In praise of the humble 1-on-1

Ours is a world of new ideas and constantly changing jargon –TQM, ADKAR, GANT, Scrum, Agile, Kanban, Six Sigma, LEAN, DMAIC, VUCA, auto key hotbots…and that’s just for starters. As we adopt replacement upon replacement of concepts and approaches to solving business, customer and employee needs, one very simple practice remains as important as ever.

It’s the humble 1-on-1, aka the catch-up, check-in or plain old meeting with the boss. It’s that regular chat between staff and leader, or seen the other way around, between leader and staff. We all know what it is and it should be so simple to effect, except that it isn’t.

Ask many a leader about how well a regular cycle of 1-on-1s is being maintained with staff and you are sure to encounter a few drawn-in breaths and averted eyes. You might also encounter some smiling nods from those who do make them happen and you will almost certainly hear at least one ‘there is just no time, but I do six monthly reviews’.

Why the smiles and nods from those who make them happen? It’s because those leaders know that the investment of time and the sheer discipline of maintaining regular discussions with their staff is abundantly rewarded by the fruits of a motivated, vital, happy and productive team.

So why is the execution of this practice often challenging?

Leaders will tell you that their days are very often booked out from early morning to early evening with urgent meetings that take priority and that it becomes difficult to make those 1-on-1s happen. Leaders all manage busy calendars and must often make decisions to alter schedules and activities for a variety of reasons. But instead of apologising to their employee and urgently rescheduling a 1-on-1, many leaders adopt the ‘cop out’ that the employee didn’t mind the cancellation and was in fact happy enough to have the time back – and to their face that may actually have been the message they received.

But this type of thinking and prioritising on the part of a leader is flawed and indicates a lack of understanding of the vital link between the success and motivation of an employee and the successful delivery of outcomes overall.

Leaders who actively prioritise staff 1-on-1s despite their busy individual schedules understand a few things that the others do not. That is, although employee Don might have been temporarily relieved that he could get on with his work today and avoid the chat with the boss, when cancellations or shortened discussions become the habit rather than the exception, he begins to realise that he does not rate on his leader’s top fifty list of priorities. He goes home and talks about how he’s realised that his leader’s word is not his bond. Don begins to feel a sense of unease because he does not consider himself to be respected or appreciated, and maybe even feels expendable. He knows his leader is under pressure, but he also knows that his leader really does not care about him with any authenticity. Don builds a picture of a leader who is looking after his own career priorities every time.  It’s a negative cycle that leads nowhere positive for anyone. The less Don trusts his leader, the less he tells his leader and the less he is inclined to put himself out to excel in his daily role. So, the business and customers suffer because Don is unhappy. Eventually Don starts thinking about searching for a new role.

Some leaders really struggle to know what to discuss at a 1-on-1 when their employee seems to be doing fine and there’s nothing extraordinary to communicate or resolve. After all, the whole team is tracking fine and issues are raised at team meetings, right?

On that basis, those leaders suggest skipping the meeting for today and then again a couple of weeks later. The slope is a very slippery one for a leader who makes such assumptions about an employee and starts cancelling 1-on-1s. If a leader has not probed to understand how an employee is actually doing by spending time with that employee, it’s unlikely that any trust between employee and leader is being nurtured and where little trust and confidence is built, risk enters into the equation because employees become less open about everything.

Leaders also fail to execute on regular 1-on-1s because they reserve them for incidents or behavioural blow-ups. At that point they use a 1-on-1 to address the situation with their employee.

Sadly, the leader who waits for an incident to occur before organising an extraordinary 1-on-1 is creating two serious problems. When 1-on-1s happen like clockwork, employees and leaders discuss the good and the bad and team colleagues are none the wiser. However, if a leader is known for avoiding regular discussions and then is seen taking a staff member out for a chat, that chat becomes an event that is subject to a whole new workplace grapevine of negative gossip and conjecture. Every one knows that Boris is in trouble! Not only is that a terrible situation for Boris, but also a situation in which 1-on-1s gain the reputation of being equivalent to a summons to the principal’s office.

Leaders who hold to a regular rhythm of 1-on-1s know that even when there appears to be nothing to discuss, there is always potential for a great and productive chat. There is always a need to check up on a staff member’s stress levels, to ask for leadership feedback, to discuss knowledge and skills that might need a brush-up or development ideas and opportunities. Just in the process of having an open and courteous discussion, ideas to make improvements for customers or the workplace can and do surface.


Don is appreciative of his new leader in his new role.  He enjoys storing up a few discussion points to bring to his 1-on-1s, confident that those discussions almost always go ahead and that his new leader consistently focuses on what Don is saying during their discussion. Don feels listened to, valued, respected and encouraged. In return, he wants to do his very best in his role and will put in 100% effort for this leader. It’s a positive cycle that leads to exciting ideas and genuine engagement…. and he might soon be joined by his colleague Boris from his old team who is keen to move too since he heard that this leader consistently sets the date and sticks to the date!

Sarah Staveley specialises in all things learning, development and employee-lifecycle related at Customer Science. If you have a challenge you’d like to talk through with Sarah, contact her here.

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