A concise, comprehensive guide to the benefits of 1:1 conversations: how, when, where and how often to hold them; what managers, employees and senior leaders can expect to gain; and why modernising performance management is far simpler than you think.
We’ll spare you another history lesson on the evolution of performance management: the bad old days of rank and yank; the annual barn dance of 360 feedback; and nine-box grids. We now recognise these processes for what they really are... nothing more than a points system. Should we pay this person more or fire them?
Over the past few years - and particularly since the pandemic had such a drastic impact on our working lives - the benefits of regular 1:1s that cover a breadth of content beyond just performance have become increasingly clear. Managers and employees need to talk to each other more often today - and more effectively. This is how we ensure that employees’ objectives are underpinned by clarity; that they are appropriately challenging; and that they are aligned with those of the organisation. But not only that, these 1:1 conversations also enable managers to support wellbeing and motivation as the core drivers of employee performance. So perhaps the ‘why’ is best explained like this: effective manager-employee 1:1 conversations mark the fundamental difference between managing people and enabling them to perform.
Managing the melange of work
There’s no doubt that the seismic events of recent years have prompted us to think more holistically about the mosaic of objectives, wellbeing, and personal drivers that make up our working lives. If we can help employees to understand and navigate this melange of influences, surely we’ll see a positive impact on motivation, productivity, and performance, right? There’s no wizardry here. It’s a simple case of looking at our people as, well, people. What drives them? What demotivates them? What would help them do their job more effectively? What matters most to them as an individual? A regular cadence of 1:1 conversations not only provides employees with a safe space to talk about all of these key factors but also supports the vital connection and sense of belonging that drives a culture of performance. Think of it like a virtuous circle.
Keeping up in the information economy
And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that work has changed. Exchange of information is almost instant now and there is more complexity in our working lives. It’s no longer enough to set someone a few annual objectives and touch base with them once or twice a year. Business objectives evolve faster than this. We need to be able to respond to market shifts and adapt to our competitors. Set a big chunky objective, sure, but make sure you revisit it regularly and interrogate its value. Is it still fit for purpose? Do we need to shift the timing or the emphasis? Is the business still focussed on this issue in the way it was two months ago? If not, how can we adapt to cater for that?
The more tools we get - the more brilliant pieces of tech we harness to do our jobs in a more responsive and agile way - the more important it is that we remember the human side. There are no shortcuts to trust and collaboration. However shiny the tools may be, they’re still reliant on the motivation, engagement, and wellbeing of the people who use them. Apps like Teams (or Zoom, or Slack, or whatever) may have transformed how we communicate and measure, but if we never take the time to tell our people that they’re doing a great job, those productivity gains will be cancelled out by their lassitude and disengagement.
What we’re talking about here is common sense, not a brave new world. It’s managers leveraging effective 1:1 conversations in order to get to know their people - and then using that knowledge to enrich their working lives. It’s recognising them for a job well done and helping them to find ways to do their job better. But of course, good managers have been having these kinds of conversations for decades. The only difference now is that there’s dedicated tech to help them.
Understanding employees as individuals
We’ve already mentioned the need for an individual approach but it’s a point that can’t be stressed enough. And guess what? Effective, open, no holds-barred 1:1s provide managers with the best route to understanding their employees as individuals - their specific needs, wants, and personal circumstances.
Or to put it another way, unless we have these conversations, we’re effectively asking managers to coach and develop their people based on assumptions and guesswork. And that never works. Why? Because no two employees are the same, even if they work in the same job role for the same company - and if anything, the factors that differentiate one employee from another are only increasing as the external environment continues to reshape the world of work.
The long and short is that flexibility is more important than ever. But let’s be clear: this is flexibility as it pertains to the individual employee. The single parent. The part-time carer. The neurodiverse worker. The employee who’s working and studying at the same time. It’s only when we consider this vast and diverse spectrum of needs that we come to understand why a one-size-fits-all approach is pointless for people and business performance.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. By creating a culture of regular and open 1:1 conversations that enable employees to bring any topic to the table without fear of judgement or penalty, managers can truly understand what each of their direct reports needs and wants in order to thrive at work. Now just imagine that.
