One of the basic fundamentals of managing a team is scheduling regular one-on-ones. These meetings are meant to check in on the individual and see what they're working on, right? Wrong.

If this is how you are running your one-on-ones, you're not optimizing that time spent with your team members appropriately.

One-on-ones shouldn't be treated as open-ended "office hours" for your team to come in and update you on ongoing projects (you shouldn't have to meet with them privately to know the status of a project), or gossip about office politics (that's for HR to handle).

Instead, one-on-ones should be scheduled with a purpose—utilizing that time to discuss personal growth and give your team member your full, undivided attention.

Treating the private time as a status update, or putting your team member on the spot to come up with abstract questions, can make the personal encounter ineffective.

Why are one-on-ones important?

One-on-ones have been ingrained in the managerial process for so long, it's easy to forget why we even have them in the first place.

The purpose of a one-on-one is to build a trusting relationship amongst your team at an individual level, by devoting time to listen to their individual concerns and helping them grow and reach their personal objectives.

As cliché as it sounds, this is how you differentiate yourself from being a boss to being a leader. It's easy to just sit down with the members of your team and go through what they're working on each week. But a leader uses this precious time to address personal concerns and discuss individual growth.

Believe it or not, these occasional meetings set the standard for how work gets done on your team. It's as simple as this: if you trust your team, your team will trust you back. And that is the foundation of a healthy work relationship that leads to employee retention and higher engagement.

What are we doing wrong?

Simply put, bad one-on-ones are leading to disengaged employees, and these disengaged employees are leaving.

You've probably heard the phrase, people leave managers, not companies. This is directly related to how managers are handling (or NOT handling) the issues and concerns brought up by their team.

Gallup data reveals that around 60-70% of employees are simply not engaged at work—in other words, not working as hard as they could be—costing U.S. companies $450 billion annually in lost productivity.

Victor Lipman, management author and former Fortune 500 executive, argues that disengaged employees and lost productivity are correlated to the relationship they have with their manager.

"There’s no question that a chronically high level of employee disengagement represents both a failure of management and a fundamental challenge to it: a challenge to do what is needed to keep vast numbers of individuals interested in their work, feeling good about their organizations, and working as productively as they can," says Lipman.

Does this sound familiar? If so, all is not lost. Holding consistent and effective one-on-ones can improve employee engagement by discovering what motivates your employees to work harder—both intrinsically and extrinsically. Outlining personal goals, talking through the steps to achieve those goals, and making a promise to reward hard work (and following through!) are all crucial to re-engaging your employees.

7 secrets for mastering your next one-on-one

Secret #1 - Actually have them

This may seem obvious, but there have probably been times where you felt like you didn't need a one-on-one and cancelled. It's OK to cancel them once in a while, but make sure you're having them often enough to discuss progress with each individual. Even if you believe there is nothing to talk about, your employee may think otherwise.

If your employee has specific talking points they would like to bring up, do everything in your power to not cancel that meeting. Your team needs to know they're a priority to you, and you put that at risk by abruptly canceling your one-on-ones.

Secret # 2 - Come prepared

Having a one-on-one with no agenda just wastes everyone's time. Come prepared by building an agenda of topics you want to go over and questions you want to ask, leaving room for them to talk as well. Share this agenda with them prior to the session so they're aware of your expectations for the meeting and not caught off guard. This will show your employee that your meetings with them are a top priority and you put effort into making them successful.

Secret # 3 - Record meeting notes

If the conversation turns personal, steer clear of taking notes. Otherwise, write down the big items your employee brings up—especially if they require follow-up. Assign rough due dates to the follow up by saying, "I'll have an answer for you by the end of the week" or "Let's check in on that during our next one-on-one," so your employee knows that you will get to it by a certain date.

Secret # 4 - Avoid gossiping

If you're fairly close with your employee, it might be tempting to use this time to gossip about office politics or share company secrets with them. This is highly discouraged as it spreads negativity and is unprofessional. There is a reason why organizations aren't 100% transparent, and as a manager, it's your job to maintain the discretion of the company and only disclose information that is necessary for your employee to do his or her job.

Secret # 5 - Establish OKRs

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), a performance measurement process made famous by Google, is an excellent way to track and measure success. OKRs are used to set aggressive goals and to outline the steps required to obtain those goals. They’re typically used to set quarterly goals, but can also be used for annual planning.

You can set OKRs at the team and individual level, which make them a great talking point during one-on-ones. Discuss OKR progress and goals during this time, so your employee can make sure they stay on track. Encourage them to open up about their OKRs so you can gauge their workload: are they feeling overwhelmed? Do any projects need to be deferred due to an upcoming vacation? Are they running into any roadblocks? Learning this upfront allows you to address any problems early on so there's time to make adjustments.

Secret #6 - Change up the setting

No one's saying you need to sit down with your employee in a stuffy room with no windows. Switch it up a bit! If it's a nice day, go out for a cup of coffee or a walk.

Michael Affronti, VP of Product at Fuse, claims his most productive one-on-ones were held outside the office. "Sometimes after meetings I would share the step count graphs from my Fitbit profile with my employees to celebrate that we hit funny milestones like 'longest meeting of the week in steps' or 'fastest meeting in mph,'" says Affronti.

Secret #7 - Get feedback, don't give it

There's a time and place for giving feedback, and dishing it out to your employees every week can feel overwhelming and hinder their confidence. Provide feedback when something big comes up or when they specifically ask for it, and always compliment them on a job well done.

You always hear teachers learn more from their students than students learn from their teachers. The same can be true for managers. Try asking for feedback once in a while, but make sure you word it the right way.

Asking, how am I doing? is vague and can make your employee feel uncomfortable about being honest with you. Try asking for feedback by referencing specific areas, such as: How can I help you reach your career goals? and What can I be doing better to help you in your job? This will show your team you are looking to improve as a manager just as much as they are as a team, and also that you care about their career trajectory.

Putting it into practice

One-on-ones don't have to be this boring, tedious, and awkward discussion you have with your employees each week. By putting a little bit of time into preparing for your one-on-ones and switching up the scenery every once in a while, you will see immense improvement in meeting productivity.

Building a healthy work culture and retention starts by building trust amongst your employees. Putting effort into your one-on-ones and making your employees a high priority will boost overall mood and satisfaction across your team. Making those changes to improving culture and ensuring overall team happiness is what transforms a boss into a leader.

FREE 1-on-1 Agenda PDF: Download our free agenda template that will show you exactly how to run your next meeting using the secrets from this post. Here's a link where you can download the PDF.