Making one-on-one employee conversations more effective

Regular employee conversations help build rapport and engagement

With the daily increase in demands on our time and attention, one-on-one meetings with direct reports can seem inconvenient or to offer low returns. Unfortunately, minor issues that could be fixed with a quick chat (and a few minor tweaks), over time can become entrenched habits which require major interventions. The question is how can we make the best use of this one-on-one time, be more productive and more collaborative? What do we need to change as leaders, and what do our direct reports need to do differently?

Human conversations trump digital

It becomes easy, when under pressure, to manage our employee conversations via email, phone and text. But a human face-to-face meeting beats digital almost every time. Research is demonstrating that one-on-one conversations are one of the most important opportunities we have as leaders to impact productivity and retention. In these touch base sessions we can ask strategic questions, uncover challenges, gain employee insights and demonstrate we care about them as individuals. One essential goal of these sessions is to demonstrate our commitment to helping our direct reports develop and grow. Human-to-human conversations enable us to gain greater insight, and understand the context more effectively than “flat” digital communication. Facial expressions, tone of voice and body language add layers of meaning to communication that are often missing in emails or texts.our employee conversations gain context through body language

Tips to get the most out of your employee conversations:

Schedule regular time

The regularity of your one-on-one sessions will depend on the size of your team, the organisation, their experience levels and the complexity of your projects. Scheduling the touch base session as a recurring event in your calendar is recommended. The frequency these sessions may require a little experimentation to find the right rhythm, but a short weekly touch base reduces the likelihood of frequent interruptions and accumulation of issues which require attention. Demonstrate respect for their time and show that they matter by being on time. When we are frequently late to a 15 minute meeting, it not only shows disrespect but also increase frustration in the employee. Don’t cancel at the last minute either, as this also sends a message that they are a low priority.

Preparation matters

It is ideal collaborate and create an agenda for the employee conversations in advance, but daily pressure and time constraints can mean priorities change rapidly. A more realistic goal may be for you both to compile a list of bullet points you’d like to discuss before the meeting. Then as you begin compare lists and then prioritise to ensure you are covering the most urgent items. Structure helps keep the conversation on track, but we should also allow for some flexibility to ensure important issues get covered. Meetings are best when we work together to co-create solutions rather than sticking to a rigid agenda.

Be present and listen to understand

As the one-on-one begins we need to need to take a moment to be present in the moment, rather than operating on autopilot and working through a to-do-list. Consider framing the interaction in your mind as an opportunity to connect and make a difference. Pay attention to your team member, mute your phone and turn towards them. It is often too easy to inadvertently give the impression that you don’t care about them by paying too much attention to your device rather than making eye contact.

Open with a positive recollection from the week

Sharing a personal success story creates positive energy, and helps acknowledge the achievements of the team. These conversations can also help acknowledge and embed valued behaviours and processes.

Seek solutions rather than assigning blame

These touch base sessions are a great opportunity find solutions to strategic challenges and solve problems. It’s important find the balance between asking questions and listening. When we take the approach that we are here to learn, vs here to instruct we are able to utilise the skills and perspectives of our team to maximum advantage. Often this dealing with customers, products and processes have unique insights if we are willing to give them a voice. Why hire talented people if we never give them an opportunity to utilise their skills? Some leaders have found circulating a list of current challenges facing the team in advance a great stimulation for innovative solutions. This “current challenge” list gives employees an opportunity to come to the meeting with solutions in mind.

Understand their passions and goals

Although employee conversations the meeting focus is often based on strategic goals, it is important to remember this is an individual with personal goals and passions. These touch base sessions can be an opportunity to understand what motivates our team. We need to remember that our teams are made up of whole human beings, and that work is not their entire life. Giving employees an opportunity to share personal goals and career plans can be useful in planning personal and team development. Asking open-ended questions about your direct report’s goals can be helpful for keeping them motivated and on track.

Acknowledge effort and contribution

End the meeting on a positive note. Appreciation for effort and development can have a large impact, if sincere and specific. Even a sincere “Thank you” can mean a lot to employees. Avoid offering generic, “fluffy” or insincere compliments. It often takes a little attention to day-to-day behaviour and accomplishments to discover behaviour to acknowledge in a sincere manner. The impact is powerful when it is sincere.

Key principles:


  • Open with a positive. Beginning each meeting by sharing a success story. It boosts positive energy.
  • Preparation. Share in advance if you plan to discuss their development. These conversations often require more reflection and thought.
  • Curiosity. Be open to listening to your teams concerns, seek understanding over data, invite feedback and solutions to help overcome challenges.


  • Canceling or frequently rescheduling. Demonstrate to your team members that they are a priority by following through and by arriving on time.
  • Absolutes. It is advisable to have an agenda, but it it also important to be flexible.
  • Forgetting to say “thank you.” It’s important to show your team that you value and appreciate them. We are far more engaged when we feel we have a purpose and that we matter.

Making one-on-one employee conversations more effective infographic

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Richard Riche

Change Communication and Employee Engagement specialist at One Clear Message Consulting
Richard specialises in helping you build real human communication skills. Employee Engagement / Experience, Emotional Intelligence skills, building high performance teams and a great place you want to work. TED style speaking and presentation skills. Training, consulting and coaching.
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