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Apr 14, 2021

One-on-one meetings between managers and employees should be a required activity for every leader. This conversation is the fastest and least expensive method for assessing and improving employee motivation, delivering coaching, ensuring professional growth, and spotting burnout. Plus, given the direct and uncomplicated nature of the activity (it’s literally just a conversation between two people), it should be fairly straightforward to implement successfully.

Yet the data tells us that notwithstanding their putative simplicity, one-on-one meetings are not delivering much value. In some cases, it’s because of their infrequency, while in others, it’s because they’re poorly executed.

In The State Of Leadership Development, Leadership IQ surveyed 21,008 employees to assess how well their leaders were performing. One of the more disturbing findings was that only 20% of employees say their leader always takes an active role in helping them to grow and develop their full potential (e.g., through one-on-one meetings). By contrast, 29% of employees say that their leader never or rarely takes an active role in helping them grow.

If you’re wondering whether these dismal numbers impact employee engagement, the answer is a resounding yes. The more a leader takes an active role in helping people grow and develop their full potential, the more they will be inspired to give their best effort at work. Statistically, 25% of an employee’s inspiration is explained by whether their leader takes an active role in their growth.

How can you quickly pinpoint whether or why one-on-ones are failing in your organization? Just pay attention to these three warning signs.

Warning Sign #1: It’s A Monologue, Not A Dialogue

One-on-one meetings should not be a forum for managers to speak at their employees; that’s a monologue. Instead, these interactions are dialogues, speaking with their employees. There should be an equal exchange of information, both parties should learn something about the other, and there will ideally be as many questions as statements.

Far too many managers enter into one-on-one conversations with an interminable agenda of items they want to share with their people. However, this is a terrible format for one-way information sharing. Memos, town halls, and video recordings are all faster and cheaper ways to disseminate information. One-on-one meetings’ key benefit is that the manager will learn something new about the employee’s motivators, demotivators, goals, etc. Only with this new information will the manager learn how to unleash the employee’s full potential and unlock their growth.

Warning Sign #2: You Don’t Learn About Employees’ Demotivators

Any time a manager talks with an employee, the manager should learn something about the employee’s motivation. What work do they enjoy most? What was their proudest moment this past month? What excites them about their job? In what areas do they want to grow and develop?

But there’s another requirement for successful one-on-ones and unlocking employees’ growth — learning about what demotivates the employee. It’s wonderful to learn what excites someone, but what about that person’s frustrations and disappointments? All those exciting projects and enjoyable workgroups won’t matter much if an employee is furious because they’re feeling slighted or their boss won’t listen to their great ideas. How can an employee grow and develop when they can’t resolve their biggest frustrations?

This means, of course, that managers need to ask their people directly, “Could you tell me about a time in the past month when you felt frustrated or demotivated or burned out?” After the leader has inquired about growth opportunities and inspiring moments, they must tackle the demotivators. 

Think of it like this: If you’ve got dinner reservations at a hip new outdoor restaurant tonight, will you enjoy your meal if you spent the last two hours at work livid or despondent? It’s hard to enjoy cool new experiences when frustrations loom large in our minds.

Warning Sign #3: You Hear Superficial Responses

Imagine that you asked an employee to describe a recent time when they got frustrated at work. Now imagine they say, “Nah, that never happens to me, I’m all good.” Would you believe them? What if they answered, “Maybe there was something this month, but why do you want to know?” Do you think they trust you?

I call those answers superficial and suspicious, respectively. And both answers are indicative of a trust problem. If one-on-one meetings are not a routine activity at your organization, it’s likely that the first few attempts will engender some superficiality and suspicion. While there isn’t much that can immediately convince an employee to trust and disclose, people will see the leader’s positive intent and progressively open up over subsequent months.

For talent and human resources leaders, the lesson is this: Not only must you ensure that one-on-one conversations are happening but you also need to safeguard the quality of those interactions. Be vigilant for the three warning signs and use them as your impetus to grow and develop your company’s leaders.