As a manager, one-on-one meetings are among your most powerful tools for effectively communicating with your team, aligning on both day-to-day and big-picture goals, and building trusting, healthy workplace relationships.
Uptick is built around the idea that one-on-ones should evolve to reflect the unique needs of each team member, but the following templates are designed as guides to spur conversation during moments of transition.
The first template works as a foundation, with questions that are appropriate to a wide variety of situations, and during periods of routine maintenance. The other templates are built around common inflection points in employee-manager relationships, such as:
- the first one-on-one with a new hire;
- a one-on-one at the 60-90 day mark
- a one-on-one for managers who are new to the organization or were recently promoted
- a one-on-one for an underperforming employee.
So whether you’re a new manager, you’re new to the one-on-one structure, or you need help navigating a new situation, below you’ll find questions to meet your needs.
1. A standard one-on-one
The most useful function of a one-on-one is the clarification of expectations, short-term priorities, and long-term goals.
Getting clarity is a two-way street between manager and employee. Managers should communicate expectations, and help to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of a project’s success. At the same time, managers should ask about their employee’s goals and how to make them happen.
What differentiates a good one-on-one from a regular status update is the ability to go deep on the issues, so it’s more important to ask a few targeted questions than to breeze through a lengthy checklist. The questions here are designed to make sure both the manager and the employee walk away from the meeting knowing what they’re supposed to do and how they plan to do it.
- How are you feeling this week? As we’ve discussed before, this question is a powerful tool if you take it seriously, deliver it with sincerity, and your employee trusts you enough to give you an honest answer.
- What are you proud of accomplishing since we last talked? Always make space for celebration, especially when your team might be busy and overwhelmed.
- What are your priorities for the next week? Every one-on-one should address weekly priorities: assessing whether the employee completed their priorities from last week, and setting new priorities for the week to come. A priority might mean finishing a specific task, or it might mean practicing better time management, but it’s important to have both parties sign off on them and document them in the one-on-one setting.
- What progress are you making on your goals for the next month/six months? In addition to setting short-term priorities and addressing action items, you should also set long-term goals. For instance, gaining proficiency with a piece of software might take a full quarter of work, so it’s a “goal,” not a priority. Eventually, you’ll work your way up to talking about the long-term skills the employee hopes to learn and what bigger career aspirations they have.
- What obstacles are standing in your way of meeting short term priorities and long-term goals? Phrasing the question this way allows an employee to discuss issues without feeling blamed. Follow-up question: Are these obstacles part of a pattern holding you back again and again?
- If you had the next four hours to focus exclusively on your current project, would you know what to do? This question can make an employee feel empowered and focused, and it also tells you whether they understand what is expected of them.
- Is there anything you need from me this week to meet your goals? Every one-on-one should include some form of this question. If an employee always responds with “nothing,” offer suggestions. For example: Do you need me to remind you on Monday to send that email? Do you need me to give you space to figure this out yourself?
2. First one-on-one with a new hire
An employee’s first one-on-one is an important moment, and managers can get it right by helping a new hire take a breather from the stress of onboarding.
Even if a typical one-on-one in your organization is a breezy 15 minutes, make this meeting longer, and use that time to learn who this person is, what they need in order to thrive, and what types of expectations they can reasonably take on.
Remember, new hires might still be shy, and eager to prove themselves, so make sure to prompt them with follow-up questions:
- What are your greatest strengths? Are you a gifted communicator? Are you bringing a host of specialized skills to the team?
- What areas do you hope to grow in while you’re here? Are there projects you’re particularly interested in? Do you hope to improve your teamwork skills?
- How do you like to receive feedback, both positive and negative? Email? Face-to-face? Do you thrive on praise, or are you indifferent to it?
- What do you need to be productive? Uninterrupted work hours? The ability to bounce ideas off of other team members? Noise-canceling headphones?
3. 60-90 day one-on-one
At this stage, an employee should be mostly done with the onboarding process, and both they and you will be in a good place to assess the experience so far. You should find out what remaining holes the team member has in their knowledge, and be able to make a fair determination as to whether they’re a good fit. Because the employee is still fresh and hasn’t adapted to the company’s quirks, it’s a great opportunity to seek feedback on perceived shortcomings of the organization:
- Are you able to work independently, or are you reliant on other people to make progress?
- Do you feel comfortable asking for help when you’re stuck? Do you know who to ask?
