simply doesn’t allow for some one-size-fits-all scientific solution. Management is more of an art that needs to be adjusted on a case-by-case basis to fit their direct reports, their work, and work culture. At Ambition In Motion, we have created a tool that helps managers better understand their direct reports’ core feelings about work over time (updates on goals, feelings about their task performance, feelings about the team productivity and cohesion, and feelings about their ability to help others without being asked - organizational citizenship) called AIM Insights. 

One thing we have found to be really effective with the tool is when we measure the correlation between the number of 1:1’s had and their employees’ change in responses month-over-month trends for those core feelings on work. When there is a positive correlation, that would mean that the more meetings that manager has with that direct report, the higher the direct reports’ scores are (which means they should have more 1:1’s with that employee). When there is a negative correlation that would mean that the content and quality of those meetings need to change to help improve that employee’s feelings about work.

Of course, there are other factors that can impact how an employee is feeling at work, beyond their relationship with their manager, so this can’t solve every challenge an employee is facing at work.

However, refer back to the Gallup statistic – 70% of employee engagement variance is based on the relationship between manager and direct report. Measuring this every month can help a manager find the right communication style and cadence that works best for each direct report. This, in turn, can help managers better understand their employees, improve their engagement levels, and increase retention. As the relationship between employees and employers continues to change and evolve, I’m sure that the “winners” of the great resignation will be the managers who adapt and thrive: they will keep their best employees, develop up-and-coming stars, and provide a prime landing spot for anybody that’s sick of the old paradigm.


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