The when, where and how
The astute reader may be thinking that the onus is all on the manager to make this work. But the reality is that high performance starts with the employee taking responsibility for their own goals and development. This is their chance to discuss the great stuff they’re doing and to flag potential roadblocks; to share what really motivates them. It’s an opportunity to tap into their manager’s knowledge, experience, and network. Who in the business could I collaborate with to get this project over the line? Who’s the best person to bring me up to speed on this issue?
This is why 1:1s should always be a collaborative effort with input from both manager and employee - and it’s also why they need to happen regularly. Are we aligned? Are we on track? What’s getting in the way? This increased frequency can be one of the biggest mental obstacles for managers, because many of them envisage the marathon of minutiae that is the annual review, except now they have to do it monthly.
Focus on what matters the most
These conversations - which some do quarterly, many do monthly, and others do as often as weekly - should be concise and to the point. All that’s required is a little preparation, and some key agenda points, and they’ll take no longer than half an hour. And this is where that brilliant, dedicated technology comes in. Great tech - the kind that guides good 1:1 conversations around the whole person - makes it simple for employees to set the agenda in line with the issues that matter most to them. And that’s exactly how it should be. We want the employee to lead the talking points, encompassing their specific drivers, to frame a great 1:1 conversation.
Switch things up
But while you’re doing all this, remember that you’re not just casting aside the structure of those antiquated annual performance reviews… you also need to ditch some of the trappings. This is a conversation, so think about the environment. Is a meeting room really the best place to do this? Does the boardroom give you the right environment to open up? Try stepping out of the office. As a wise person once said, there’s no hierarchy at a coffee table. Change things up a little: you might be surprised at how a small trick like this can give you a new perspective and mindset.
It’s also crucial to remember the all-important motivators. This is a conversation about performance, sure, but we’ve already established that performance needs to be about the whole person. Our own data, gathered from OpenBlend customers, shows that on average, 47% of conversation time is spent on actions and objectives, while 33% is spent on drivers and motivations, and 20% on wellbeing.
We cannot treat our people like automata. We need to recognise that many factors contribute to high performance. Our personal lives have a bearing on our professional lives. Our aspirations, hobbies, and interests influence the way we learn, develop, and grow. The more we understand this, the better we can craft these conversations to tailor solutions for everyone’s benefit. This doesn’t mean that every deliverable needs to be a thrilling journey of discovery. Sometimes work is just work that needs to be done. But if we can find ways to satisfy those interests and drivers alongside the essential business of getting things done, we’ll enable people to be their best selves more often, and that’s a rewarding and inspiring path to higher productivity and performance.
The manager who coaches for performance
We’ve touched on this in previous chapters, but it does deserve a section of its own. What are the positive changes that managers and employees can expect to see from meeting more regularly, talking more openly, and being more rigorous about goals, actions, and aspirations?
Just as we’ve all had a bad manager at some point in our career, we’ve probably all had a fantastic one. The kind of manager who has time to listen. The manager who responds in the moment, guides you when you come unstuck, sends you in the right direction, and shows their appreciation when you reach your destination.
These managers create candour and trust, not by asking for it but by proving they deserve it. This isn’t about liking or disliking people: it’s about knowing that if you come to them with something you need to discuss, they’ll take you seriously and take the time to help you figure it out. Part of that is availability. Part of it is removing the filters. Some managers may be available and willing to listen, but only hear what their people are saying through the prism of their own needs. And yes, availability can be tough. We’re all busy. That’s why these 1:1s need to be regular and honest. The manager needs to demonstrate that they’re committed to this process. And when something crops up, as it inevitably does, the best managers will prioritise one-to-ones instead of putting them off.
A great manager also gives their people clarity. They make it clear what’s expected of them; they show the employee their place in the grand scheme of things and how they contribute to organisational success. Gallup describes “setting clear expectations” as the most fundamental element for employee engagement. Those expectations form the basis for great manager-employee conversations. With the right tools, the right structure, and support, the manager will find it far easier to coach and develop their people, creating those incremental gains that boost and sustain performance.
