Conversation Leadership Meetings

How to have a productive one-on-one with your boss?

One-on-one meetings are useless. They take the quality time that could be spent on real work away from employees. That’s what you often hear about one-on-ones. But these meetings are actually crucial not only from a manager’s perspective but also from your point of view. They can help you get your career to the next level.

You shouldn’t diminish the value of one-on-ones even if your manager is not the best meeting facilitator. One-on-ones give you an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with a manager, to build your professional image, to get direct feedback you require and to set your goals at work.

That’s a lot of advantages for such an unobtrusive meeting. I think many employees don’t realize how important these meetings are and how one-on-ones can impact their career. The previous article described the worst practices used by managers during one-on-ones. Now it is time to look at these meetings from a subordinate’s perspective.

Sometimes you can meet managers who have poor facilitation skills and in this case I agree that such meetings can be a nightmare. But remember that you can take control over those meetings and use them for your advantage. Take action and show your leadership skills. It’s definitely worth making an effort to improve one-on-ones in order to get something positive out of them. You will find a few tips that can help you prepare to one-on-one sessions below.

Ask for it!

First of all, if your company currently doesn’t hold any kind of one-to-one meetings with managers, you should ask for that possibility. Be proactive especially when it comes to setting your goals and getting feedback from your superiors. In the end, it’s your duty to manage your self-development and steer your career path. 

Secondly, make sure you meet with your manager regularly. It doesn’t necessarily have to be once a week but it must be at least once a month. Building a strong and positive relationship is like a habit. It takes time to build good relations and frequency is the key to it. You should start developing open communication with your manager as soon as possible. It will help you get the necessary feedback regularly and adjust your development plans for the future. Moreover, it shows that you care about transparency and positive work culture which is mutually beneficial: to you and to the organization itself.

Share discussion points

Don’t just show up for a simple chit-chat with your manager. I know it’s convenient to be passive and expect your manager to take care of everything. But that just means leaving your career to chance. And that in turn can lead to frustration and demotivation at work. That’s why I suggest you take responsibility for your one-on-ones and come to such a meeting prepared. Write down what you would like to talk about and why. You can also send an email to your manager beforehand in order to let him prepare for the meeting as well.  

Some topics require preparation in advance. Let’s say you want to talk about a salary raise. It’s better if your manager has some time to look into company’s financial situation and take a few steps beforehand, such as check the budget, figure out other plans or assess how much you can be awarded. This way you can have a more detailed conversation because both of you will be prepared.

Another example where preparation is vital is asking for a promotion. If you want to become a senior, a leader or you want to move to a new position, your manager should also have time to evaluate those possibilities. Give him some time to reflect on a business development plan, the budget and future projects that are waiting in line. Later on, during a one-on-one session you can expect a much more detailed answer instead of stepping into a delaying tactic, such as: “Oh, that’s awesome! But I need to check whether that’s possible”.

Ask for feedback

Your manager is the one who can help you achieve success in the company. Ask for regular feedback in order to guide you to your goal. In the end, your manager is the person who can decide for your promotion. You can ask open-ended questions regarding the work you’re doing:

  • How can I get to the next level?
  • What is good and bad about my work?
  • What are my gaps?

These short questions can turn irrelevant one-on-ones into productive and meaningful sessions. Any feedback can help you recognize how the situation could be improved. 

According to research devoted to individual feedback and its impact on behavior in organizations [1], specific goals help to improve long-term performance. But you also need to note that specific goals are not helpful unless you combine them with specific feedback. Only such a combination will result in improved employee’s performance.

feedback matrix

Imagine a conversation about a promotion or a salary raise. If you ask questions about your performance regularly, you will minimize the risk of hearing a brush-off in this situation, such as: “I’m sorry but I think you still need to improve your skills before getting to the next level”. If you get regular feedback, you will have plenty of time to react and improve your skills along the way. You won’t have that opportunity if you ask about your performance just once a year. Moreover, it also shows your manager that you are reliable and you think about the long-term goals.

Stay positive

It’s easy to complain. There is always something that you don’t like and that could be improved. Believe me that even in the most effective and organized companies I’ve ever dealt with, there were always people complaining about different things. You can always find something to criticize, like toxic colleagues, poor company culture, too little budget for trainings, inefficient meetings or the lack of a clear development plan. But complaining for sake of complaining is not valuable at all. Even if there are lots of things you don’t appreciate, you should still treat them as challenges, as something that currently is a weak point but that you have a solution to (oh no, I sound like a typical coach now).

Managers love that kind of attitude! Showing that you have a positive mindset even at very bad moments proves that you’re a professional. Managers trust those who have the attitude of a leader and who are willing to take action. They also appreciate those who are able to improve current state instead of whining and complaining how bad a team, a customer or the entire company is.

Furthermore, positive attitude impacts self-efficiency and resiliency. Paige Williams from Harvard School of Public Health has managed to prove that positive attitude is a two-way binding [2]:

“(…) employee positive attitudes at work may support more positive attitudes toward their work.”

It means that if you have a hopeful attitude at work, you evaluate your job in a positive way. In simple words, you are more satisfied with your work and that of course relates to motivation. 


There is no doubt that one-on-one sessions can help you improve your skills and establish a healthy relationship with your manager. That’s why it’s extremely important to put some effort into preparation before those meetings.

Don’t complain about your manager if he’s not able to facilitate a one-on-one in a proper manner. Of course, it is his responsibility to be a good leader in such a conversation. But if he isn’t, you can be proactive and lead the meeting in a way. In the end, being a highly-skilled and a highly-performing employee is an advantage for you. It can make you the employee who everybody wants to cooperate with.


[1] Daniel R Ilgen, M. Susan, Cynthia D. Fisher. Journal of Applied Psychology 64(4):349-371. August 1979. Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations.
[2] Williams P., Kern M. L., Waters L. Int. J. Wellbeing 6, 30–56. 2016. Inside-out Outside-in: a dual approach process model to developing work happiness.