Though simple in principle, one-to-ones have been elusive as an organizational practice. Companies and leaders know they’re an essential part of people management, but their integration into the employee experience has been haphazard at best. Moreover, even if leaders are having consistent one-to-ones, the vast majority are rigid, too focused on project updates, and not attuned to what the employee sees as a valuable use of time. One-to-ones may be difficult to get right, but they are a vital part of the employee experience. Increased engagement, reduced burnout, and plenty of great work await organizations and leaders who have co-created, meaningful, bi-weekly one-to-ones.
Last year, we saw in our research that the annual review cannot be the only method of performance management. Its generic, one-size fits-all approach makes it impersonal, biased, emotionally charged, and largely ineffective. Employees must be given the opportunity to discuss their progress in performance and development with their leaders more than once a year. Ideally, a whole lot more.
The solution is continuous performance management and cocreated one-to-ones. Continuous performance management is more useful and engaging, and still includes an annual review (along with other reviews, team meetings, and conversations). Co-created one-to-one meetings are just as essential and provide far more than just a time for leaders to check in on their direct reports. Regular one-to-ones enable leaders to form meaningful, collaborative connections. They act as positive micro-experiences that reinforce your culture by connecting people to purpose, showing appreciation, and providing opportunities for mentoring and development.
Peter Cappelli and Anna Travis explain in a recent Harvard Business Review article that companies are doubling their efforts on employee development by putting employees in charge of their own growth. Doing this, however, requires a high amount of feedback from leaders, something that’s “better met by frequent, informal check-ins than by annual reviews.”1
We’ve heard some leaders make the assumption that certain types of workers, especially younger workers, would prefer to communicate via technology instead of having in-person one-to-one meetings. Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events—a leader who has been featured in nearly every meetings trade publication— disagrees. “Millennials are highly collaborative and want instant feedback. They want to meet, learn and grow. If we don’t engage Millennials through active participation in face-to-face meetings, and if we don’t help build their professional relationships, we will lose their talent and attention to organizations that do.”2
The one-to-one meeting is not new. It’s been around for a while, and we found that 56% of employees reported having a regular one-to-one meeting. But 1 in 3 employees dread meeting with their leader, and 1 in every 5 one-to-ones are canceled. Just less than one-half of employees and leaders prepare for one-to-ones with each other, and 1 in 3 employees have no say in their agenda.
Not surprisingly, one-to-one meetings haven’t been very effective.
This is a grave missed opportunity. One-to-one meetings serve as a connection point between leaders and employees. They encourage authentic communication, meaningful development conversations, and give employees opportunities to discuss their goals, purpose, and a direction they can work towards. They are crucial microexperiences to get right. Burnout can be mitigated simply by having frequent one-to-ones:
A study of European CEOs3 found that CEOs who worked more hours typically spent those extra hours meeting with their people. Extra time spent at work with employees improved company performance, while extra time at work spent with people outside the company didn’t seem to make a difference. A 1% increase in the number of hours a CEO spent with his or her own people correlated to an increase in productivity of 2.12%. While CEOs are expected to be the public face of their company, the reality is that interacting with and supporting employees is a much more effective use of their time.
One-to-one meetings have a substantial impact on workplace culture and multiple aspects of “the employee experience.” When one-to-one meetings are done well, there is a:
432% increase in the odds that an employee has a strong sense of leadership
226% increase in the odds an employee will highly rate their employee experience
430% increase in the odds that an employee will be highly engaged
27% decrease in employee burnout, and a 58% decrease in moderate-to-severe burnout
Ben Horowitz, former CEO of Opsware, recalls a time where he almost fired a manager and his senior leader because the manager was not having one-to-ones with his team. The manager had not met with any of his employees in the past 6 months, and because of that, the manager had no real connection with his people or any idea how his team members felt about their jobs or the company. Horowitz’s purpose was to make Opsware a good company to work for because it was important to him that “the people who spend 12 to 16 hours/day here, which is most of their waking life, have a good life. It’s why I come to work.” Horowitz felt so strongly about getting their culture right, he gave the manager 24 hours to meet with each of his employees, or both he and his senior leader would be fired.4
“One-to-ones provide an excellent mechanism for information and ideas to flow up the organization and should be part of your design.” —Ben Horowitz, former CEO, Opsware
Many leaders aren’t sure what makes a great one-to-one meeting. They don’t know when to have it, what to discuss, what it involves, or how it’s different from other types of meetings. Some see it as a waste of time, while others are simply unsure how to maximize their utility. They can be perceived as awkward, causing leaders to avoid or repeatedly postpone them altogether. But if you get the fundamental components right, one-to-ones are simple: just two people having a natural, meaningful conversation.
First, our global research shows that at a minimum, one-to-ones should be monthly, but having bi-weekly or weekly meetings is more impactful. Bi-weekly or weekly one-to-ones have a significant impact on employee perceptions:
157% increase in the probability an employee will believe their leader understands the realities of their day-to-day job
276% increase in the probability an employee feels like they are close with their leader
251% increase in the probability an employee feels like their leader is an advocate for their career
Secondly, co-created conversations are ideal, as they make the meeting meaningful to both employees and leaders. Both leaders and employees should work together to set the agenda and craft a purposeful conversation. Additionally, as the structure of one-to-ones become more formal and rigid, meaningfulness decreased.
