The Power of Check-ins

As meetings become ever more crucial, so too do check-ins.

Tens of millions of meetings happen every workday around the world. If you’re a middle manager, you likely spend about 35 percent of your time in meetings; if you’re in upper management, meetings probably account for nearly half of your work life.

The contemporary workplace requires us to collaborate more than ever before. We spend 50 percent more time working together than we did only two decades ago, often in cross-functional settings.

Significantly, almost all decisions of consequence are now made by groups. At Google and similar iconic companies, even decisions that traditionally were made unilaterally by managers—like whom to hire, fire, and promote—are made by teams.

But to leverage the many advantages of working in groups—faster innovation, higher job satisfaction, and better results—group members have to work well together.

And this is not easy to do. Human beings are complex. Many leaders have treated meeting participants as if they were gears in a machine, able to perform at a high level just by being assembled in the same location. It’s no wonder they report that a majority of their meetings are failures.

Experienced facilitators have long understood the power and importance of check-ins. Today there is a growing appreciation and increasing evidence for why this straightforward practice improves group performance. Here are a few examples:

  1. Check-ins Make Groups (Work) Smarter
  2. Check-ins Help Groups Focus and Align
  3. Check-ins Help Create Psychological Safety
  4. Check-ins Strengthen Relationships
  5. Check-ins Reveal What is True
  6. Check-ins Generate Energy and Enjoyment
  7. Check-ins Help Groups Learn

1. Check-ins Make Groups (Work) Smarter

Recent research has demonstrated that groups, like individual people, have characteristic levels of intelligence. The intelligence level of any group can predict its performance on a wide variety of tasks.

Surprisingly, the top indicators of so-called “collective intelligence” do not concern who group members are—their average individual intelligence, motivation level, or degree of extroversion—but rather, how group members behave.

Chief among the behaviors that predicts a group’s intelligence is whether group members talk roughly the same amount of time, what researchers call “the equality of conversational turn-taking.” The two other predictors identified by Chablis et. al. are 1. group members’ ability to read one another’s emotions—which check-ins likely also help to develop—and 2. having more women in the group.

Check-ins prime a group for just that: Their structure explicitly encourages group members to talk in roughly equal measure. Check-ins get everyone—including those who might hesitate to speak for various reasons—to participate right at the start. After people speak once, they are more likely to participate again.

The power of check-ins so impressed researchers at Johns Hopkins University that they called the process the “activation phenomenon.” Their study of surgical teams found that when members introduced themselves and shared concerns before they performed an operation, the average number of complications and deaths fell by 35 percent. I initially learned about this research from Atul Gawande’s excellent book The Checklist Manifesto. I’ve found it impossible to locate that research, however. This is unsettling, particularly in light of the recent movement in social psychology that has raised compelling concerns that, because of statistical practices that are not legitimate, vast amounts of research may be unreliable. I take liberties in this site to make assertions based upon my own (and my colleagues’) experiences and intuition, making connections to related research as much as possible. We can only hope that more researchers will be inspired to conduct sound, double-blind studies of the impact of check-ins upon group performance.

When group members are comfortable speaking, they take responsibility for problems, share their insights, and most efficiently generate solutions. By getting all members to use their voice, check-ins make groups smarter.

In an increasingly complex world, appointed leaders simply don’t know enough to decide what is new and better. Leadership is a group sport, not an individual heroic activity.

ED SCHEIN

2. Check-ins Help Groups Focus and Align

Think about it: whenever a meeting begins, each group member has to transition from whatever they were doing before to whatever is about to happen in your gathering. Whether they were writing a report, working on a shop floor, helping a customer, or thinking about their kids…everyone has been focused on something else.

Check-ins function like the tuning of an orchestra. Before musicians collaborate, we all know that they take a few minutes to tune their instruments to a common pitch. This enables them to work together in harmony. Check-ins are a kind of tuning that facilitates social rather than musical interaction.

Social Resonance

The notion of “tuning” people to one another is an apt metaphor in light of exciting research on “social resonance.” Researchers have demonstrated that below our awareness, our bodies are in a continual state of physiological resonance with those around us. Our heart rate, our breathing, even our brain waves become synchronized when we are together and communicating well. This enables us to understand one another and coordinate our actions. We resonate most strongly with those we feel connected to and care about.

