Top tips for structuring a great one-to-one

By Heather Campbell

Just last week we heard a great story from a senior manager who had come to a CommsMasters programme on driving up performance in their team. A key part of driving performance was for managers to implement regular, structured, one-to-one time with each team member. One manager was sceptical. He already knew his team well, but he’d give it a go.

Having now been committed to one-to-ones for six months, the manager is a convert. He says he feels that not having one-to-ones is like driving a car without a seatbelt. Chances are, you’ll get where you need to go without the seatbelt on, but you’re taking unnecessary risk should things go wrong, and you’re putting your passengers at risk too. He finds that committing to one-to-ones provides reassurance and confidence for him and his team. People feel better supported and more aligned.

Like wearing a seatbelt, one-to-ones are an easy way to build security and support across your team – and yet managers too often pay lip service to this powerful tool. 

In the latest CommsMasters blog, we outline the benefits of one-to-ones, and share some useful tips to help you make sure yours are really effective.

Reasons one-to-ones are avoided

Managers have lots of reasons to avoid one-to-ones, with lack of time being the most prevalent. This is a poor excuse. Once into a regular routine, one-to-ones save time because people know they’ll have regular, focussed conversations with you. They won’t need as many of those ‘can I just grab a minute of your time’ conversations!

Another common issue is managers who say they talk to their teams all the time, so don’t see the need for additional one-to-one conversations. This misses the fundamental point of one-to-ones.

Daily conversations between managers and their direct reports are about the immediacy of everyday work – how to complete tasks, solve problems and hit deadlines. They don’t address deeper issues that build into problems without you noticing, or provide an opportunity for feedback and coaching.

In organisations that do implement one-to-ones, we’ve often found that they are used to update the manager on tasks and progress made. This is one-sided, as it primarily focuses on reassuring the manager, rather than talking about what matters to the team member.

Getting the focus right

Think about how you structure your one-to-ones – does the above scenario sound familiar? It is absolutely fine to use some of the allotted time to get a brief update on progress, but don’t let this dominate. The majority of the conversation should be about encouraging your team member to:

  • Reflect on what they have learned recently
  • Air any problems or challenges they are facing
  • Work through issues with your input and support

Doing this opens up a much more holistic level of conversation, that is about supporting and developing the individual and helping them grow.

Why should you bother with one-to-ones?

There are lots of benefits to regular one-to-ones, which together help to drive improved performance, and employee engagement.

  • They allow time and space for the manager and their direct report to step back from the ‘busyness’ of everyday work, take stock and make sense of what is happening. Good one-to-ones give structure to the relentless river of tasks that we deal with on a daily basis.
  • They give structured time to resolve issues before they escalate into bigger problems.
  • They build motivation and commitment because the manager is carving out time to focus on the individual – not the task, not the team, but the person and their needs.This is a powerful driver of employee engagement.
  • They make the annual performance review really easy rather than something to be dreaded by both parties – all the regular conversations that have taken place throughout the year can simply be summarised.

Getting the best from your one-to-ones

While an update on progress is important, there are other, more essential areas to cover in your one-to-one conversations. To ensure these get appropriate air time, we recommend splitting the conversation into three parts, and asking these questions.

Part 1 – Review the week or month that has just passed

  • What progress has been made on specific tasks and objectives?
  • What is the individual most pleased about and why?
  • What are they most disappointed or frustrated about and why?
  • What has helped or hindered their progress?
  • What learning has there been that will help them move forward?

You can weave any feedback about what has gone well or not so well during this part.

Part 2 – Plan the upcoming week or month ahead

  • What is the individual most looking forward to and why?
  • What are the biggest concerns or barriers they see?
  • How will they try to overcome these?
  • What help do they need from you to progress things?

Part 3 – General review

The topic(s) you cover here can and should vary from week to week or month to month.

To know what you should discuss, one of the best questions you can ask here is simply: “How are things with you?” This question gives people space to talk about whatever is on their mind.

Most likely the individual will say ‘Everything’s fine.’ Don’t take this at face value. Instead, acknowledge that this is positive and ask the person to expand.

If everything is fine, fantastic. Take this as an opportunity to understand what is fine and to acknowledge this. And if there are concerns underpinning the ‘fine’ response, you’ll find these will emerge. Either way, you’ll find that there is plenty to explore.


Getting into the habit of conducting regular one-to-one conversations with your team will pay dividends. It demonstrates to employees that they are worth your time, and this deepens and builds your relationship with them in a way that everyday task focused conversations simply cannot do.

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