The Personalized Discussion: A Powerful Employee Engagement Tool

New research reveals that one-to-one conversations between managers and workers can increase appreciation and reduce burnout.


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect every aspect of life, its impact on work is no less cataclysmic. No wonder, then, that one of our COVID-19 weekly pulse surveys in May revealed 13% of employees have, week over week, an increased fearfulness about their job. It’s now vital for leaders to connect with their team members with more frequent one-to-one discussions. Unfortunately, for many employees, the fear of one-to-ones may get in the way of this needed communication and interaction.  

O.C. Tanner’s 2020 Global Culture Report, which is based on data gathered from more than 20,000 employees and leaders in 15 countries, found that 1 in 3 employees dread meeting with their leader. That’s concerning, considering that communication is especially important during a crisis, and one-to-one meetings can be a powerful tool if conducted correctly.

Knowing the power of great one-to-ones makes me especially passionate about maximizing their impact. Here are my tips for making sure your one-to-ones are productive tools that build relationships, strengthen cultures and deliver business results:

Increase the frequency

Research conducted last year for our 2020 Global Culture Report indicated that an annual review isn’t nearly as effective as micro-touchpoints throughout the year. Further, we discovered that employees should, at the bare minimum, have a one-to-one meeting with their leader at least every month.

However, new research conducted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic shows that a single one-to-one each month is not enough to yield any positive measurement and that weekly conversations should be the new goal. When compared to monthly one-to-ones, we’ve found that weekly conversations over the last couple of months during the pandemic resulted in the following:

●79% increase in engagement

●67% increase in perceived productivity

●22% increase in feelings of purpose

●31% increase in feelings of appreciation

●33% decrease in burnout

●53% decrease in fearfulness

●21% decrease in depression

Keep it informal

Just as attending a black-tie event garners much more anxiety than a casual get-together, so too do informal one-to-ones lessen anxiety. Consider meeting over coffee or somewhere less formal than a meeting room. And if in-person options aren’t possible as the pandemic continues, keep it casual virtually.

Honor your employee

It’s distressing to me that 1 in every 5 one-to-ones are canceled. That tells me that leaders see them as negotiable entries in their calendar. Canceling a one-to-one signals to your employee that you simply don’t value hearing from them. If a valid need to reschedule does arise, be sure to reach out to your employee directly and apologize. Communicate how seriously you take the meeting and get another time on the calendar right away.

Kill the awkward silence

A one-to-one meeting that’s full of awkward silences or rambling off-topic conversations isn’t productive for either party.  Employees and leaders should both prepare ahead of time by co-creating the agenda. This is a vital step that shouldn’t be overlooked: there’s a 127% increase in an employee’s perception of their leader when the employee is encouraged to prepare. And, when leaders prepare, there is a 219% increased probability of favorable leadership perception by employees. When you don’t allow your employee space and time to talk about issues, you’re not gathering vital information. And you can’t assume to know what your employee’s needs are; hence the reason for the one-to-one meetings in the first place. 

Agendas are valuable tools; they ensure each topic receives its due time, and they also act as a roadmap for guiding the conversation. Make sure your agenda consists of four parts: constructive feedback, recognition, time to brainstorm new ideas and approaches and opportunities for development.

Following this outline, one-to-ones can transform from dreaded perfunctory meetings to structured, collaborative relationship builders. Currently, just less than one-half of employees and leaders prepare for one-to-ones with each other, and one in three employees have no say in their agenda. There’s some  significant room for improvement here.

Ditch the cell phone

It’s tempting to stay connected during a one-to-one, but even just a quick glance at your cell phone communicates to your employee that you’re not present, in a hurry and don’t place a premium on the importance of the meeting. Leave the cell phone in another room, and don’t bring a laptop into the meeting if the meeting is in person, either. Instead, take notes using old fashioned pen and paper, but spend the majority of the time actively listening and engaging in discussion.

Be a mentor

I believe the majority of the reason one-to-one meetings have been so dreaded in the past is that they have traditionally leaned on an evaluative/directive relationship. In other words, every time an employee has a scheduled one-to-one, they believe they’re going to end up with a laundry list of things they need to improve. No wonder so many dread one-to-ones. Upend this approach by shifting to a coaching/mentoring relationship. A one-to-one meeting is a chance to build a meaningful, collaborative connection. It’s your chance to show your employee how much you appreciate them while providing opportunities for growth and mentorship. 

Employ these techniques to perform weekly, more collaborative one-on-ones to increase employee engagement, reduce burnout and boost productivity.

Gary Beckstrand is vice president at employee recognition company O.C. Tanner.