The following are examples of check-ins used for different purposes in a variety of settings. I was present for almost all of them. A few were described to me by colleagues. The details have been altered to protect people’s privacy.
1. Change Team Meeting at A Government Agency
Group Profile: Senior leaders from a large public institution who were on the team by invitation. (It was considered an honor to have been asked.) Participants were invited from parts of the organization that had competing interests and a history of communicating poorly. Participants did not know most of their fellow team members. The team’s goal was twofold: a. to understand one another’s concerns, fears and hopes, and b. to collaboratively envision and design an improved structure for their institution, including reporting, staffing, service delivery, and so on.
Meeting History: This was the team’s fifth meeting. Though members were inspired by their common purpose, they had experienced times of great tension; many doubted that they could trust one another.
Logistics: 8 participants, all co-located. 2.5 hour meeting
Check-in Purpose: To gather and focus participants, continue to strengthen relationships, and deepen trust
Special Considerations: The check-in was to focus more on building trusting relationships rather than on substance. The meeting was held in December, a time of many religious holidays as well as the New Year’s vacation.
Question selected: “What is one of your holiday rituals or traditions.”
Results: As hoped, the check-in appeared to deepen group member’s personal connection. Participants’ varied and moving responses included:
- Visiting a cemetery to honor deceased parents
- Celebrating while all family members wear silly pajamas
- Hosting a neighborhood karaoke party
- Going out for Chinese food to continue a multi-generational tradition
2. Taskforce Report to A Corporation’s Executive Committee
Group Profile: Members of a small team were presenting their recommendations to the Executive Committee of a large corporation. In addition, invited senior experts and support staff were present. Participants knew those from their own groups well; with the other participants, they had only superficial relationships or didn’t know them at all.
Meeting History: The group had never met together and weren’t expected to do so again. The topic was high stakes; difficult questions and differences of opinion were expected.
Logistics: 21 people, all co-located around a long rectangular conference table. The three hour meeting had a full agenda and a lot to accomplish.
Check-in Purpose: To enable participants to identify one another, to get everyone’s voice in the room and make people comfortable speaking, and to build trust.
Special Considerations: The hope was that the check-in would not only enable participants to identify each other, but to share something personal and put one another at ease. That said, there wasn’t much time to devote to the check-in. The leader urged people to be brief from the start so that the check-in wouldn’t take too long.
Question Selected: A series of questions as follows: Please share your…
- Where you were born
- One value you’d like to suggest we bring to this discussion today
Results: The check-in met its goals. The question about birthplace led to friendly teasing, laughter, and personal connections. Participants also suggested a rich group of values: patience, compassion, leadership, integrity, courage, transparency, creativity, collaboration, open-mindedness, reconciliation, honesty, respect, and flexibility.
3. Leadership Team Off-Site
Group Profile: The leadership team of one division of a large organization. All participants worked together regularly, knew one another to varying degrees, and reported to the same recently promoted leader. They were all managers of managers.
Meeting History: This was the second morning of the team’s two-day offsite, an initiative of their new leader. Though the group met together regularly during the year, this was a unique meeting and context. Team members were anxious about an organization-wide change effort that could have significant implications for their work. The team had also recently taken an assessment that confirmed that they were less open with one another and their direct reports than comparable teams at the organization.
Logistics: 9 people, all co-located at a comfortable conference center.
Check-in Purpose: To demonstrate a powerful check-in, to enable participants to be open, share emotions, and create a deeper bond, and to build on the work that was done the previous day
Special Considerations: The leader explicitly wanted to work on building trust and encourage members to take risks during this off-site. It was important to include a connecting question that was open and provided depth choice. Another goal was to inspire participants to use check-ins as a tool with their own teams.
Question Selected: A three-part question:
- “How are you feeling now?”
- “What’s one thing that struck you about yesterday’s session?”
- “Please share one challenge from your childhood that has shaped how you lead today?”
Result: The check-in was very personal and emotional; a few members even got teary while they spoke. In answer to the first question about feelings, one person said he generally didn’t really pay much attention to how he felt, and it was something he knew he needed to work on for both personal and professional reasons. Regarding their childhood challenges, participants spoke about:
- Trying to be a different from his father, who would snap his fingers at home and expect his wife and kids to respond. This leader sometimes saw himself falling into this pattern at home (and even at work) and doesn’t like it.
- Having a mother who had a disability.
- Growing up in an affluent neighborhood but in a family that was struggling financially. The was so unpleasant that it drove this leader to work unusually hard his entire life.
- Being unpopular in school until she began excelling at sports, and the perspective about people that came with that.
- Being multiracial and struggling with feeling like he doesn’t fit in fully with either racial group, or with either side of his family.
