Making a Case Against the Current Trend in One-on-Ones

I have worked with several organizations that utilize a one-on-one approach to supervision and performance management. The one-on-one approach is presented as a meeting between the supervisor and employee to review important information, check in on progress, and discuss any issues or topics that need to be addressed. These meetings could include standard expectations, the individual’s career or workplace goals, and any organizational initiatives that need to be discussed by the employee and supervisor.  Current literature suggests these meetings should be scheduled and led by the employee not the supervisor. This means the success of the meeting relies on the preparation and diligence of the employee.

Our experience tells us that regularly meeting with employees is critical to achieving organizational goals. I also agree that employee concerns and interests should be the center of the conversation. However, I do not believe these meetings should be employee led or employee driven. Below are the two main reasons I believe this practice sets up the majority of employees for failure while providing the management team a path to apathy.

  • Employees are employees for a reason. They either lack the skills and/or experience necessary to supervise others, they are not suited for supervision, or lack a general interest in the supervisory role. Putting responsibility fully on the employee for scheduling and leading the one-on-one passes a critical step in the supervision process to the employee and makes them responsible for the supervisory process. It also assumes they have the necessary skills to supervise themselves and drive their own performance. Asking employees to drive their own supervision process also requires them to understand the organizational big picture and clearly understand their role in achieving the greater mission. In short, this process places undue stress and pressure on the employee and adds a layer of competency most employees may simply not yet have.
  • Handing one-on-one responsibility to employees takes away one of the supervisors most important tools – the ability to establish and reinforce a team’s rhythm. Having the employee establish and drive the agenda means the employee is then managing and driving the organizational agenda; one of the primary roles of a supervisor. It is critical for supervisors to understand the dynamics of the teams and people they lead and for them to engage the team in purposeful activity that impacts the bottom line.
  • Employee driven one-on-ones allow supervisors to pass responsibility for failure on to the employee. I have worked with a number of supervisors in organizations employing an employee led approach, and the most frequent complaint I have heard from supervisors is that they fail to have effective one-on-ones because the employees don’t schedule them and don’t come prepared. The supervisor sees the failure as the fault of the employee, absolving themselves and therefore decreasing urgency to take action to course correct.

While employee driven one-on-ones may work for some of your more dynamic team members, I have not seen this approach work for the average team member.  You will always have self-driven capable team members you can trust to be proactive, maintain progress toward goals, and come to meetings prepared to maximize the value of your time. However, these are not common employees, they are high performers.

The intent behind the trend is positive as most organizations want employees to know they are valued and keep them engaged. However, utilizing this one-on-one approach can have the opposite result as people appreciate leadership and structure.

If having employee led one-on-ones is critical to your organizational culture these are the steps you can take for them to be successful:

  • A strong onboarding process that outlines the process and establishes expectations. A structured meeting design should be utilized until the employees and supervisor are mature enough in this practice to make these meetings effective.
  • Supervisor training to ensure they know how to engage and supervise in this environment.
  • Regular professional development and mentoring for employees to ensure they maintain momentum after the glow of orientation has worn off and the day-to-day grind has set in.

The role of a supervisor is to communicate organizational needs, oversee employees’ performance, provide guidance, support, identify development needs, and manage the reciprocal relationship between staff and the organization so that each is successful. To be effective, a supervisor needs any process an organization adopts to encourage them on their mission to guide the efforts of the team, develop and support individuals, and take action when they see opportunities to improve results. Handing off one-on-ones to be fully employee led and driven will not support the supervisor, or the employee, in being their most effective.

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