How You Lead Influences How People Check In

My colleague Susi once described a check-in she observed at a manufacturing plant owned by her employer. The meeting leader, Bill, who supervised all in attendance, was known to be intimidating and disrespectful. His people didn’t trust him.

Susi watched as one participant after another responded to Bill’s check-in question with superficialities and half-truths. The process was hollow and left the group no better off than before.

Check-ins are not magic: Leaders can’t act like jerks—belittling people, interrupting, being untruthful—and expect the practice to have an appreciable positive impact on their teams.

In fact, check-ins implicitly demonstrate and support specific values concerning how people should be treated. When employed with good intentions and humility, check-ins quietly assert that:

  • all people are worthy of respect
  • people work smarter in groups when they work together
  • it’s advantageous for group members to feel safe and connected to one another
  • everyone can be both teacher and learner (regardless of title, seniority, experience, etc.)
  • leaders are members of the groups they lead
  • new ideas are welcome, and diversity, particularly diversity of opinion, is an asset
  • when necessary, people are capable of working through their differences
  • working together can be enjoyable

The best leaders strive to behave in a way that is consistent with these values in all areas of their work life. They use every interaction, both inside and outside of meetings, as an opportunity to inspire trust and develop strong working relationships.

Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and also that difficult.


People determine trustworthiness by observing how you behave over time. They don’t know your thoughts and intentions; they experience only what you say and do. Trust is therefore built by demonstrating, again and again, through consistent action, that you are trust-worthy.

Behaviors that build trust are characterized by:

  1. Reliability: Keeping commitments is the bedrock of trust. Only make promises that you can keep, and resist the temptation to appease others by promising more than you can deliver.
  2. Credibility and Competence: People “believe” in you when you demonstrate expertise in relevant domains. Importantly, this includes not only what you know, but how you conduct yourself.
  3. Openness: Ask questions to find out what others think and feel. And tell the truth: People appreciate and are inspired by those who “level” with them, even when it may be unpleasant.
  4. Vulnerability: When we appropriately share our weaknesses and fears, it makes others feel like they can be themselves. Paradoxically, it also demonstrates self-confidence.
  5. Acceptance: Accept people for who they are and strive to not make them feel inferior. When people make mistakes or underperform, provide feedback that helps them improve their behavior while sending a clear message that you respect and believe in them.
  6. Caring: People trust those who are curious about their concerns and not always focused on themselves. Demonstrate genuine appreciation of people by showing interest in their ideas, their experiences, and in connecting with them.
  7. Emotional Intelligence: Emotions play a central role in well-being and decision-making, and are an inevitable part of life at work. High performing groups often have leaders who are comfortable with and can show empathy for peoples’ emotions (rather than avoiding or rushing to fix them).

Foundational to all of the above is your mindset as a leader. Though it has been called various things over the years—“servant leadership,” “adaptive leadership,” “leading from behind”—what is essential is to lead with a humility and generosity of spirit that truly focuses on developing others: giving them the credit, enabling them to be self-organizing, and making yourself superfluous.

Check-ins enable groups to more efficiently and enjoyably meet their goals. But they can be most effective only when you lead in a way that engenders collaboration and builds trust.