The 1on1

The Human Element

You’ve likely had help along the way in your career. I know I have. The people on your team need support too.

The Business Obligation

A successful business is made of strong teams. Strong teams are made of well supported individuals. A business is right to expect that managers are aware of how staff are performing and that managers are actively working to make staff successful.

A Humane Approach

What you should discuss is dependent upon the needs of the individual. In most cases, it will vary from week to week.

Building Trust

For 1on1s to be effective we need to build an environment of trust. I’ve found two of the most important things we can do are to genuinely listen and reliably follow through on any action items you take on.

In addition, a technique I’ve used is keeping shared notes. My direct reports can see exactly what I write down about our conversation. I also encourage them to take note of anything they’d like to talk about that they think of between 1on1s. This helps us both come to the conversation prepared to get the most out of it.

The Standard Questions

How are you doing? A simple question that is an excellent low-pressure way to start a 1on1. But where do you go next? Here are three more that I find worth including on a weekly basis.

  • Is there anything you would like to talk about?
  • How can I help?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

What makes the above questions so useful is their open-endedness. It provides us an opportunity to find out what is on the mind of the other person. Be sure to listen attentively.

The Extra Questions

The following questions may not be necessary on a weekly basis, but I’ve found them valuable to keep a pulse on staff and teams.

  • Do you know and understand the team’s current obligations and priorities?
  • Do you feel there are any blockers preventing you or the team from doing their best work?
  • Are you happy [at the company, on the team, in your role, etc]?
  • Have you learned anything new or interesting lately?
  • Are you looking for another job?
  • How do you feel your team is doing?
    • Does anyone need any extra support?
    • Has anyone been especially helpful?

Questions that make you feel nervous about the answer you may get are often the most important ones to ask.


For some things in life, showing up is enough. Coaching is not one of those things. To help a person realize positive change requires forethought and preparation specific to the individual.

While the 1on1 isn’t the only tool at our disposal to promote staff development, its regularity does make it one we shouldn’t overlook.

One way to think about coaching is development that involves their goals, your goals, and performance issues. At times two or more of these may overlap, but not always.

Here are some questions that can help us prepare.

Their Goals

  • What goals does this person have?
    • Do they clearly understand the next steps to focus on?

Your Goals

  • What potential do you see in this individual?
    • What change do you want to see them achieve?

Performance Issues

  • Are there specific performance improvements that need to occur?
    • Have you made it explicitly clear what those changes are?


  • Where is this person in their professional development?
  • What assignments or responsibilities could further their development?
  • Does the person have the resources available to make those changes?
    • Does the person know those resources are available?


  • Direct Reports
    I strongly recommend a weekly 1on1 for all direct reports. If you find a weekly schedule seems too much, that tends to indicate either too many direct reports or misguided priorities.

  • Skip Levels
    The frequency of these will be largely dictated by the number of staff in the team, department, or organization that you are responsible for. The advice I’d offer is to schedule time each week to hold a few of these. I find these are an important tool to keep a holistic viewpoint.

The Pitfalls

Here are some traps to be aware of that, if we fall into, largely defeat the purpose of the 1on1 and leave us with critical blind spots.

  1. The Status Report
    You (hopefully) have other ways of learning the status of tasks the person is working on.

  2. The Social Visit
    There is no need to keep a 1on1 strictly business. In fact, discussing topics unrelated to work is a great idea. The risk is when those topics overshadow, or even cause the exclusion of, the important topics highlighted above.