10 Essential Things Every Employee Should Know About Their One-on-Ones

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

Much has been written here and all over the web about what managers need to know about one-on-ones and why they must have them.

But what about when you're an employee? Being new to one-on-ones, wondering what to expect, and wanting to know what you can do to make the most of them applies to employees as well as their managers.

Whether you're a manager looking to give tips to your employees on how you want them to approach their one-on-ones, or an employee looking to learn how to make the most of your one-on-ones, this post is for you.

Here are 10 one on ones employee tips you can use to ensure these check-ins are awesome for you and your manager.

Table of Contents:

make the most of one on ones employee

How to Make the Most of Your Work One to One

1) Treat it as Your time and really talk to your manager; one on one meetings are built for this

One-one-ones are a time for you to discuss the things that are important to you, and for your manager to focus on you with coaching, feedback, and questions for you.

If your manager tries to turn your one-on-ones into a status update, stop them. There are plenty of other times and ways you can keep them in the loop on what's going on in your day-to-day projects.

Bring things you want to discuss to your one-on-one. If you're having a hard time with a person, project, or personally, tell them. It's the only way they can empathize or help you.

When you do that, you're much more likely to develop a strong relationship with them and stay engaged at work. According to Gallup, employees who do have regular 1:1 meetings with their managers are 3 times more likely to be engaged than those who don't.

If you have questions, one-on-ones are the perfect time to ask them in private. Your manager will likely come with a few questions, and if you do as well, you'll be well on your way to having a great work one to one.

Further reading:

camille fournier on rapport, the foundation of one on ones employee

2) Make rapport a two way street

Not every work one to one is going to be serious.  Especially for your first few, they should be about getting to know one another, so you build some rapport and trust.

Believe it or not, by getting to know each other beyond work, you will improve your work relationship with your manager. When you both know how the other ticks and what they love outside of work, it's easier to understand them.

As serial tech entrepreneur Omid Scheybani puts it:

"I saw how truly caring about someone as a person could unlock an infinite amount of trust and authenticity. It could tear down walls of fear and bridge oceans of uncertainty. Seeing how my manager wanted the best for me was my biggest motivation to exceed his expectations day after day after day."

If you're looking for an easy, softball question to warm up your manager you may not have a strong relationship with, ask them, "how did you get where you are today?" As you get to know them, they'll likely reciprocate and ask you the same and you'll be on your way towards strong rapport.

You can also look around their office (or Zoom background) for anything interesting to ask them about. Chances are, if it's on their desk or hanging on the wall, it is meaningful to them and they'll be happy someone noticed and cared to ask.

Further reading:

stephen covey about trust which is key for one on ones employee

3) Trust them first

I know. It's scary to open up to someone you don't know well, but you can really help your manager if you share a little and give them a few things to go on.

There's nothing tougher for a manager than being in one on ones with employees where it's like pulling teeth to get anything out of their team member. Trust them first.

When you do open up to them, let them know what you want and see if they follow through.  If they do, then it should get easier to bring things to them and your relationship and trust in one another will strengthen.  It all starts with you taking that first step though.

As American educator and businessman Stephen Covey puts it:

“Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.”

Further Reading:

share ideas in one on ones employee

4) Bring your half-baked ideas

In any other meeting, you usually need to bring a well-thought-out idea to present it to your colleagues.  This is not the case for one-on-ones. They are a safe, more informal discussion.

If you have an idea to improve yourself, the team, or the company, this is a great place to float them and see if they're worth further investigation.

Use one-on-ones to talk about whether an idea really makes sense or to simply ask, "why not?"

Not everything will get past a chat here, but it does take the pressure off what could be a really big deal to pitch your whole team on it. Your manager can help you better understand whether the idea can work and what it takes to fully flesh it out.

Even if the idea doesn't work out, it's important to keep trying and thinking of ways to improve your team. It's why former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quoted saying:

"One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.

To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it's going to work, it's not an experiment.”

Bringing that culture to your team, and listening to your managers feedback on it, is a great way to make yourself a more valuable part of your team.

