On the Purpose of One on Ones

This article has been cross-posted from squeakyvessel.com

I’ve been leading teams for little over seven years now. Almost right from the beginning of that time I reserved timeslots, to sit regularly & privately with each of my team members. My motivation back then was to give every team member a regular opportunity to tell me what’s bothering them.

Looking back, that motivation was deeply rooted in the most common emotion I had in my job at the time, and which I assumed all others had too: Frustration.

I assumed what people needed most was a place to vent (thanks rands, for that nice word) and the feeling of being heard. It took me some time to realize I wasn’t using that private time with my team members to it’s fullest potential.

Since I started working at my current role two years ago, I started to give the purpose and structure of those private meetings more thought. You could say, I started doing 1on1s according to a currently predominant definition1.

Below, and in a follow-up post, I’ll share what set of goals and which structure for 1on1s worked well for me.


Ask a manager what they think are the goals of 1on1s and you get a different answer everytime. This one is probably no different.

For me the purposes of 1on1s are manifold, but they all revolve around: Create trust! Between you and your team member.

Build a relationship

Trust can only exist in a relationship. So, the first step towards building trust is building a real relationship with your team member. One where you’re really interested in the opinions and feelings of the other person, and not the least the person itself.

Actually, in the beginning I thought 1on1s were about having a deeper, real, human relationship with the members of your team.

And while of course this is not wrong, it’s not the whole story. After a while, I realized, that the purpose of having this relationship is to put you, both yourself and your team member, into a position where you can trust each other.

Provide a safe space

Over time, trusting each other will turn into something really beautiful: Your 1on1s will become a safe space. Again, for both of you.

This safe space will enable both of you to bring up every topic you chose. It will enable you to sometimes give the inevitable not-so-positive feedback that your team member should hear. And it enables your team member to do the same. To tell you when they think some things aren’t the way they should be.

Having this safe space, puts you in a position to fix problems when they’re still small. Instead of having to fight those big fires that can bring on a lot of trouble.

Long-term Goals and Career Development

Having a safe space and trusting each other is the perfect foundation to talk about the long-term goals and the ways your team member wishes to develop their career.

And you should use that foundation. It is a powerful building block of making your team member happier, making sure they feel they make progress toward something that’s meaningful for them in the long run.

In the end, also towards retaining them as a member of your team.

Continuous Improvement

Once you care about the long-term and career development of your team members, you’ll need to make progress on it.

Not only, because of the Progress Principle:

By supporting progress in meaningful work, managers improve employees’ inner work lives and the organization’s performance.

There’s nothing that boosts your team members’ happiness and productivity more then perceived progress, no matter how minor.

This means, one goal of your 1on1s should be to enable continuous improvement and progress. Your 1on1s can be the rhythm that will make progress and improvement come almost naturally.

Give Feedback

I’ve stated it above already, but this deserves to stand on it’s own.

One goal of your 1on1s should be to give honest feedback to your team member. Simple as that.

Why in a 1on1 and not during your normal working day? Because there are more than enough reasons and circumstances where it’s not appropriate to give feedback right away. Be it, that your team member might feel embarassed by the feedback, or that you simply don’t feel there’s enough time right at this moment to give the feedback fully and properly.


I’ll share a structure of 1on1s in my next post. You could say, my way of doing 1on1s.

to be continued.

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