How to conduct one-on-ones that actually Matter

by Andrew Murphy


Stepping into a leadership role in the tech industry can be as exciting as cracking a complex algorithm. Yet, with this transition comes the responsibility of managing a team and being responsible for outputs, productivity and, more importantly, their personal and professional growth. At the heart of all of this lies the art of conducting one-on-one meetings. The effectiveness of these personal interactions cannot be overemphasised as they provide the scaffolding for building strong relationships, unearthing concerns, and fostering growth.

What is the purpose of a One-on-One?

Before diving into the ‘how’, it's crucial to understand the ‘why’ behind one-on-one meetings.

Understanding the core purposes of one-on-one meetings can significantly enhance the quality and impact of them. Below are the fundamental objectives you should aim to achieve through your one-on-one interactions:

1. Building Trust and Rapport

One-on-ones serve as a catalyst the establishing a strong rapport with your team members and starting the long process of gaining trust. These interactions, hopefully, provide a non-threatening platform where employees can freely express their concerns, share ideas, and discuss personal or professional growth ambitions.

Imagine you have a team member named Sarah who is passionate about UX design. During your one-on-one, you discover that she’s been self-learning some advanced UX techniques. By showing genuine interest in Sarah's learning journey and appreciating her initiative, you are fostering a bond of trust and encouraging her to continue honing her skills.

Actionable Tip

Make it a point to learn and remember personal details about each team member, such as their hobbies or educational pursuits. This information can be used to create a more personalised and engaging discussion during your one-on-ones.

2. Identifying Concerns and Opportunities

One-on-ones are the ideal setting to unearth any hidden concerns, challenges, or opportunities. The private nature of these meetings encourages team members to open up about issues that they may not feel comfortable discussing in a group setting.

If, for example, during a one-on-one with Tom, a developer in your team, he mentions that the current code review process is causing delays in his project timelines. This feedback is invaluable and might not have surfaced in a larger meeting.

Actionable Tip

Create a safe space where team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns. Reiterate that these meetings are a platform for open dialogue and that their feedback is both welcomed and valued.

3. Career Development and Growth

One-on-ones are a powerful tool for discussing and supporting your team members’ career aspirations. They allow for tailored discussions on performance, areas for improvement, and steps towards achieving professional goals.

If an engineer in your team, Emily, expresses a desire to move into an SRE role, use the one-on-one time to understand her motivations, discuss the skills she needs to develop, and possibly outline a roadmap to help her transition into this new role.

Actionable Tip

Be prepared to discuss potential growth opportunities within the organisation and provide guidance on how your team members can work towards achieving their career objectives. Even if they mean your team member's desires mean they could leave your team! Their personal and professional growth is more important.

4. Enhancing Team Collaboration

Understanding the dynamics between different team members and addressing any interpersonal issues is crucial for maintaining a harmonious team environment. One-on-ones provide insights into team relationships and potential areas of conflict that need resolution.

If there’s a miscommunication between two team members that’s affecting squad collaboration, use the one-on-one time to understand the root of the issue and seek ways to resolve it.

Actionable Tip

Encourage team members to share their perspectives on team dynamics and be proactive in addressing any concerns that might hinder collaboration or project success.

Preparing for One-on-Ones

In preparing for one-on-ones, you're essentially laying down the tracks for a constructive dialogue. The time invested in setting clear objectives, scheduling regularly, and preparing an agenda will pay dividends in making your one-on-ones meaningful and productive.

1. Setting Clear Objectives

Before embarking on the one-on-one journey, it’s paramount to set clear objectives for these meetings. Are you looking to gauge the morale, discuss project progress, or explore career growth opportunities? For instance, if you're leading a project on developing a new software application, your objective could be to check the progress, understand any blockers, and provide support where necessary. Having a clear objective gives both you and your team members a lens through which to view the conversation.

Actionable Tip

Understand what you want to achieve after the One-on-one for both yourself and your team members.