Further Reading:

andy grove one on ones employee

5) Tell them!

A manager can't help you with what they don't know. Something that looks important to you or obvious may be hard or impossible for them to see. If you don't tell them they can't help you fix it.

The worst thing that can happen to your manager is for them to get drawn into a constant reactive mode. That can easily happen if they only find out about problems once they're huge.

Fixing a problem when it's small is orders of magnitude easier than the triage of big issues.  No problem that matters to you is too small to bring up.

If it really is small, you may be able to get a solution in a matter of moments, but you'll never get help solving a problem your manager doesn't know about. Tell them!

preparation for one on ones employee

6) Be prepared

Your manager has a really full plate. They're in meetings all the time and have one-on-ones with everyone on your team.  They're going to do their best to be prepared for your one-on-one and so should you.

If there are things that you want to talk about, jot a few notes down in a document or a notebook and bring them with you.

Bring questions, ideas, concerns, and feedback. Remind yourself what you talked about last time. A good two-way street on preparation makes for great one-on-ones.

Further reading:

david cancel on one on ones employees love

7) Canceling 1 on 1s is not ok

It's going to happen. Your manager will be stressed and busy, and so they'll ask you, "Do we have anything pressing to talk about? Can we cancel this week's one-on-one?" 

It will seem like you're doing them a favor, but you're hurting yourself.  Don't let them off the hook for the one time every week or two that's for you. Instead, ask to reschedule to a later day or time.

Do your part to give them a reason to keep your one to ones at work. You should always have something to talk about. If there's nothing pressing, that should be an opportunity to talk about your career development and growth, or high level ideas to improve the team.

There's hundreds of questions you can discuss in one-on-ones that benefit both of you that are all good reasons not to cancel a one-on-one.

Further reading:

difficult conversations are best handled in one on ones; employees have an easier time opening up then

8) Have your tough conversations here - work one to one meetings into a routine of solving problems

One-on-ones are private, safe conversations. If there's something you want to be critical or outspoken on, this can be a better forum than a full team or full company meeting.

By bringing it up in one-on-ones, you avoid embarrassing anyone publicly, or having your candor be poorly received. Your manager may even be able to help coach you to be more prepared to bring it up at the right time and place.

When proposed changes come up for your team or a project, managers will often want to take the temperature with a few people privately before widely announcing.

If your manager becomes used to getting helpful, candid feedback from you in one-on-ones, there's a good chance they will make you one of those people they consult.

Dilbert take the feedback well

9) Ask for feedback - one to ones at work should produce detailed feedback for you

If you're bringing up the tough issues you need to discuss with your manager in your one-on-ones, there's a good chance they'll reciprocate. However, they're often distracted by other things so it never hurts to help them by explicitly asking for the feedback you want most.

Ever have a manager give you feedback in the "sh*t sandwich" format (i.e.- Empty praise, softened criticism, empty praise)?

Managers don't like it either, but they worry just giving straight feedback by itself is too harsh.

This is where one-on-ones are great. If you're already talking about all these other ideas in your one-on-ones, then taking a moment during them to talk about something you could have done better feels a lot less awkward for both of you.

Further reading:

teresa amabile on progress, a key element of one on ones; employees will have an easier time staying motivated thanks to progress

10) Make them actionable - every one to one at work has to have a next action for you and your manager

It's great to have open, candid discussions with your manager in one-on-ones. However, if you never take any action on what you discuss, then you aren't really accomplishing much.

When you cover important issues in your one-on-ones, make sure you establish with your manager what both of you will do based on what you discussed.

This ensures your expectations stay aligned and you make progress on what's important to you.

Even small, incremental progress has been shown in studies to make you much happier. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer studied what made people most consistently happy at work and found progress was the single most relevant aspect of it. Don't underestimate what a few small steps can do to improve a situation for you.

What advice would you give to an employee heading into their first one-on-one with their manager?

Further reading on how to work one to one meetings into your schedule and make the most of them:

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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