When used skillfully, check-ins guide members to pause, put aside what came before, and focus on what they hope to accomplish together. Check-ins mark a boundary between outside and inside the meeting, and between past and present, that engages, aligns, and inspires. Leaders sometimes make this transition the explicit subject of their check-in. For example, by asking “What’s something you need to put aside now in order to focus on this meeting?”

3. Check-ins Help Create Psychological Safety

Our ancestors bet that working together in small groups would increase their ability to survive: collaboration is hardwired into who we are.

One consequence of this evolutionary commitment to groups is that most of us continually monitor our standing with those around us. Literally. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that whenever we aren’t solving other problems, our brains automatically focus on social cues that help us understand our relationship to the people in our environment.

Whether we are aware of it or not, and particularly at the start of relationships and events, we are all instinctively concerned with what others think of us and ask unspoken questions like: Am I safe? Am I included? Am I respected and valued?

In a world that is increasingly distributed, interdependent, and multicultural, mastery in the domain of productive work relationships will often be the distinguishing feature of organizations that succeed or fail.

PETER SENGE

We can’t devote our full energies to anything else until we are able to answer these fundamental questions in the affirmative. When we can—when we do feel relatively secure, included, and valued—we have what has come to be called psychological safety: “a climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves…”

Check-ins implicitly address these basic human concerns before many of us even realize we have them. Because each person’s input is solicited and implicitly appreciated, check-ins make group members feel welcome, valued, and connected to one another.

It’s as though, through their check-in, each group member says, “I am here;” and the group, attending to them, in essence responds, “We see you.”

Done regularly and well, check-ins become rituals that deepen our feelings of safety and belonging. They inspire us to devote more of our personal resources to the task at hand.

4. Check-ins Strengthen Relationships

As social animals, human beings need positive connections with others almost as much as we need food and water. When we feel connected, we work together more creatively, more effectively, and with greater passion. Strong relationships lead to strong performance.

By definition, strong relationships have a high degree of trust—the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone.”

When group members trust each another, behaviors that are critical to collaboration become possible: We challenge one another. We give others the benefit of the doubt. We strive to understand differing perspectives. We speak up. And we risk engaging in the kind of constructive disagreement that is necessary to reach optimal solutions.

Done well, check-ins are elegant and efficient trust-generators. When groups of people first meet, simply hearing one another’s voices reduces our animal vigilance and begins to build trust. Group members learn about each other and form personal connections (“Oh, I didn’t know you grew up in the Midwest, like cooking, feel the same way I do about that issue, etc.”).

Perhaps most importantly, check-ins intentionally encourage openness and vulnerability.

Strong relationships are a strategic asset for any endeavor, and the foundation for high performance. Check-ins work to create and strengthen that foundation.

Everyone has a story, and I have learned that, at the core of it, most of our stories are more similar than not.

JAMES DOTY

5. Check-ins Reveal What is True

Accessing the collective intelligence of your team sounds great in theory.

But true collaboration is not for the faint of heart. It’s an often messy, sometimes perilous process in which people see things differently, conflict is inevitable, and feelings can get hurt.

While candor—the open communication of thoughts, feelings, and experiences—is central to working collaboratively, we human beings are generally risk-averse. It’s almost always safest to say nothing, or to say only what others want to hear. That becomes most people’s default.

Fortunately, as important as safety is, people also crave authenticity and the feelings of connection and ease that can accompany it.

Check-ins tap into this latter craving. They initiate a positive feedback cycle driven by the human urge to connect, something I call the “unwinding” of a group.

Here’s how it works: One person, testing the waters, takes a small risk in their check-in remarks. A subsequent member, feeling emboldened by that earlier speaker (and the group’s accepting response), shares something even more authentic and revealing. Gradually, one by one, people up the ante until the group is more willing to speak truthfully than they were at the start, often dramatically so. An uncommon level of honesty and intimacy can be achieved in a single check-in, and it can deepen over the life of a group.

Ultimately this honesty and courage serves any endeavor. It makes group members more likely to challenge one another, admit mistakes, share thoughts or experiences that don’t align with official policy, and offer untested but potentially breakthrough ideas.

