One-to-one, two-by-two

Average time employed at a tech company is somewhere between two to three years, depending on the source consulted. For non-tech jobs, add a year. Maybe two. Why is that? The common reasons cited are diverse. I won’t repeat them here. Instead, let me speculate about one I haven’t seen around. One that’s revealed by the failure of a fundamental process: the humble one-to-one.

One-to-ones are ubiquitous in organisations around the world. And although the processes look drastically different for different orgs, the purpose of a one-to-one remains the same:

  • Ensure the trajectory of the principal and the agent are aligned

The underlying concept here is, naturally, the principal-agent problem. The “principal” being the organisation (with a manager/lead/senior etc. acting on its behalf). The “agent” being the employee. This creates two conditions for each party—win, lose—and gives us four scenarios (which can be depicted as a 2×2), with one mode of success (win-win) and three failure modes. 

  • Principal wins; agent wins
  • Principal wins; agent loses
  • Principal loses; agent wins
  • Principal loses; agent loses

In the context of a one-to-one, the aim is to ensure that both the principal and agent are going in a mutually beneficial direction over the short, medium and long-term. For both parties, this can be equated to something like:

  • Short-term = the next quarter
  • Medium-term = the next year or two
  • Long-term = the principal/organisation’s lifecycle, the agent/employee’s career

The averages cited up top indicate that there’s:

  • Rarely misalignment in the short-term
  • Often misalignment in the medium-term
  • Usually misalignment in the long-term

This tendency to creep from aligned parties in the short-term to misaligned parties in the long-term is less to do with the malice than plain ol’ individual, organisational and cultural dynamics.

The further one speculates into the future the more the possibility space for the respective parties increases. As a result, the likelihood of “the future” being a scenario in which the principal and the agent both win decreases, especially because what a “win” looks like for each becomes more and more ambiguous. Principals and agents thus default to divergence in the absence of strong counter-forces.

Fortunately, a one-to-one can be used to strengthen these counter-forces by making evidence of the counter-forces explicit to both parties and/or generating inputs and insight which contribute to the growth of these counter-forces. Unfortunately, one-to-ones are downstream of organisational culture. If the idea that “how you do anything is how you do everything” has substance, then an org not explicitly steered to create win-wins for its principals and agents is destined to fail at the one-to-one and have a middling employee retention rate.