If the manager can do these things - if they can do the prep, ensure a regular cadence, and coach for performance - they’ll send out a clear signal: the employee’s welfare, engagement, and development are important to them. Yes, this is partly selfish, and that’s ok. We’re all doing our jobs here. The better the employee does their job, the better the manager will look. But few people go into work wanting or intending to do a bad job. We’d all rather be challenged, achieve something, and look good in the process. The difference is that it’s far easier to do a great job when you have a manager who supports, champions, and coaches you along the way.
The who (part 2)
The employee who takes responsibility - in a good way
No one wants a job where things just happen to them. We all want to feel that we have a say in how we work, how we progress, grow, and develop.
We’ve talked about these conversations in the context of the business - objectives, performance, and productivity. But this is personal too. The aim is to bring an end to the feeling of disengagement that employees experience when they’re drifting, stuck in a rut, or losing their enthusiasm.
Once again, this underlines the importance of frequency. Just as business objectives can shift, so can the drivers that underpin a person’s motivations. Our health issues change; our circumstances - financial, personal, professional - change. And while the manager isn’t necessarily there to be a confidant, if the employee can help them to understand where their priorities lie, they will create an opportunity for that manager. That could be coaching and development. It could be flexible working. The point is that they’re listening and responding.
But what underpins all of this is timely, focused feedback. We can’t improve without it. Whether it’s positive or constructive, it’s the backbone of development - and so coaching conversations are critical in this way, too. They enable manager and employee to discuss recent successes and to analyse and find solutions to roadblocks and problems. Why did that go so well? Did we do something differently? If so, how do we incorporate that into our routine? If we’re making the same mistake again and again, why? Is it a problem with the system? The person? Is there a need for training?
Hardly anyone improves in huge leaps and bounds… we improve incrementally, piece by piece, learning as we go. If the employee embraces this - if the manager is committed to it - then the business is investing in its people every bit as much as if it were spending thousands on training and consultancy.
What we’re offering is a framework for professional and personal development. It’s not complicated, and at its heart, it’s simply two people having regular, focused 1:1 conversations. The more honest we can be with each other, the more candour we can summon up and the more insights we can share, the better we’ll understand each other and the more successful we’ll become. It’s like any relationship: the more you put into it, the more you get out.
Obviously, we can’t talk about all of this without leaving space for senior leadership. As we hope we’ve already demonstrated, there’s a lot here to benefit the business. Happier, healthier, and more motivated people. A rigorous approach to SMART goal-setting, ideally coupled with a clear connection from individual goals to business goals. Yes, we want people to get things done and to do them well, but we also want to foster the camaraderie and togetherness that comes from understanding everyone’s contribution.
This is where leadership has a key role to play, and it’s a vital one. Although we’ve talked about the fact that these 1:1s don’t need to be huge time-sinks, and that the right tech will ensure that preparation is quick and that conversations remain focused, they do need to happen. Leaders need to take performance management and development seriously - and they need to model the right behaviours by doing it themselves, paying attention to the results, and acting on them. Helping managers to manage - saying and showing them that it’s not just right to invest the time and effort, but that it’s required. Then, of course, there’s the fact that a culture of continuous conversations will give leaders insightful data, week to week, and month to month. Data that can guide and inform HR strategy, giving the business a holistic view of employee wellbeing, motivation, and development to go alongside a clear, granular, view of objective-setting and progress.
The results will prove the value. Simple things like seeing how many objectives are being set and how many are being completed on time. Higher quality conversations that focus on coaching and career development. Being able to really see your teams - their strengths, their areas for development, and what motivates them. These are “soft” qualities broken down into hard data. And so if people are truly your most valuable assets, as so many leaders say they are, this is your chance to really understand their value.
The what’s next?
All of this involves a certain amount of cultural change, not least from managers and employees. How often these 1:1s take place is up to the individual, but monthly tends to be the baseline from which most businesses start. But know this: with the right mindset, culture, and technology to drive it forward, you may be surprised at how quickly it gathers traction.
To learn more about enabling effective manager-employee conversations in your organisation, get in touch with the OpenBlend team today.
Great managers have great 1:1 conversations
Transform your approach to performance management with OpenBlend's ultimate 1:1 handbook.
Download your copy of the ultimate 1:1 handbook
Ready to learn more?
Discover how we can help your managers have great conversations