What is particularly satisfying is that this culture of openness is generated by the group itself. Though the check-in provides the right conditions, it is group members’ own behaviors—in the form of individual risks taken, and the rewarding of those risks—that creates it. It is truly theirs.

Done well, check-ins send groups on a path toward their own unique truth, where people can communicate more authentically and apply more of their collective resources to any challenge.

6. Check-ins Generate Energy and Enjoyment

Run-of-the-mill meetings do not create energy. If anything, such gatherings—with their unclear or uninspiring purpose, their unappealing format, and their lack of psychological safety—are enervating.

By contrast, when check-ins work, people lean in to listen. Whether the question is lighthearted or profound, we want to hear how our fellows will respond. We are engaged.

In this way check-ins can enliven even dry and otherwise routine gatherings, which in turn leads to getting more, and better, work done. Check-ins create energy. Beware: If the goal and focus of your meetings don’t interest participants, check-ins will not be able to save them.

Check-ins also generate energy by enabling group members to form closer, more vital relationships. Such groups aren’t the norm for most of us. We like going to groups where we feel we belong; it feels good to see and be seen.

And what about fun!? Check-ins produce more than their share of positive feelings. These emotions are contagious, traveling fast in a group under the right circumstances. Enjoyment also has corollaries like trust, passion, and commitment that can inspire groups to produce better work.

Laughter in particular is a powerful bonding force. Research has demonstrated that couples who laugh together have more successful, longer-lasting relationships, and the same is likely true of people in other groups. I always feel that a group is making progress if they are laughing together. That said, check-ins are not always funny; sometimes they can be somber and serious.

Successful check-ins grab people’s attention and connect them to one another. By doing so, they establish a norm of high energy and high participation. And once engaged, people are more inclined to focus for the rest of the meeting (even if the content is not as engrossing).

7. Check-ins Help Groups Learn

Check-ins increase learning by providing access to one of the most powerful resources available: the wisdom of the group.

In addition to helping members get to know one another personally—their experiences, backgrounds, values—check-ins tap a group’s collective insight into the substantive issues they face. You can ask questions like:

  • Please share a sentence about how the campaign’s going?
  • What’s one impression of the impact of the process change on production efficiency?
  • What are people’s quick reactions to the strategy we outlined yesterday?

Check-ins can shed light on what matters most to any group.

A strength of check-ins is that you don’t only hear from the usual suspects; their egalitarian structure means everyone contributes, even quieter group members. Countless times I’ve witnessed groups’ surprise when a more reserved member—who otherwise might not have spoken— makes an uncommonly insightful contribution. In this way, check-ins can provide a more comprehensive accounting of what a group knows than might be ascertained by merely posing a question to the entire group.

What you learn from group members’ insights and experiences can inform course corrections on any initiative, and even lead to modifications of the format or focus of the meeting itself.

Groups often have greater resources and ability to address the challenges they face than we think. By enabling group members to learn from one another, check-ins help unleash that potential.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently.

ALISON REYNOLDS and DAVIE LEWIS

In the modern classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of a harried lumberjack with an unrelenting focus on his work. Though his efficiency and enjoyment would benefit greatly from a short break to sharpen his saw, he can’t bring himself to do it. “I’m too busy sawing,” he exclaims!

We shouldn’t make the same mistake with the groups we lead.

It can seem counterintuitive, but to enable groups to do their best work, we need to reserve time to enable them to step back and sharpen their collective saw—time to hear all their voices, to come to know one another, even to explore topics only tangentially related to their core purpose.

Check-ins generate powerful resources—greater trust, sharper focus, stronger relationships, deeper insights—which help groups navigate the inevitable challenges of collaboration and perform at the highest level.

Certainly check-ins are not the only tool you can use to make meetings great. They are, however, one of the easiest, quickest—you can do one in literally 15 seconds per person!—and most fundamental. Plus, when check-ins are conducted skillfully, they make people feel good.

At the risk of mixing tool metaphors, consider this: Check-ins are to leading groups what hammers are to building houses. You couldn’t build a house with a hammer alone, but it would be unwise and more difficult to attempt to build a house without one.

For countless leaders, for all the reasons detailed above, check-ins are an essential practice.