Unlocking the Potential of One‑on‑One Discussions

Unlocking the Potential of One‑on‑One Discussions
George Barret: The Acacia Tree (Figures in a Park)

"What should I talk about on my One-on-Ones?"

I received this question a few times in my career, usually from entry level Engineering Managers. Sometimes the question doesn’t even come up explicitly, but the result of confusion is visible: a manager frequently reschedules One-on-Ones or makes them shorter or less frequent, adds more day-to-day execution management topics on them, etc. This is a missed opportunity, and not having efficient One-on-Ones can be a contributor to why someone decides to leave their company.

So, to answer the “What should I talk about on my One-on-Ones?” question, let’s step back and answer a more fundamental one:

Why do we have One-on-Ones?

These private discussion opportunities between a manager and their report are the only chance to have regular, dedicated conversations on their work experience. Supporting someone’s development, growth and well-being is the ultimate purpose of people management, because a team can only perform well if it consists of capable individuals engaged to work towards a shared goal.

To achieve these, managers should use One-on-One discussions to:

  • Build Trust
  • Provide Clarity and Direction
  • Support Execution
  • Foster Personal Development

These areas are built on top of each-other, like levels of a pyramid. Upper levels can have more impact on the individual, their team and the company, so your ultimate goal is to effectively support personal development areas — however, in order to be efficient, you need to build strong foundations on lower layers.

Build Trust

  • Human connection: a personal relationship between two human beings.
  • Safe space: a transparent and honest, private environment.
  • Respect: acknowledgement of each-other's skills and contributions.
  • Empathy: non-judgmental exploration of different perspectives.
  • Compassion: understanding and providing support.

You will spend more time in the beginning of a managerial relationship here, because this is the foundation of all people management work. If you don’t have your report’s trust, you can’t lead them. Pay attention to this area in a well working relationship too, to avoid regression.

Typical small-talk with empathy and interest in what's shared works, but make sure you’re not invading their private lives. Let your report talk about what interests them, how they spent their week-end, what are their summer plans, etc. Follow-up on topics from previous discussions, and share likewise to encourage discussion and find common interests to connect on.

Provide Clarity and Direction

  • Personal level: alignment on expectations, their role and responsibilities within the team.
  • Team level: understanding of the team’s purpose and how each member contributes to that.
  • Company level: clarity and commitment to company's mission and vision.

It’s critical that your team understands what’s happening and why, on every level from individual to company. What’s expected from me? What should our team work on? What is the goal of the company? Not being able to answer these questions will lead to confusion and potentially misaligned efforts. Recent company-wide or departmental meetings, organizational changes, product launches, these can all be good discussion starters. Ask what they think of what was presented, were there confusing points, do they need a follow-up on anything. Similarly, make sure that expectations from the individual are understood clearly, and address here if there are some uncertainties or disagreements.

Support Execution

  • Discuss the individual's progress and contributions to team projects.
  • Identify challenges or roadblocks, help explore potential solutions.
  • Help the individual stay focused and aligned with team tasks and objectives.

On this level you can efficiently support day-to-day execution questions, because you can already rely on the trust and shared understanding of expectations. Focus on the individual: team progress, discussing metrics, project successes, learnings from an incident, etc. should all be addressed in a group setting, to ensure there’s shared understanding. You should build a blameless, transparent culture where everyone feels safe to share their opinions, however, if your report has something that they didn’t feel comfortable expressing in a group setting, it’s still better to discuss it privately than not at all.

This is the level where potential performance issues should be raised. Bringing them up too early, and you won’t be able to rely on mutually agreed expectations, making the work for both of you harder, because you'll need to resolve expectation differences first. Raising these concerns too late, such as during a feedback checkpoint, also makes corrections and improvements harder. This is because bad habits might have already solidified due to the implicit approval signalled by silence.

Foster Personal Development

  • Long-term career growth: explore potential future roles, their impact and responsibilities.
  • Short-term career growth: check-in on progress, align on next focus areas that get them closer to long-term goals.
  • Align professional goals with the team and company vision. Identify if organizational- or other changes are needed to further support their ambition.
  • Continuous learning and skills development: set up and check-in on their personal development plan. Encourage sharing of learnings.

Everyone is responsible for their own development, but it’s their managers' duty to help them along the way. You should provide the support to your reports to find goals, create the plan to achieve them, and track their progress. Help them setting ambitious, personally motivating goals that will require experimenting and learning new things. Ensure these goals are measurable, so it's clear to what extent were they achieved. Make progress assessment a recurring topic of your One-on-ones.

Never hold someone’s ambitions back if the organization is not ready for them. It’s better to have someone motivated to develop towards a next step in their career even if it’s at another company, than having to manage their disappointment, frustration and eventual disengagement.


One-on-One discussions are a powerful tool for managers to establish meaningful relationships with their team members, provide clarity and direction, support execution, and foster personal development. They are much more than just a platform for checking in on day-to-day tasks; they are an opportunity to understand, motivate, and lead your team members on their journey towards personal and professional growth.

Prepare for and run your One-on-Ones well, and everything else you do will become easier.

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