Finally, the best one-to-ones include four parts:
1. Constructive feedback
3. Time to brainstorm new ideas and approaches
4. Opportunity for development
When all four elements are part of a one-to-one meeting, perceptions of employee experience and workplace culture both improve:
However, if a one-to-one is used only to provide the department or company updates, there is a negative effect on sense of opportunity (decreases 14%), appreciation (decreases 19%), and leadership (decreases 7%).
One-to-ones provide an opportunity to prevent emerging issues from becoming bigger problems. They allow the employee and leader to address issues as they happen, rather than waiting until the end of a project or several months later. A word of caution, though: one-to-ones can lead to feeling micromanaged if too much course-correction is involved.
One-to-ones should be informal, relaxed, and feel more like a regular conversation.
They should happen “in-the-moment” and often. When one-to-ones become a natural habit, employees feel more at ease and valued. They also feel more confident in opening up to their leader and being transparent about their concerns and challenges.
When one-to-ones feel more relaxed and informal, we see a 212% increase in the probability of a favorable leadership perception.
Employees and leaders should both have input into the content of the one-to-one.
Co-creation is a necessary part of successful one-to-ones. Leaders can take time to act as mentors to their people, check in, give guidance, and provide coaching in areas that employees request help or want to focus on. This leads to a 388% higher probability of favorable leadership perception.
Possible items to include for one-to-one meetings:
1. What’s new? What’s going on?
2. Positive feedback, discuss achievements
3. Current issues, areas where they need help from leader
4. Discussion/brainstorm solutions
5. Employee growth/development plan, coaching, areas for improvement
6. Plan of action/next steps
7. Any other questions/concerns
How do senior leaders at leading companies feel when it comes to one-to-one meetings?6
“90 minutes of your time can enhance their quality of work for 2 weeks, or 80+ hours. The most important criterion governing matters to be talked about [in one-to-ones] is that they be issues that preoccupy and nag the employee.” —Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO, Intel
“We have this religion that everyone has one-to-ones on the team. We think everyone should be doing it. It just leads to a happier workplace and it takes almost no investment. It really pays off .” —David Cancel, former CPO, Hubspot
“You needed to show your people that you meant it when you said it...not just saying that we did, but proving that we did by the actions we took. We were protecting the culture.” —Ed Catmull, co-founder and former president, Pixar
Employees and leaders should both prepare for the one-to-one.
Employees want one-to-one meetings to be very action-focused. They are looking for specific steps from their leaders to break down barriers, coach them on areas to improve, and follow through on personal development plans.
This takes preparation—from both parties. There is a 127% increase in an employee’s perception of their leader when the employee is encouraged to prepare for their one-to-one. When leaders prepare, there is a 219% increased probability of favorable leadership perception by employees.
While one-to-one meetings are not new, their potential is rarely realized. Leaders who take the time to prepare for and co-create meaningful, informal, frequent, one-to-one conversations have an easier time anticipating and preventing the problems that make people leave organizations. They create development opportunities, show appreciation, and provide the mentorship and support that builds positive micro-experiences. One-to-ones are part of a continuous performance management process that enables employees to learn, grow, and feel successful. By not leveraging one-to-ones, organizations are missing an incredible opportunity to reduce burnout and positively impact the employee experience.
Based on 40 years of research, the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI) from Human Synergistics measures the relative strength of norms and expectations for Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive behaviors in organizations. Constructive norms encourage positive interactions and fulfi llment of higher-order satisfaction needs. Passive norms prioritize self-protection and security, while Aggressive norms emphasize self-promotion and status. Viewed as ideal across industries and around the world, constructive cultures promote members’ motivation and engagement, teamwork and cooperation, and organizational adaptability and sustainability.
O.C. Tanner and Human Synergistics partnered to understand how the Talent Magnets™ support a constructive culture. The results are spectacular:
Why support a constructive culture? Simple: employees were 4x more likely to be engaged in a constructive culture.
Not only does leadership have a significant impact on the employee experience, but it also dramatically supports a constructive culture. The easiest way to start? Building trust. When employees strongly trust their leader, there is a 250% increase in the probability of a constructive culture. One-to-ones play an active role in facilitating trust: frequent one-to-ones increase trust by 29%.7
One-to-one meetings are a point of connection between employees and their leaders
Co-created, informal one-to-ones are the most meaningful
One-to-ones should happen frequently and not be too structured
Agendas should include time for development, recognition, and mentorship
1. “The Performance Management Revolution”, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis, Harvard Business Review, October 2016.
2. “The Immeasurable Importance of Face- To-Face Meetings”, Carol Kinsey Goman, Forbes, March 11, 2016.
3. ”Study: How CEOs Really Spend Their Time”, Kimberly Weisul, CBS News, March 18, 2011.
4. “A Good Place to Work”, Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz, August 18, 2012.
5. “3 Ways to Prepare for a Successful Meeting”, Anese Cavanaugh, December 2, 2015.
6. “One on One Meetings: The Only Guide Managers Need”, Lighthouse.
7. O.C. Tanner and Human Synergystics, “Findings from O.C. Tanner and Human Synergistics,” Available: https://www. humansynergistics.com/global-culturereport- supplement/.
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