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ATD Blog

Why One-on-One Meetings Are the Biggest Leadership Blind Spot

Monday, February 14, 2022

A recent survey indicates that while 94 percent of managers schedule one-on-one meetings with direct reports, fewer than half of employees say they have monthly one-on-ones, and only about 20 percent of those meetings are deemed effective. The take away here is that no more than 10 percent of employees are happy with their one-on-one meetings.

Think about that for a moment. While 94 percent of managers think they are doing something, only 10 percent of employees agree. These completely opposite perspectives create a leadership blind spot. It turns out that both these contrasting views may be true. Find out what you can do to ensure your investment in one-on-one meetings is effective.

The Difference in Perception: Doing vs. Being

Before we delve into what makes a great one-on-one, let’s explore what’s creating the gap in perception between managers and employees. How is it 94 percent of leaders think they are doing one-on-ones, but only 10 percent of employees agree? The disparity lies in the difference between management and leadership.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn says that many people are more of a “human doing” than a “human being.” A key point in my own leadership journey was realizing I was a better manager than a leader. I was good at the “human doing” part of management: getting people on the same page and achieving critical roles. After I was subjected to poor leadership myself, I realized that I needed to support the human experience of work. Management is about “humans doing;” leadership is about human beings.

In a high-performance culture, leaders need to attend to both achieving critical goals and the human experience of work. Most of the 94 percent of managers who think they have effective one-on-ones are focused on tactical agendas. These managers have regular meetings about tactics, action plans, and getting things done—humans doing. These one-on-ones are focused on goals instead of development or the human experience of work. Tactical one-on-one meetings are important, but they miss a major part of what makes a leader effective.

Tactical and Strategic One-on-Ones

Most employees do not get strategic advice in their one-on-ones. In his model of servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf posits that the true test of leadership is, “Did people grow?” In order to foster growth, pair tactical one-on-ones with strategic one-on-ones. In the strategic one-on-one, address development and the employee’s human experience of work.

Our research shows employees need development one-on-ones on a regular basis—typically every two to four weeks. Employee feedback tells us the majority of leaders are not doing these meetings well, if at all. Many respondents indicated that they get this type of meeting once a year, with one indicating their last annual development session was scheduled for an hour and started 45 minutes late.


Workplace Culture Transformation

Effective one-on-one meetings empower leadership and culture transformation. Our research with the High-Performance Index (HPI) shows just how powerful great one-on-ones are. Our assessment measures the core elements of a high-performance culture, one where organizations achieve critical goals and employees have a great experience.

Successful one-on-ones play a critical role in a high-performance culture. The core elements of an effective one-on-one meeting are strongly correlated (>80 percent) with an organization’s overall HPI scores. Said differently, if leaders provide their teams with effective one-on-ones, there is an 80 percent chance that employees say they are on a high-performance team.

Perhaps even more compelling: Effective one-on-one meetings have helped leaders transform their HPI assessment scores in fewer than 90 days and organizations transform their entire culture in less than a year. Leadership and culture transformation doesn’t have to take years.

A Common-Sense Approach

SupportingLines Institute encourages a common-sense approach to one-on-ones that can accelerate talent development. Our research indicates that development one-on-ones are a:

  • Critical element of successful leadership
  • Foundational element of a high-performance culture
  • Clear differentiator when trying to identify top talent
  • Catalyst that accelerates talent development

Our research clearly identifies the core components of an effective development one-on-one. The five elements are common sense things that may not consistently be common practice. Try your next three development one-on-ones using this exact structure:

1. What were your wins since our last one-on-one?


2. How are you tracking your professional development goals?

3. What are the top two or three challenges you are facing right now?

4. What is your current level of engagement? From your perspective, how is the team doing?

5. What feedback do we have to support each other’s growth and development?

It takes time to get into a rhythm. After the third session, the manager and employee can assess what works well and what might be added. The hardest parts of adopting this approach are dedicating time on a recurring basis, staying on track, and avoiding tactical discussions about work.

Trust the Process

Our research on these development one-on-ones clearly shows that they make an immediate and dramatic effect leader and team effectiveness. While each of the five elements is helpful individually, there is something transformative about all five elements in the same meeting in this specific order. While it may be tempting to shuffle the order or remove one of the agenda items, we highly recommend that you trust the process. Not only will you cultivate a high-performance culture, our research strongly suggests that it will also deepen your relationship with your employees.

The Place for Tactical One-on-Ones

Before you run off and cancel all your tactical one-on-ones, it is important to note that they should still be held on a regular basis. Tactical meetings are critical to align priorities, identify where employees need help, and ensure progress on key initiatives. But these common tactical one-on-ones shouldn’t be your only focus. Development one-on-ones raise employees’ game and ensure an environment in which they can thrive. Used in tandem, tactical and development one-on-ones ensure achievement of critical goals while focusing on the human experience of work.

About the Author

Jeff Smith is the founder and CEO of the SupportingLines Institute. He is on a mission to help leaders and teams perform so that people have a better human experience at work. Building on 20 years of diverse leadership experience as a COO, CFO and global head of sales, Jeff created the SupportingLines framework to accelerate leadership development and cultivate high-performance cultures. His mantra, ‘supporting lines, not reporting lines,’ isn’t just a catchphrase. It embodies a comprehensive high-performance framework that delivers tangible results.

Jeff is a member of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches (ACEC). ACEC’s mission is to elevate recognition of corporate executive coaching as a critical profession and for corporate executive coaches to be seen as transformation catalysts for the 21st century, creating organizations of the future.

He also is a Chartered Professional Accountant, Certified Dharma Yoga Instructor (which earned him the nickname “Chief Yoga Officer”) and past recipient of Business in Vancouver’s prestigious Forty Under 40 award. When he’s not at work he is passionate about family time, practicing & teaching yoga, hockey coaching and personal development.

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