4. Sales Team Weekly Call
Group Profile: A sales manager and all the salespeople who work within her region and report to her.
Meeting History: This was an ongoing meeting that happened once per week. Some team members knew one another very well, others only a little, and three people were brand-new to the team. The manager had recently been disappointed with the level of participation on the call, as only a handful of people did most of the talking. As one way to address this, she was trying a check-in for the first time.
Logistics: 13 people total. The manager and three of her direct reports were co-located. All others joined the meeting remotely via videoconference.
Check-in Purpose: To get everyone’s voice on the call, to enable team members to get to know one another better, to create an environment (and an expectation) that everyone should participant on the weekly calls.
Special Considerations: Given that this was their first check-in, and that it’s especially hard to get people to participate when they are joining remotely, it was essential to select a question that was open and easy to answer.
Question Selected: What’s something we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?
Result: The check-in worked well. The team seemed looser and more engaged during the rest of the meeting, and more team members participated during the next call. Reponses to the check-in question included:
- I study sports
- I love big cats (lions and tigers) and want to travel to a game park to volunteer taking care of them
- I am afraid of cats
- I like philosophy
- I am a DJ
- I read autobiographies
- I love politics
- I like building things with my hands
- I sing in a chorus
- I love cooking
5. Shipping Department Huddle at a Manufacturing Company
Group Profile: A shipping manager and his small team.
Meeting History: The team works closely together, and meets regularly for short huddles. The manager conducts a 30-minute meeting at the start and the end of each week.
Logistics: Five people total, all co-located, sitting and standing in their workspace. Ten minutes could be devoted to the check-in.
Check-in Purpose: To understand team members’ initial experiences with a new inventory-management system, to connect the group, to have some fun.
Special Considerations: Participants knew one another fairly well. The team was feeling very stressed as it was the fall, their busy season. The shipping manager wanted to acknowledge that tension was high, but not dwell on it.
Question Selected: A combination question: Please share one thing you like about the fall, and one thought you have about the new inventory management system.
Results: A few concerns emerged about the new system that the leader was able to address later in the meeting. Asking team members to share something they liked about the fall tacitly acknowledged the stress everyone was under. The check-in also appeared to create some new connections between team members.
6. Training Session for Investment Bankers
Group Profile: Senior leaders, all roughly the same level, based in one office of a multinational investment bank. Most participants knew each other at least a little, though some were new to the firm.
Meeting History: The meeting was a special, voluntary training session focused on learning how to disrupt unconscious bias. All the leaders from the office were invited, and most chose to participate. The group did not typically meet together in this form.
Logistics: 11 people, all co-located around a conference table. The training was four hours long, which provided time for only a brief check-in given how much other material was on the agenda.
Check-in Purpose: To get everyone participating, to create connection and safety, to enable participants to begin to reflect upon the topic of unconscious bias, to give the trainers an initial sense of the group’s experience with it.
Special Considerations: As a high degree of safety was necessary for this meeting to be successful, the check-in question should signal that, and give participants the chance to build trust.
Question Selected: A series of questions as follows: Please share:
- Your name and practice area
- One word that comes to mind when you think of unconscious bias
- One way that you are different
Results: The check-in took about 20 minutes and seemed to get the program off to a good start. Words about unconscious bias included: prejudice, normal, judgment, fear, and decision. Among the ways participants said that they were “different” included that they:
- Have lived on three continents
- Are the only Haitian in the firm
- Have lived their whole life in San Francisco
- Grew up on a farm
- Worked as a nurse earlier in their career
- Have a typically Muslim name but are not Muslim
- Are a man who likes things associated with femininity (babies, growing flowers, emotions, etc.)
- Can’t swim
- Used to be a novelist
7. Training Team Planning Call
Group Profile: The founder of a consulting firm, her executive assistant, and professional trainers who were co-delivering a 3-day workshop. Some group members had met and worked together previously; others had never met.
Meeting History: This was the first and only meeting of the group. The next meeting would be in person, on-site with the client.
Logistics: Seven people total. All participants joined remotely using an online meeting service. Participants called in from four different countries and time zones.
Check-in Purpose: To gather and focus the group, to introduce members to one another, to begin building relationships, and to inform the leader and group members about how familiar everyone was with the training content.
Question Selected: Please share your name, your relationship to the material we are presenting, where you are calling from, and how you know Gabriella (the firm’s founder).
Results: The check-in successfully introduced group members to one another and oriented them for their upcoming work.
8. Meeting of Volunteers Forming A Community Group
Group Profile: Community residents who came together because of a shared concern about climate change. Most group members did not know one another.
Meeting History: This was the group’s third meeting. It had been hard for participants to find consensus regarding the direction the group should take.
