Why 1-on-1s are the biggest leadership blindspot


A recent survey indicates that 94% of managers believe they are having 1-on-1s. While this may be true, our research tells a much different story about the quality of these meetings. We find that less than 50% of employees  say they have monthly 1-on-1s and only about 20% of those meetings are deemed effective. Quick math says only 10% of employees are happy with their 1-on-1s.

Think about that for a moment. 94% of managers think they are doing something well, while only 10% of employees would agree. These completely different perspectives create an enormous leadership blindspot. We have spent a great deal of time pondering this question. In this post I will share insights from our research to explain how both of these contrasting perspectives may be true – and what you can do to ensure your considerable investment in 1-on-1s is effective.

What creates this difference in perception? Before we delve into what makes a great 1-on-1, let’s explore what appears to be creating the gap in perception between managers and employees. How is it possible that 94% of leaders think they are doing 1-on-1s and only 10% of employees would agree? We believe it has to do with the difference between management and leadership.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks about the fact that many people have become more of a ‘human doing’ than a human being. A key point in my own leadership journey was realizing I was probably a better manager than a leader. I was really good at the ‘human doing’ part of management, namely getting people on the same page and achieving critical roles. After I was subjected to incredibly poor leadership myself, I realized that I needed to do more to support the human experience of work. That was the moment I realized management is about humans doing, while leadership is about human beings. 

In a high-performance culture your leaders need to attend to both achieving critical goals and the human experience of work. Most of the 94% of leaders who think they are doing 1-on-1s well are heavily, if not entirely, focused on having Tactical 1-on-1s. There are many leaders who have regular meetings about tactics, action plans and getting things done – humans doing. In these Tactical 1-on-1s leaders spend most of the time on achieving goals and almost none of the time on development or the human experience of work. Tactical 1-on-1 meetings are important, but they miss a major part of what makes a leader effective.

Most employees are not getting Development 1-on-1s. In his model of Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf posits that the true test of leadership is ‘Did People Grow?’ In order to help people grow, we need to pair our Tactical 1-on-1s with a Development 1-on-1. It is the Development 1-on-1 where we have a structured conversation about development and the employee’s human experience of work.

Our research clearly shows that employees need Development 1-on-1s on a regular basis (typically every 2-4 weeks). Employee feedback tells us the majority of leaders are not doing these meetings well, if at all. Many people indicate that they get this type of meeting once a year, with one respondent indicating the last annual development session was scheduled for an hour and started 45 minutes late. 

1-on-1 meetings empower leadership and culture transformation. Our research with the High-Performance Index™ (HPI) shows just how powerful great 1-on1s are. Our Index assessment measures the core elements of high-performance culture, a culture where organizations achieve critical goals and people have a great human experience of work. 

Effective 1-on-1s play a critical role in high-performance culture. The core elements of an effective 1-on-1 meeting are strongly correlated (>80%) with an organization’s overall HPI scores. Said differently, if leaders provide their teams with effective 1-on-1s there is an 80% chance that people would say they are on a high-performance team. 

Perhaps even more compelling, we have seen how effective 1-on-1 meetings have helped leaders transform their HPI assessment scores in less than a quarter and organizations transform their entire culture in less than a year. From a talent development perspective, I find this exciting. I never thought such rapid transformations were possible. Isn’t leadership and culture development supposed to take years to accomplish? We have acommon sense approach to 1-on1s that can help you accelerate talent development.

Our research indicates that Development 1-on-1s are:

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

A common sense approach to effective Development 1-on-1s. The good news is that our research clearly identifies the core components of an effective Development 1-on-1. The five elements are common sense things that may not consistently be common practice. We recommend people try their next three Development 1-on-1s using this exact structure: 

  • Wins. What were your wins since our last 1-on-1?
  • Development. How are you tracking on your professional development goals?
  • Challenges. What are the top 2-3 challenges you are facing right now? 
  • Engagement. What is your current level of engagement? From your perspective, how is the team doing?
  • Feedback. 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, if anything, might be added. The hardest part of adopting this approach seems to be dedicating the time on a recurring basis. It is also challenging to both managers and employees to stay on track and avoid falling into tactical discussions about work.

Trust the process. Our research on these Development 1-on-1s clearly shows that they make an immediate and dramatic impact on leader and team effectiveness. While each of the five elements are impactful individually, there is something magical about all five elements in the same meeting – and, we believe, 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 high-performance culture, our research strongly suggests that it will also deepen your relationship with your employees.

There is still a role for Tactical 1-on-1s. Before you run off and cancel all of your Tactical 1-on-1s, it is important to note that Tactical 1-on-1s should still be held on a regular basis. These meetings are critical to align priorities, identify where employees need help and ensure we are tracking progress on key initiatives. The main point is that most managers only think of these 1-on-1s since they are much more common. Development 1-on-1s help people raise their game and ensure they have an environment in which they can thrive. In tandem, Tactical and Development 1-on-1s ensure we achieve critical goals while focusing on the human experience of work. We need both meetings.

Put this into practice

To help leaders rapidly become more effective, we have created The Playbook, our free guide to the foundations of high-performance leadership. If you would like to pinpoint your personal development priorities, take our free High-Performance Leader Self-Assessment or we can help you get a 360° review. 

We empower leaders to make common sense, common practice. How can we help you?