2. Scheduling Regularly

Consistency in one-on-ones is a hallmark of effective leadership. Whether it’s weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, having a regular schedule demonstrates your commitment to your team members. For example, scheduling a recurring meeting every second Tuesday at 10 AM shows that you are making time for your team, no matter how busy things get.

Actionable Tip

Use scheduling tools like Google Calendar to set up recurring one-on-ones, making it a fixture in both your and your team member’s schedules. Ensure you do everything possible to keep to that schedule, or risk making your team members think that they are not as important as your other work.

3. Preparing an Agenda

An agenda is a roadmap for your one-on-one meetings. It doesn't have to be a rigid document but a loose guide to ensure all pertinent points are covered. You could create a shared document where both you and your team members can add topics for discussion. For instance, you might want to discuss the upcoming project deadline, while your team member might have concerns regarding the current workflow.

Actionable Tip

Have the agenda be a living document that you both add to regularly. This gives both you and your team members time to prepare for the discussion. This also creates a space for a more structured and fruitful conversation, ensuring that the one-on-one time is utilised optimally.

Conducting One-on-Ones

Embarking on the journey of one-on-one meetings might seem like venturing into uncharted waters. However, with the right approach, these meetings can transform into a treasure trove of insights, open communication, and bolstered team morale.

1. Creating a Comfortable Environment

The setting of your one-on-one meeting is the first step in ensuring an open and honest discussion. Picture this: Emma, a diligent developer on your team, has been feeling the pressure lately but hasn’t voiced her concerns in the bustling environment of your open-plan office. By opting for a quiet, neutral space or a local cosy café for your one-on-one, you provide a relaxed backdrop where Emma feels at ease to share her thoughts.

Actionable Tip

Informal settings break down the walls of hierarchy, making the conversation flow more naturally.

2. Active Listening

As the tech lead, your primary role during one-on-ones is to listen—really listen. Take the case of Jake, who mentions in passing his struggle with managing a particular feature due to some uncooperative team members. Rather than immediately jumping to solutions or assumptions, ask open-ended questions to unearth more about the situation. Questions like, "Can you tell me more about the challenges you're facing with the team?" or "How does that make you feel?" not only show that you’re tuned in but also provide Jake with a platform to express himself.

Actionable Tip

The key here is to practice active listening, where you’re fully present in the conversation, understanding the emotions and the words being shared.

3. Addressing Concerns and Providing Feedback

Addressing concerns and providing constructive feedback is the cornerstone of fruitful one-on-ones. For instance, if you've noticed that Mia has been missing her deadlines, this is the time to address it. Instead of merely pointing out the lag, approach it with a mindset of finding solutions together. You could say, "I've noticed that the last couple of projects have stretched beyond the deadlines. Let’s work together to identify what’s causing the delays and how we can get things back on track." This approach not only pinpoints the issue but also fosters a collaborative spirit to find solutions.

Moreover, don’t shy away from sharing positive feedback. If Liam has done a stellar job on a recent feature, make sure to acknowledge his hard work and the impact it had on the team and project. Specific, genuine praise goes a long way in boosting morale and encouraging a culture of excellence.

Actionable Tip

By taking the time to address concerns and provide both positive and constructive feedback, you’re not only troubleshooting issues as soon as they occur but also nurturing an environment of continuous improvement and open dialogue.

Following Up

The end of a successful one-on-one isn’t the sign-off or the casual wave goodbye as you exit the room, but rather it's the meticulous follow-up that comes thereafter. The essence of following up transcends beyond mere protocol; it's the linchpin that transforms discussions into actions and promises into deliverables. Here’s a more granulated look at how to ace the follow-up phase:

1. Documenting Key Takeaways

Your one-on-one with Jessica shed light on her burgeoning interest in taking up more back-end projects. This isn’t just casual chit-chat; it's a career aspiration finding its voice. Post-meeting, take a moment to document such key takeaways. It could be in a digital note or a dedicated one-on-one follow-up document. This documentation serves as a reference point for future discussions

Actionable Tip

Documenting key takeaways shows your team members that you value their input and remember their aspirations.

