Building a Top Team: The Importance of 1-on-1 Meetings

Building a Top Team: The Importance of 1-on-1 Meetings

by | Distributed Teams

We’ve come a long way since our primer on the World of Work in 2023. From creating clarity that organizes your team around a mission, to empowering good decision-making by everyone, turning lessons learned into helpful checklists, and using magic moments to foster a culture of trust.

That’s a lot of team-level progress.

But what about the individual relationship? As a team leader, you don’t want to lose any one person in the busyness of the team. What works well when leading one person might be the worst idea for another person.

That’s where the importance of 1-on-1 meetings enters the discussion. 

Celebrated, dreaded, useful, maddening – we’ve all lived through, and maybe even been the cause of, a one-sided “discussion” that just wasn’t useful.

For distributed teams with far fewer chances for casual conversations, the code has to be cracked on this supertool.

Keep reading to learn how to 1-on-1’s create healthy relationships for your distributed team. 

The Most Important Relationship is You and Me

As a leader, it’s easy to think of the individuals who work for you as “the team”. But any group is made of unique people with their own hopes, dreams, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses.

The core concept of “The Cold Start Problem” by Andrew Chen is that you create self-sustaining success by creating an atomic network.

That atomic network? The smallest possible number of relationships needed for a community to self sustain.

This means that the most important relationship on your team is between you and your team member as an individual. 

The best tool for improving that vital relationship? The 1-on-1.

Benefits of 1-on-1’s

Before we dive into how to create these magic moments, let’s explore all the wonderful benefits.

Show your team member how much you value them

You’re busy. Your team is busy. It’s easy to say “grab time when you need it” but that’s not how it feels when everyone’s 2 weeks behind on work. 

By scheduling a specific time for your team member, you’re showing them how important they are to you.

Create space for unique conversations

Not every conversation should be in text, email, or during a team meeting. Some topics need a more personal touch. 

By prioritizing 1-on-1’s, you’re giving your team member a space for whatever unique, touchy, difficult, challenging, or simply private topics they want to discuss.

Minimize the distractions

The flipside of creating such an important space is that you and your team members learn to wait until the next 1-on-1 to bring up certain topics. This can cut down on a lot of casual discussions that otherwise derail a work day. 

And remember how it feels for your own manager to pull you aside “for a quick chat” – always an easier moment when you’re the team leader than the team member, even if the chat isn’t a big deal. 

Now that we know the benefits, let’s talk about the tools for a great 1-on-1

What Great 1-on-1’s Looks Like

A simple tool that’s easy to get wrong. Here’s how to do it right.

They’re regularly scheduled

Little creates trust faster than giving a team member reliable and meaningful time on your calendar. Little destroys trust faster than constantly rescheduling those moments. Set a schedule and treat this 1-on-1 time as mission-critical.

They’re about the team member

This time is for your team member to bring you their thoughts, concerns, ideas, questions… or whatever else they need to discuss. It’s about helping them work better and be happier. Encourage them to provide an agenda so that you can be prepared, but always remember: the 1-on-1 is about your team member.

Resist the urge to use the 1-on-1 as a project check-in. We have plenty of asynchronous tools for that. 

They’re safe

It’s easy as a team leader to forget about safety. For team members, their manager is the gatekeeper to every raise, promotion, performance review, and exciting opportunity. This can quite a lot of team members, which makes it important that you create safety in your 1-on-1’s. But how?

  • Start by listening. This is about your team member, after all.
  • Never bring up 1-on-1 topics outside the 1-on-1. This tells your team member that what they say privately to you could easily be shared publicly. 
  • Do what you say you’ll do. Giving a team member space to vent is great. Not every complaint needs action. But if you say you’ll take care of a problem, take care of it. This will boost trust.

They reinforce your mission

1-on-1’s are about your team member. Ultimately, everyone’s performance is judged by how much they help the mission. Great leaders use 1-on-1’s to continuously reinforce clarity about the mission.

You’re probably doing this in team meetings. The benefit of also doing this in a 1-on-1 is that your team member has a safe space to ask questions, explore concerns, and even challenge topics privately. Remember, not everyone likes a big team debate. 

Obstacles to Great 1-on-1’s

With distributed teams being the norm as we head into 2023, it’s easy to assume tools like 1-on-1’s will become universal. They won’t. 

What gets in the way of this free, easy, and powerful tool for building relationships?

We’re too busy

This is easily the top obstacle. Schedules are full. Deadlines are near. We can bump this chat to next week, right?


What better way can you spend 30-60 minutes per week than building relationships with and fixing problems for the team members who do most of your work?

We don’t have an agenda

What seems like an easy way to save some time that day is actually a warning sign. Team members who don’t bring agendas to 1-on-1’s either feel overwhelmed, or feel the meeting is pointless.

Either way, you’re missing a moment to foster a relationship, reduce stress, and improve performance. Use the lack of agenda as a starting point for the discussion. You’ll quickly find they actually have a lot to talk about. 

The team leader dictates the agenda

Possibly the worst thing to do in a 1-on-1. Remember, this time is for your team member. This requires you to create safety and space. They may not feel comfortable bringing up certain topics. Sometimes, they aren’t entirely aware of a problem – it’s just a vague concern. 

We just advised you to encourage discussion when your team member doesn’t bring an agenda. Isn’t this a contradiction?

There’s a fine line here that represents the challenge of leadership. Yes, you sometimes need to make a discussion happen. But the default should be that the team member decides the agenda.

The meeting is really a project update

The final obstacle is all too common – managers and team members use this time to provide updates on projects. While it seems like common sense, it’s really a poor use of this special time.

Save project updates for team meetings or even better, for asynchronous reporting through dashboards or similar tools. If you’ve created clarity then it should be easy to check metrics for progress reports.

Similarly, schedule unique discussions for managerial topics like performance, compensation, or other examples. Keep the 1-on-1 about the team member’s needs.

By avoiding these common obstacles, you’ll create great 1-on-1’s by default.

1-on-1’s and Distributed Teams

We’ll address the obvious: If your team’s not co-located, the 1-on-1 becomes 10 times more important. You have no chances to catch someone in the hallway, at lunch, or after a team meeting.

(P.S. if this is how you’re managing 1-on-1’s today, STOP)

With your team scattered to cities, time zones, and cultures, investing in 1-on-1’s becomes the single most valuable tool for fostering individual relationships. 

Don’t skimp on this super tool. 

Today we’ve explored how 1-on-1’s help individual relationships flourish for distributed teams. What comes next?

Join the Conversation

Extelli lives in the world we’re discussing here… and we would love for you to join the conversation. Check out our post about this topic on LinkedIn