Logistics: About 18 people, all co-located. The meeting was two hours.
Check-in Purpose: To enable each person to speak, to encourage participants to get to know one another better, to enable the group to clarify its goals and expectations.
Question Selected: Please share, as specifically as possible, what success from this meeting would look like to you.
Results: The check-in was compelling because it focused the group exactly where it was struggling. It helped people clarify their common goals, and it appeared to contribute to the meeting’s good outcome.
9. In-Service Training for Teachers
Group Profile: General education teachers who worked across a large school district. They did not know one another.
Meeting History: This was a one-off training focused on helping teachers understand and better fulfill their responsibilities at Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings. (IEP meetings create personalized education plans for students receiving special education services. General education teachers are required to attend these meetings.) Participants worked in different school buildings and were not likely to interact after the meeting.
Logistics: 28 teachers total, all co-located, sitting in rows in an empty classroom. The meeting was 1.5 hours long.
Check-in Purpose: To engage participants, to begin to make them comfortable with one another and with the topic, and to provide the presenter with a sense of participants’ experiences with and feelings about IEP meetings.
Special Considerations: As it was a new group, the question had to be easy. And with such a short meeting and over two dozen participants, the agenda demanded a quick check-in. All things considered, the leader decided to focus the check-in on the meeting content rather than on personal connections.
Question Selected: Please share one word only (!) that describes your experience of being in Individualized Education Program meetings
Results: Responses were quick and varied, got people laughing, and appeared to create a degree of comfort with one another and with the subject that benefitted the meeting.
10. High School Biology Class
Group Profile: A biology teacher and her students in a public high school classroom.
Meeting History: This was the second meeting of the class, which will meet three times per week for the next 14 weeks.
Logistics: There were 26 students in the classroom. The class lasts for 55 minutes. On the first meeting the teacher provided an in-depth overview of the class and the lab. At the start of this second class, the teacher asked students to get up from their work tables and temporarily sit or stand in a rough circle around the outside of the classroom.
Check-in Purpose: To get each student talking, to enable students to identify one another and begin to feel comfortable together, to provide the teacher with more information about each student.
Special Considerations: The teacher expected that some students would hesitate and find it very uncomfortable to speak in front of the class. Others might try to sabotage the effort. In an attempt to prevent these issues, she approached a few respected students privately in advance to describe the check-in process and request that they take it seriously and model it appropriately for their peers.
Question Selected: Please share your:
- Favorite subject in school
- Favorite food
Results: The check-in worked fine, though not without its challenges. The students were slow in moving from their desks to the outside of the room. A couple of students snickered at another’s response to one of the questions. The teacher had to stop the check-in briefly, during which she described her hopes for the class and explained that showing disrespect to anyone in her classroom would not be tolerated. She did not call out the offending students by name. Otherwise, the process worked well. It wasn’t perfect, but she got through it and felt that it started the class on a productive path. The next one, she assumed, would be easier. The group’s favorite food was pizza.
Understanding A Less Effective Check-in
I’ve never seen a check-in harm a group. But I have experienced check-ins hampered by poor questions and overall design. Consider this real example:
It was the first morning of a train-the-trainer for a dozen experienced facilitators from the same large bank. The training was to last two full days. A third of the participants knew one another well; the others had never met.
For the check-in, the meeting leader asked people to respond to the following prompts:
- Your name
- Something you’ve learned about yourself recently
- What excites you about facilitating learning
- What you are most curious about as we prepare to do this work
Though this check-in wasn’t a disaster, it didn’t take full advantage of check-ins’ ability to build comfort, connection, and excitement within the group.
Given what you’ve learned, why do you think that was the case?
Here are my thoughts. First off, it’s important to note that the leader got many things right, not the least of which is that she held a check-in at all. Given the focus and duration of the meeting, it made sense to ask multiple questions and invest a bit more time in the check-in. The leader also wisely created questions that were related to the group’s focus: learning and facilitation. Finally, the last question solicited participants’ goals, which is always a boon.
In my opinion, this check-in underperformed because of this question: “Something you’ve learned about yourself recently?” Though it referenced life outside of work, which is great, it had a number of problems:
- its seriousness and narrow focus made it unlikely that participants could use it to bring more of themselves into the room
- it was too risky for a group whose members had seldom spoken and were not yet comfortable with one another
In addition, that question—and the series overall—wasn’t fun enough. As a result it didn’t generate the shared laughter that’s useful for an initial check-in. (Remember: light and easy at the start.)
Taken together, these factors limited the impact. Group members, who didn’t yet feel safe with one another, weren’t able to respond with the openness and humor that might have set them up for a better session.