3 Things that Don’t Belong in Your One on One Agenda

“So….how’s it going?”

Asking a question like that is a weak way to start a one on one. The answer you get is only as strong as the will of your team member to want to share their feelings with you.

Too often you’ll both accept “good” or “okay” and move on, until one day they’re surprisingly giving their 2 weeks notice. Building a strong relationship with your team members, preventing turnover, and having great one on ones requires a real agenda.

A little agenda goes a long way.

Whether you’re a wily veteran, or brand new to managing teams, a one on one agenda can give your meeting the extra boost you need to make sure you make the most of the time. (Ed Note: Read more on why here)

It also ensures you’re both prepared. You signal to your team you gave some thought to their meeting *before* showing up. It also nudges your team member to think about what they want before the meeting, too (especially important for your introverts).

Used well, a one on one agenda is one of the most important parts of a great one on one. Unfortunately, when applied the wrong way, they can actually derail them.

Today, we look at the 3 biggest topics to avoid putting into a one on one agenda, and what to do instead.

avoid these topics in your one on one agenda

3 Topics to Avoid Putting in Your One on One Agenda

Whether you believe in 100% transparency with your team, or prefer a bit more privacy in your thoughts, striking the right balance in how you craft an agenda is important.

You may think what you put in there is innocent. However, anything you put down for them to see before the meeting signals to them what you think is important.

Remember the power dynamic.

Never underestimate the power dynamic you have over your team. Whether you run a very top down organization, or a more collegial, collaborative environment, you still have power over them.

This can be rooted in a deep respect, or fear, of you. Either way, they’ll be paying close attention to the signals you send about what’s okay to be discussed in their one on one.

It also signals to them what to prepare. Your one on one agenda gives them an opportunity to think about topics you want to discuss. Depending on the situation, that can be really good, or hurt their productivity all week.

Here’s 3 such topics that don’t belong in your agenda, no matter your team’s culture:

a one on one agenda with negative feedback will worry your team

1) Constructive or Negative Feedback

A one on one is the perfect place to talk about feedback and ways a team member can improve. It’s a private, dedicated time ideal for a conversation about their issues, examples of times the problem has occurred, and what needs to change.

However, just because it’s a great topic does not mean they should know it’s coming. Don’t put it in your one on one agenda they see.

If they see “Give feedback on X” or “Talk about problems with Project Y,” it creates a bunch of potential issues:

  • Lost candor: They may start preparing “their side of the story” potentially removing candor you would otherwise get in your one on one.
  • Fear and worry: Because of the power dynamic we discussed earlier, it can really worry them seeing this. Their mind can wonder the whole week how serious your feedback is and what it means for their career.
  • Lost accountability: Few things can make you prouder as a manager than when your team member brings up a problem before you can, showing they’re accountable. Don’t rob them of the opportunity to come clean.

Planning to give feedback in your one on one is great, just don’t let them see it in advance.

never put in a one on one agenda feedback you haven't discussed.

Discuss it before they see it in writing.

As Paul English, founder of Kayak.com, puts it well, you should discuss things face to face first. This helps avoid any unintended confusion caused by misunderstanding what you write.

At the same time, putting it in writing afterwards is perfect for reinforcing your message. At that point, what you write will be clear, and adapted to how your conversation went.

What to do instead: Put negative feedback and constructive criticism in a private note area for your one on one instead (Lighthouse can help you manage both). Bring up the feedback in the second half of your one on one after you’ve heard from them. You may learn about extenuating circumstances or they may bring it up on their own (a great sign!) if you give them a chance.

a one on one agenda should not have a status update in it
Yeeaahh…Only bad managers like Lumberg put Status Updates in their one on ones.

2) Project & Status Updates

Don’t waste your one on ones on status updates. They don’t belong in the meeting, and they certainly don’t belong in your one on one agenda. (Ed note: Read more on why here)

When you put status updates on the agenda, it changes the tone of the meeting. It can push your team member away from putting more important and sensitive topics on the agenda.

But what if they put the status in there and then I don’t have to ask?

Don’t tempt yourself. There’s nothing safer (and less valuable) to fill your one on one time with than status updates.

a one on one agenda with status updates is like cheesecake before dinner

Putting it in your agenda is like putting your favorite chocolate cheesecake on a plate with a fork right in front of you before dinner. Don’t do it.