2. Setting Action Items

Action items are how we move one-on-ones towards achieving actual outcomes. Let’s say during your one-on-one, Tom voiced concerns about the lack of clarity in team communication. An action item could be setting up a weekly project update meeting or creating a shared project dashboard.

Actionable Tip

End each one-on-one with action items, specify who is responsible for each and by when it should be accomplished. This clarity propels action.

3. Tracking Progress

The narrative of progress is built over a series of one-on-ones. For instance, if in the previous meeting, Sarah had committed to improving her code review turnaround time, revisit this in your next one-on-one. Ask her about the challenges faced, and the progress made. Offer your support in overcoming any roadblocks. Tracking progress shows that you are invested in your team members’ growth and are keen on seeing them flourish.

Actionable Tip

Follow-ups are the subtle art of showing that you care. Turning words into actions, and ensuring that the echo of the one-on-one resonates through the days that follow. Until you sit down for the next one, ready to script the next act.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Embarking on the managerial trail is exciting but laden with potential missteps, especially when it comes to one-on-one meetings. It's these very personal interactions that can either foster a strong bond between you and your team members or, if mismanaged, can lead to an atmosphere of mistrust and disengagement. Let's traverse through some common errors and how to sidestep them.

1. Lack of Preparation

A lack of preparation can transform a potentially fruitful one-on-one into a barren desert of awkward silences and missed opportunities. Consider the case of Tim, a new tech leader, who walked into a one-on-one with Alice, his developer, with no agenda. The conversation meandered through generic questions, leaving Alice feeling undervalued and Tim clueless about the challenges Alice was facing with her current projects.

Actionable Tip

Draft a clear agenda before the meeting. It could include items like feature updates, feedback, career development discussions, or concerns your team member might have. Share this agenda with your team members beforehand to set the expectations and allow them to prepare as well.

2. Ignoring Non-Verbal Cues

Communication transcends the words spoken. It's a blend of verbal discourse and non-verbal cues. For instance, if during a one-on-one, you notice that John, your front-end developer, becomes fidgety every time a particular project is mentioned, it's a red flag waving at you. Ignoring such cues can lead to unaddressed concerns that fester over time.

Actionable Tip

Be observant and attuned to your team member's body language. If you notice discomfort, address it openly. Ask probing questions to unearth any underlying issues.

3. Neglecting Follow-Up

The journey of a meaningful one-on-one doesn't end when you step out of the meeting room; it extends to the actions that follow. Imagine you discussed tackling a bottleneck in the workflow with Emily, your team member, but the days roll on by with no action or communication from your end. Emily's trust in the process of one-on-ones and in you could wane, creating a chink in the team’s armour.

Actionable Tip

Post-meeting, promptly document the discussion, and share the notes with your team members. Set clear action items, deadlines, and ensure there’s a shared understanding of the next steps. Your timely follow-up is a testament to your commitment to addressing concerns and driving actions, fostering a culture of trust and accountability.

In essence, sidestepping these common missteps requires a blend of preparation, attentiveness, and diligent follow-up. Each one-on-one is a learning curve, a step towards mastering the delicate art of managerial communication, and making a significant impact on your team's morale and productivity.


Conducting effective one-on-ones indeed morphs into an art form that matures and refines with each interaction, mirroring your journey as a blossoming tech leader. The essence of a meaningful one-on-one is engraved in the intention behind it, an intention to foster trust, propel growth, and kindle open communication. As you plunge into the depths of each conversation, you unveil layers of insights, aspirations, and concerns, each narrating tales of individual and collective growth. The seeds of trust sown during these conversations germinate over time, nurturing a milieu where team members feel valued and heard. This culture of trust doesn't just bolster the morale but lays a robust foundation for tackling challenges as a unified force.

With every meaningful conversation, you are not just inching closer to becoming a tech leader revered by your team, but you are also setting a precedent, a narrative of leadership that resonates with empathy, understanding, and a drive for collective growth.


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