The Enigma of 1-on-1 meetings and how Behavioral Economics can help

Regular 1-on-1 meeting with direct reports is the most potent tool in the hands of managers. Research tells us that it has an enormous impact on the team’s motivation, engagement, and productivity. Yet most managers don’t do it regularly.

Mayank Prabhakar
5 min readMay 31, 2020
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

If you ask any manager whether they should be doing 1-on-1s or not, most will say “Yes”. Today, they go through an abundance of training and read enough articles to know they should be doing regular 1-on-1s with their team. But yet they don’t do it regularly.

There is clearly an intention action gap!

What can organizations do to address this 1-on-1 enigma? How can companies make it a habit for your people managers to do regular 1-on-1s with their team?

You can restrict their choices and force them to do it. You can use carrots and sticks approach to make them do 1-on-1s. But both these approaches may not create lasting change, and secondly may not be liked by managers.

Here are 5 steps, inspired by the field of behavioral economics, that should increase the likelihood of managers doing 1-on-1s regularly, without restricting their choices or significantly changing economic consequences :

1. Inform and Educate.

The first step is to inform and educate them through training and workshops to help them understand and appreciate the potential of doing regular 1-on-1s with the team.

Managers can sometimes shy away from these meetings because they don’t know how to structure them or how to have difficult conversations. Providing them guidance on how to build trust with direct reports, how and what to discuss in the 1-on-1 meetings, can make these meetings more satisfying and valuable for managers.

Most companies do this well.

2. Make doing 1-on-1s the default choice.

In most cases, managers don’t make a conscious choice if they should be doing 1-on-1s or not. Thus, in a normal environment, because of inaction or uncertainty in decision making, not doing 1-on-1s becomes the default choice.

Just introducing a process that makes doing 1-on-1s the default choice, significantly increases the likelihood of managers opting to do it regularly.

It could be through a simple prompt in the performance management tool when a new employee is assigned or when a new performance cycle begins:

Making 1-on-1s the default choice

3. Enable earmarking and scheduling 1-on-1s in advance

Behavioral science tells us that:

As human beings we tend to prioritize tasks which have concrete and immediate benefits vs. tasks which have abstract benefits reaped in the future.

The benefits of doing 1-on-1s meetings are to a large extent abstract and reaped over time. As such, we tend to de-prioritize 1-on-1s over sales meetings, client presentations, work we have to report daily, and even fun outings, all of which give us immediate benefits. In our head we say — “I will do it when I get time”, but these tasks don’t stop coming and we keep prioritizing them over 1-o-1s.

The solution to this is having a system that enables managers to earmark time for 1-o-1s and schedule them in advance. When managers have mentally accounted for a certain time for 1-on-1s, they are more likely to use it for that purpose.

Moreover, scheduling recurring 1-on-1 meetings in advance prevents managers from acting impulsively and deprioritizing 1-on-1s over other work. It makes canceling a 1-on-1s an active choice and hence less likely.

4. Nudge managers at the right time.

Nudging managers through email or messages, before the scheduled 1-on-1 or when they are trying to cancel a meeting, significantly reduces the chance of them canceling the meeting.

A nudge is an intervention which is easy and cheap to avoid, that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing consequences.

Here are a few examples that can be applied in such cases. All of these are inspired by behavioral economics research:

  • People tend to be more attuned to losses than to gains. Highlighting the loss of not doing the 1-on-1s on employees’ engagement and productivity can prevent managers from canceling 1-on-1s. e.g. “Cancelling 1-on-1 meetings can reduce employee productivity by up to 60%”
  • We have a tendency to make decisions based on information that is readily available. Presenting data or notes from previous meetings or check-ins which highlight the need to do the 1-on-1 can increase the likelihood of managers following through.
  • Make canceling the meeting an enhanced active choice with confirmation messages that highlight the cost of not doing the 1-on-1. e.g. “Yes, I want to cancel the scheduled 1-on-1 and signal them that they aren’t my priority.”
  • Most people tend to conform to the same behavior as their peers. Showcasing the managers with the highest streak of 1-on-1s or with the least cancellations can nudge them to be regular with 1-on-1s. Similarly, anchoring messages around high streaks of 1–on-1s among peers can nudge managers to do the same:
Using anchoring to nudge managers to do 1-on-1s

5. Make it easy and attractive

To make doing 1-on-1 a habit, these meetings must be made easy and attractive for managers.

Scheduling meetings, sharing, and tracking agenda, and meeting notes should be a simple and easy process for managers and direct reports.

These meetings can be made attractive for managers by recognizing managers with the best streak of 1-on-1s. While using anticipatory rewards like scratch coupons can help in ensuring managers follow through on the complete process like drafting and sharing 1-on-1 notes.

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Mayank Prabhakar

Product Manager in HR/People Tech domain. I explore and write about emerging research to solve people and org problems through tech.