- Do you think the work you’re being assigned is a good fit for your strengths? The difference between a happy, productive employee and an unhappy, disengaged one is often a matter of the work they’ve been given. During the hiring and onboarding process, it’s easy for wires to get crossed and employees to be assigned work that doesn’t engage them. They might not ever bring it up themselves, so make sure to ask early on.
- Are there projects you see you’re interested in taking part in, that would play to your strengths or help you improve in growth areas?
- What is your assessment of our onboarding process? What didn’t we do that could have helped you? And what did we do that would be better left out next time?
- Now that you’ve seen our work, is there anything about it that doesn’t make sense or that strikes you as inefficient? Just like you can become blind to clutter in your house, it’s easy to get used to and stop noticing ways of doing business that don’t make sense. Asking a new hire about this will provide some valuable perspective on these inefficiencies, and make them feel that their opinion is valuable.
- What parts of your work do you still feel unsure about? What guidance or resources can I give you to learn those tools/processes?
4. First one-on-one as a new manager
When you join a new organization or are promoted to management, you’re walking into an established culture and meeting an employee who is likely comparing you to their past managers. Don’t ask the employee to pick favorites or gossip about your predecessor, but do try to get a sense of where they are on their journey.
If you’re new to management, don’t try to overcompensate by being too confident or by imposing a rigid philosophy right out of the gate. Instead, take some time in this first one-on-one to acknowledge that you’re new to this role and will inevitably make some missteps but that the lines of communication are open.
Most importantly, be aware that your direct reports may very well feel anxious (or at least cautious) in this first meeting. You’re the new boss and they’re getting a feel for you as much as you are for them.
- What have managers done in the past that have helped you be successful? Some of the questions from the new-hire template will also be useful here, since this employee is new to you, and you need to get a sense of their working style.
- What do you hope to get out of these meetings? Follow up by laying out your goals for one-on-ones, and let the employee know what they can expect going forward. If they don’t have an answer for their goals, file this question away to ask again later.
- Is there anything you’d like to ask me about? My background? My management style? My goals?
- How can we improve on as an organization to make your job easier?
- How are you doing in meeting your career goals? The answer to this question will reveal a lot. If the team member is in the middle of blazing a white-hot path to success, you can help make the way easier. If they’re happy where they are, you can help them stay on track and make incremental improvements. And if they feel their career is stuck in a rut, you can flag them for extra attention.
5. A one-on-one for an underperforming employee
When an employee is off track, one-on-ones take on special significance because they’re your best chance to have a frank conversation that gets to the heart of the matter. At these moments, it’s important to control any frustration or urgency you might feel about late or sloppy work. Your employee’s poor performance is almost never a conscious choice, and it’s likely causing them anxiety too. They might not know exactly what the problem is, so your role is to set a meeting agenda that will identify the issue and then brainstorm solutions for fixing it:
- How would you rate your own performance right now? The answer to this will guide much of the rest of the meeting. If they readily acknowledge that they’re underperforming, you can jump right into figuring out the problem. If they believe they’re doing fine, then there’s a deeper issue about mis-matched expectations. You need to follow up by dissecting where things got off course to the point where they aren’t meeting expectations.
- What is standing in your way with these projects?
- Do you feel overwhelmed by the work you’ve been assigned? If so, would it help to break them down into smaller, more achievable tasks?
- Do you feel bored or unchallenged?
- How can we help you find your passion for this work? This question is designed to shake your team member out of passivity, encouraging them to take an active role in turning their performance around instead of waiting for external circumstances to change.
- Do you think your strengths lie somewhere other than in the work you’re currently doing? Hopefully, you will have figured this out during onboarding, but it’s worth checking to see whether the problem is a square peg being forced into a round hole.
- How can I do a better job of supporting you and holding you accountable throughout the week? Do you want more frequent check-ins? Do you need extra hands on this project? Is there a conversation you need help to have?
- Instead of measuring progress solely in terms of output, let’s talk about what values (for example, determination, creativity, cooperation) you’d like to practice between now and our next meeting. If the employee performance issue you’re facing is one of attitude, reframing it in this way offers the employee a chance to course-correct, without feeling blamed or defensive.
Each of these templates, which you can adapt to your team and your organization, is meant to work as a starting point. For managers who want to make the most of one-on-ones, Uptick builds on these templates and provides an intuitive, simple means of putting good communication habits into practice.