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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

Strengthening retention with one-on-one meetings

Talent retention has more recently become a critical challenge for organizations. Recent data from LinkedIn shows that 85% of US team members actively seekother job opportunities. The financial implications for employers are significant. Research shows that the cost of replacing a departing team member can average between 12 and 18 months of their annual salary, a substantial drain on resources.

Systemic workplace dissatisfaction is most likely the underlying cause of this trend. Surveys are not required to surmise that this situation will negatively impact engagement, translating into lower overall productivity levels. The sense of ownership and accountability for results rapidly erodes under these conditions. This means many team members have "quit and stayed" until something better opens up elsewhere.


For the most part, engagement surveys do not provide accurate readings because most team members believe little happens with their input. In other words, it is not worth the trouble that comes with negative survey results. The practice of considering engagement survey results for performance management and associated incentives has long ago rendered these surveys useless.  

Despite the daunting challenges, there are effective ways to tackle this situation. Among the strategies I have discussed in a previous blog, meaningful one-on-one meetings are a direct and impactful solution that can be implemented promptly, offering hope in the face of this challenge. This brief article aims to demonstrate how both leaders and team members can harness the power of these meetings.

The new social contract between team member and employer

In the past, the employment contract was loyalty-based. Team members believed they would be loyal to their employers if they were loyal to them. The fundamental problem with this principle is that it led to a relatively passive approach, which was not conducive to dedication and passion in the workplace.

Team members' thinking has since changed considerably: loyalty has been debunked. The level of trust was affected during and after the pandemic when people were laid off at the first opportunity for an organization to save money.

This created a trust gap, and employee engagement spiralled into "The Great Resignation." We are living with the implications of a COVID overhang that exacerbates some of the reprioritizations that have already been emerging.

Team members now inherently believe that developing capabilities has replaced loyalty as the basis for security and success. Capabilities are the key factor in providing mobility to find alternate employment.

With this scenario in mind, employees soon grow impatient if they are not actively learning and developing the capabilities that will allow them to demonstrate the value they can create with either their current employer or the next one. As a result, the employer that will retain engaged team members is the one that offers an environment where people can develop their capabilities and fulfill their potential.  

Creating a space for development and learning

The time has long ended when employers could motivate and retain team members without paying attention to their development and learning. And yet, all organizations need highly talented and motivated team members who are fully engaged and share in their collective success. Team members are looking to work in thriving enterprises where they can make a significant contribution. In return, they want to learn and develop their capabilities. My experience tells me that when employees are asked why they are leaving in exit interviews, they often wish there could have been more conversations with leaders about their career goals and opportunities for growth. People increasingly want their needs considered instead of being seen as "output" machines.

Team members want to be recognized for their contributions and have opportunities to develop their capabilities. This is the 'quid pro quo' they are looking to achieve:  in exchange for the outcomes of their work, they want the opportunity to realize their full potential. Discussions between leaders and team members in one-on-one meetings represent the ideal forum to voice their needsand help the leader understand them.


Organizations must be purposeful in creating an environment that fosterslearning and development. In this context, one-on-one meetings have become the most effective and readily available practice to retain team members. These meetings are the ideal portal for creating the most effective learning space because they are grounded in the actual work with the leader's sponsorship. Some years ago, the Centre for Creating Leadership in Greensboro, NC, conducted research showing that 6% of what people learn in the organization comes from courses, 12% from managerial coaching, and 80% from on-the-job experience.

The current reality

The culture in many technology organizations emphasizes meetings. BenHorowitz, the famous tech investor, blogger, and author, has written that he would fire a leader who does not have weekly one-on-one meetings with their team members. Yet, when I assessed one-on-one meetings in technology organizations, the reality was far from what team members wanted from them. Despite the narrative around these meetings and the expectations created, thefeedback showed widespread disappointment: meetings were repeatedly deferred or cancelled. Research reported in the MIT-Sloan Management Review shows that these feelings are so common that one in four people don't have regular one-on-one meetings with their managers or direct reports. The unfortunate reality is that most organizations underutilize one-on-one meetings.

Leaders often say that making time for one-on-one meetings is not goodbecause they constantly interact with their team members. Yet, the frenetic pace of everyday work does not allow for the more reflective nature of one-on-one meetings where discussions are less transactional and more personal: they require a different tempo and more thoughtful interactions.

Leaders and team members frequently lack a defined purpose and shared goals for these discussions. For some, the conversations might feel forced or be shaped too much by external ideas of what a one-on-one meeting should look like rather than what would benefit both parties. The success of these meetings resides in aligning expectations upfront to avoid the team members experiencing anxiety, awkwardness, or even dread that these conversations sometimes generate. These reactions are less likely to arise if leaders make "one-on-one" meetings integral totheir leadership practice.

How to leverage one-on-one meetings

My assessment of one-on-one meetings in organizations has shown that when these meetings did occur, they often started with the question: "So, what have you been doing?" Most of the time is spent recounting what happened in projects instead of focusing on individual team member's needs and aspirations. Work objectives and project plans are better suited to assessing performance. Instead, the main preoccupation of leaders in one-on-one meetings is to deepen their understanding of a team member's aspirations and actively support them.


One-on-one meetings can best discuss enhancing overall performance at a more general level with jointly agreed-upon expectations to improve it. This approach paves the way for identifying learning/development expectations and enables leaders to assume coaching roles to guide and support their team members'development.

The targeted outcome of one of these meetings is to end up with 3 or 4 agreed-upon expectations for uplifting performance and pursuing well-articulated development goals. Subsequent meetings then focus on reviewing progress against these expectations with coaching advice from the leader. When specific expectations are deemed fulfilled, new ones are identified for both performance and development. In turn, these new expectations become the agenda for subsequent meetings. With this approach, team members get the confirmation that it is not only legitimate but also expected for them to engage in active learning toward realizing development goals.

The impact on retention

These one-on-one meetings will contribute to retention if the team member feels that the leader:

understands and supports their aspirations;

cares about their development;

guides learning with straightforward feedback;

helps resolve issues/obstacles they experience;

builds openness and trust;

conveys that they are committed to their success;

creates the confidence needed to learn in the role.


One-on-one meetings provide a platform for open discussions and help build strong relationships between team members and their leaders. They allow for timely discussions on any issues or concerns. Confidence is a precursor to learning. When someone does not feel the support from their leader indeveloping their capabilities, they see themselves at a dead end and yearn to find a place where they can strive.

On a personal note…


At one point in my career, I took on a challenging role. I worked for an energetic and highly demanding leader. I was passionate about the role and gave it my all. Two years later, after he had moved to another role, I came across him and we engaged in an easy, convivial conversation. It gave me the courage to say that, while I worked for him, I always felt that my severance letter was sitting in the top right-hand drawer of his desk, ready to be handed out. Surprised, he almost fell off his chair and told me how impressed he was with my work. It would have been good to know this at the time. I came close to throwing in the towel several times but somehow stuck it out. Effective one-on-one meetings would have been very helpful to both of us.



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