3 Ways to Improve Manager Check-Ins

September 5, 2017 Sarah Payne

Early last year, I wrote about why there’s so much press about companies ditching the annual review – from the amount of time and money wasted to the way it can have a serious psychological impact on employees. And in an ideal world, no company would put employees or managers through this agonizing process each year.

In the real world, the annual review is very much still alive. In Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 67% of employees reported that they had a performance review in the last 12 months. The truth is, every company culture is different. Change takes times. Some organizations need to take baby steps – and that’s OK.

Even if your company isn’t planning on ditching the annual review anytime soon, there are steps you can take to improve the way your organization approaches employee development and growth. A great place to start is with check-ins. Depending on how they’re structured, these ongoing meetings between managers and employees can either be the building blocks of positive relationships or missed opportunities that lead to disengagement.

Take my colleague Eric as an example. He wrote about how a former manager killed his motivation at work:

Kim and I were in two different offices, separated by at least 1,500 miles. In our weekly meetings I would provide a bulleted list of the items I had worked on in the previous week. The meetings ended quickly, as neither of us found any value in them. By the third month of working for Kim, I was becoming more and more frustrated with my work situation. We rarely met, so we rarely spoke. When we did speak, I was told what to do and how to do it (a classic case of micro-managing). 

Does this sound familiar? Have you ever worked for someone who really didn’t understand the purpose of check-ins? How did it make you feel? Are there any people managers in your company who are similar to Kim?

The same Gallup report referenced earlier found only 20% of employees strongly agree they have had a conversation with their manager in the last six months about steps they can take to reach their goals. But here’s the thing – those who strongly agree are 2.8x more likely to be highly engaged.

So how can we change managers’ mindsets and make check-ins more productive? First, make sure there is a basic understanding of the difference between a check-in and a check-up. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer explain in Harvard Business Review:

If you are mostly asking employees whether they finished this task or that task, then you are checking up on them. If you are constantly monitoring how people achieve their goals, then you are checking up. This is classic micromanagement, which makes people feel that their judgment, talents, and skills are not valued; it also constrains experimentation. As a result, it kills both motivation and creativity.

Second, for two people to have an open and honest conversation, there needs to be psychological safety. Adam Grant defines psychological safety as, “the sense that you can take a risk and speak up without getting punished.” It’s the single most important component of effective teams. Ameet Ranadive, VP of product at Twitter, believes celebrating small wins is one key way to build psychological safety. Make sure managers have a way to recognize and reward their employees throughout the year.

Third, encourage managers to use check-ins as a time to help employees find meaning in their work. After all, Great Place to Work® found that an employee’s belief that their work has special meaning is most closely associated with their desire to stay with the company. Leadership coach and author Kristi Hedges recommends these five guiding questions to help in this effort:

  • What are you good at doing?
  • What do you enjoy?
  • What feels most useful?
  • What creates a sense of forward momentum?
  • How do you relate to others?

These are just three ways you can start to change managers’ mindsets and structure check-ins to be more productive for everyone. How are you handling check-ins in your organization? Is there any oversight regarding how often they happen and how meaningful these conversations are? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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