Too often, an innocent “bring me up to speed on X” conversation can take up an entire hour. This leaves you no time to talk about what matters to your team. It consumes all the time that should be spent on what’s most important to, and motivates your team.

Get comfortable with the goopy.

You want to have time to get into the challenging stuff in your one on ones. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable, but that’s where the best stuff can happen.  Lara Hogan, engineering director at Etsy, put it best in her awesome post on the challenges of each level of management:

“I can’t describe what an honor this is. To be trusted with someone’s super honest moments and then to see them totally succeed, all on their own.

…People say that growth is beautiful. We all want to grow! …But…growth is awful and painful and hard. Caterpillars are gross and goopy in that cocoon before they emerge as butterflies.”

If you take the safe route of putting a status update on your one on one agenda, don’t be surprised if you don’t make the progress you want to with your team. It takes time, and trust, to get into the goopy stuff.

What to do instead: Get your status updates another way, so you’ll never be tempted to waste a one on one on them. Ask for an update in a separate email, have a standup in person, on a call, or via Slack, or get your team on a consistent project management tool you can check up on easily.

a one on one agenda is no place for an emergency

3) Emergencies & Serious Problems

Is a team member possibly guilty of sexual harassment? Is someone having serious mental health issues? Was there a major conflict or altercation in a meeting?

If it’s a major issue that has the potential to end someone’s employment, cause lasting damage to your team, or hurt themselves or others, you need to act now. Don’t wait for a one on one to deal with it.

When you wait to act on a big issue, it only gets worse. Conflicts re-occur, inappropriate incidents happen again, and people struggle more.

one on one agenda what you see as a manager may be the tip of the iceberg

You only see the tip of the iceberg.

As a manager, you have limited visibility into your team and their interactions. What you see, or even hear about, often is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re hearing about a problem, and you think it’s a big deal, it’s probably been going on for awhile. Act accordingly.

A story: Saving a great employee

A friend was getting really frustrated on the job. A number of close friends and coworkers had recently left. He felt like his voice wasn’t heard anymore, and that no one seemed to care about issues important to him.

After a particularly frustrating meeting, he walked out of the office to clear his head and decide if he was going to quit.

Knowing he was a key cog to his team and the company, a coworker went to their manager and told them what happened. His manager immediately escalated to their VP, who took action.

When my friend returned from clearing his head, the VP cleared his schedule and took him for coffee. He listened to all his issues, and helped fix what they could. My friend decided to stay, and things got better.

He’s still at that company over 3 years later.

If they had waited to react, he would have quit. I know because he said he was going to write an email to interview where I was working if the VP hadn’t caught him when he walked in. His next one on one would have been too late.

What to do instead: Take action right away. Take the team member aside and explain the major issue and try to deal with it right away. Consult with HR and your manager if you’re unsure and feel it’s a serious issue. They can help you decide if it’s safe to wait for your one on one or what immediate actions to take.


So what are good topics for your one on one agenda?

There’s plenty of awesome things that all signal to your team you care about them and the quality of these meetings.

Here’s a few to get you started, and links to further reading on each subject to help you effectively use them in your next one on one:

  1. Praise: What have they done well lately? What do you value? Let them know and don’t be afraid to use the power of reinforcement.
  2. Questions for them to think about: Planning to ask questions in your one on ones? Especially for introverts it’s helpful to give them time to think about it in advance. Here’s some good questions for ICs and also if you manage other managers.
  3. Input you want on something: Give them a link to material to review and sufficient time to consider it. This will improve the quality of their input compared to being put on the spot.
  4. Orientation: Remember, Task Relevant Maturity matters. Whether it’s day 1 on the job or just day 1 with a new responsibility, a great topic is coaching and helping them come up the curve in their role.
  5. Career Development: The growth of everyone on your team must be an ongoing discussion or you’ll lose your best people. When there’s no fires or big problems is a great time to pick up on your growth discussions.

Want help managing the public and private aspects of your one on ones? Want to apply more great lessons like the ones you’ve read here to your management habits? Then you should sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse here.

Built with the latest workplace research from places like Stanford, Harvard, and Google, it’s purpose built to help you be a great manager. Sign up now and learn more here.

never put in a one on one agenda feedback you haven't discussed.