One-on-one meeting

A Powerful Method to Building Employee Engagement

One-on-one meetingWritten by Bonnie Slater. The original version of this article appeared on the blog of Boost, a New Zealand–based company that designs and builds web and mobile apps. EO member Nathan Donaldson is the founder and CEO of Boost

As a leader, manager or coach, do you feel fully engaged with your team? Or perhaps, like many of us, you’ve fallen into a rut—having brief catch-ups when something’s gone wrong or completing performance reviews as part of your annual to-do list.

Here’s a solution for employee development and engagement that’s worked well for our organization: more frequent one-on-meetings. At Boost, each of us has a fortnightly meeting with one of our Agile coaches. Supporting and developing the people on your team is not only personally rewarding, but will lead to a stronger organization overall. Here’s how we approach one-on-ones, but you may find a way that suits your role and your company better.

Why one-on-ones?

Annual performance reviews are the norm at many offices. But these tended to create a culture of blame, fear and anxiety as we each worked toward the dreaded meeting with our manager. Many of us are familiar with that looming deadline, as we reacquaint ourselves with last year’s objectives and grow hyperaware of interactions with colleagues.

Here at Boost, coaches do 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions with our teams every other week. These meetings have become a great way to bond, build trust, learn, listen and explore growth possibilities. They allow everyone the opportunity to talk about anything that might be affecting them—positively or negatively.

Keep it safe

Making a safe environment where people can speak openly is important. Coaches work hard to create this atmosphere at Boost. If these meetings feel too clinical or formal, one-on-ones are unlikely helpful or productive. Make it an opportunity to get to know your people better. Find out if there’s anything worrying them. This can help you foresee issues before they become problems.

It takes time to establish trust, but don’t let this put you off. The journey of building trust and mutual respect is a journey well worth taking. It involves actively listening to the person and having a genuine interest in what they have to say. In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown says, “Curiosity is a shit-starter. But that’s okay. Sometimes you have to rumble with the story to find the truth.”

Don’t dominate the discussion; instead leave plenty of room for the other person to talk—or even for silence. Silence can be uncomfortable. It takes time to master this skill. Not filling in silences with talk allows for quiet reflection and can be very effective in encouraging others to speak.

Sometimes, getting out of the office is an easy way to help people open up. The very act of leaving the office-bubble makes for a more pleasant opportunity to get these conversations going. Go grab a coffee or sit in the park. You might even try walking meetings to keep things dynamic!

Powerful questions

During your first one-on-one with a new person, you may need to do a lot of the talking to establish the format and goals. Try offering a disclaimer, “I won’t talk this much normally because these sessions are about you, not me.” Talk people through the meeting if it’s the first one in order to identify what their expectations might be and what they would like to get out of them.

Consider applying Powerful Questions in these first meetings. Powerful questions are open-ended questions that require significant thought before they can be answered.

When you ask a powerful question, you can dig deeper and get into more thought-provoking discussions. Prepare a couple of these questions beforehand to help the discussion move forward and stay productive.

Approaching these meetings in a pragmatic way helps ensure that we both get value from them. Each person should walk away feeling that they have been heard and challenged in a safe environment.

Build confidence

There is no “best” way to run these meetings, as long as safety, mutual respect and a forward focus are achieved. These meetings provide a frequent opportunity to truly engage with the individual, provide and receive feedback in a constructive way, work through any issues or concerns and generally get a meaningful sense of how that person is doing.

One of the most important things to be aware of, then, is that these meetings are not about you identifying and solving problems. Instead, focus more on working through any issues, concerns or goals together so individuals on your team can find the way forward. Arming your team with the confidence to work through their own issues and the resilience to cope with problems has a much farther reaching benefit than solving problems for them. And, by investing time in each individual, you’re investing in building a stronger organization overall.

Read more from Octane about leadership—how to improve your skills and common pitfalls to avoid.


To kick off a one-on-one, share positive feedback or a positive observation of that person. This stimulates conversation and builds a sense of safety. If you find this hard to do, develop the habit of actively seeking out positive feedback. Speaking with colleagues may help with this. (And if you are finding it impossible to come up with something positive, perhaps there is a bigger issue to dig into!)

Once we bask in the positive feedback, it’s time to move on to any more active feedback. Remember: Word it in a way that is non-threatening and opens up—rather than closes down—discussion. Begin by assuming that this person wants to do his or her best, and provide constructive and respectful guidance on how to do so.

Hopefully this leads to a productive conversation. If you find you need a little more help to drive a productive conversation, try a powerful question.

Make it productive

Find out what is important to the individual. Ask what his or her “blue sky” goal is, for example. Knowing where they want to go makes it easier to support their development.

Having a genuine interest in the person is vital to the success of one-on-one meetings. If you are simply going through the motions, you will not see positive results.

How to become a mindful leader. 

One question you’ll want to make part of every one-on-one meeting is “How can I coach you better?” or “Is there something I can do to make our one-on-one’s more constructive?” While the session is not about you, you want to make sure that each one-on-one is offering value and that the person feels that you’re committed to making your time together productive. Accept all feedback as constructive in this situation and make sure that anything that’s offered is worked through and put into action.

This may become a catalyst for further discussion on exactly what the person needs and why. However, there is no point asking the question if you have no intention of making change or if you’re likely to become defensive. Remember, building and maintaining trust is at the core of these meetings.

Following through

To conclude try asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” Invite the person to bring up anything he or she might be feeling unsure of or have questions about. Sometimes, it just takes a small prod to remind that person that there is something else to talk through.

Then, be sure to follow through. If you don’t know the answer, seek it out or identify the person who knows. This follow through can be the difference between a trust breakthrough and letting someone down. Following through on promises is a way to maintain trust and make one-on-ones as productive as possible.

Lastly, reiterate that they do not have to wait until the next scheduled meeting if they want to talk about anything. Make them feel safe in talking about anything they need to, at any time. If the meeting needs to be cancelled, immediately reschedule it. This is an important way to demonstrate to the person that your time together is a priority.

In review

You can create a more inclusive, productive, safe and engaged organization in many different ways. Regular one-on-ones are just one way we like to do that.

Follow these quick tips as you kick off your regular one-on-one meetings.

  • Opt for a fresh environment—away from your desk or out of the office.
  • Take notes and review them regularly so you can revisit points that are ongoing or important.
  • Be patient and supportive, taking a genuine interest.
  • Remember that silence is nothing to be afraid of, it uncovers truth.
  • Do not solve problems; instead build confidence and resilience.
  • Set challenges and goals together.
  • Actively listen.
  • Ask open-ended or powerful questions.


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Categories: general PEOPLE/STAFF


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