Updated: Sep 8
It's probably not a surprise to learn that we're currently experiencing the most significant drop in U.S. employee engagement since 2000. Leaders all over the globe are struggling to determine the best ways to support employees while keeping their organizations afloat. Every day feels like a new experiment in managing and mobilizing our teams, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged.
The good news is that we still have agency. There are practical things we can do to connect with and inspire our team members. There are proven strategies we can implement today that will give us a good return on our investment. We can't solve the nation-wide engagement crisis, but we can improve our own team engagement by getting serious about meeting the needs of our people.
When it comes to employee engagement best practices, a lot of leaders underestimate the power of a consistent and structured one-on-one check-in meeting. It may not sound like the sexiest or most innovative answer right now, but it's usually the best first step to bolster engagement and accountability between leaders and their team members.
If facilitated well, the one-on-one check-in meeting is one of, if not the most important meeting on our calendars.
How's a Check-In Meeting Different From Other Meetings We Have?
Simply stated, it's a date and time on the calendar, at least once each month but preferably twice, when your team members know they will have your undivided attention. It's an opportunity to meet their varied needs and provide them the clarity and guidance they need to thrive and flourish under your leadership.
While most meetings throughout the week are focused on specific initiatives, projects, or teams, the check-in meeting is all about your team member's goals, contributions, and feedback.
Consider this - Gallup's research shows that managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. With this in mind, it's up to us as leaders to take ownership for the engagement levels of our team members. One of the best ways we can do that is to start scheduling bi-weekly, 30-minute check-in meetings.
Below I've outlined 5 steps to get the most out of these meetings. My hope is that after reading through these steps, you'll take time to customize even more to the specific needs of your unique team members.
Step #1 - Focus on Connection and Relationship
When we sit down for a check-in meeting, we've got to resist the temptation to jump straight into business. Instead, we want to lean into personal connection and relationship.
Sometimes when we talk to leaders about this portion of the meeting, they look at us as if they can't believe we'd think they wouldn't know to do this. Usually, though, those are the leaders who have natural talents and strengths in relationship building.
But for many leaders, this can be the most unnatural and challenging step of the process, and they have to be extremely disciplined about slowing down and focusing on the person and not on the work to be done.
After all, the statement "My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person" is one of Gallup's 12 dimensions of great workgroups. When our employees know that we don't view them as a means to and end for our professional goals, they're more likely to trust us. When we take an interest in them as people, they feel seen, heard, and valued.
One leader I coached decided that he wasn't going to move past this step in a check-in meeting until he learned at least 2 new things about his team member. He would write them down and review the list before his next meeting so that he would have some conversation topics if he needed them. The practice empowered him to build connection and trust.
So Step #1 is to leave space for connection. Ask them what they're looking forward to in the next few weeks. Share something about yourself. Enjoy a laugh together about a common interest or a Netflix show.
Step #2 - Offer Specific Praise and Recognition
Once you have spent a few minutes catching up and leaning into the relationship with your team member, you want to begin offering some praise and recognition.
Here's the trick, though.
"Great job in last week's marketing meeting," is not good enough.
"You're killing it," doesn't cut it either.
The kind of feedback that employees crave is specific and individualized to their natural talents and strengths. It's concrete in nature.
By using specific, tangible, and definite language when you provide praise and recognition, you help your team members understand the ways they bring value to the team and how their role fits into the larger vision and mission of the organization. You help them take more ownership of their talents and strengths.
So instead of, "Thanks for your comments in that meeting," say something like, "Your ability to synthesize and build on the ideas of other people during our brainstorming session is exactly what we needed last week. Our proposal wouldn't be what it is now without your strategic thinking skills."
Can you hear the difference? Don't you also crave specific and individualized feedback like that from your own leaders?
I recommend creating a note on each employee on your phone or somewhere you check regularly so that you can compile things to include in this portion of the meeting. Share ways that they are contributing to the vision, mission, and values of the organization. Help them see how their strengths have made a difference for your team.
**Note! If you have a team member who is consistently underperforming or is very difficult to lead or work alongside, you might wince at the idea of praising or recognizing him/her in this capacity. I'll offer two thoughts . #1 - depending on the scope of the issue, you might consider experimenting with how praise and recognition impacts productivity or attitude. In some cases, increasing recognition is exactly what the employee needs. Even if he/she is not currently meeting expectations, you still might be able to offer positive feedback about his/her ambition, ideas, time-management, or something similar. #2 - If you're unable to think of something positive and concrete to say here, this is likely a sign that you need to facilitate more than a check-in meeting. If this is the case, you likely need to have a more structured performance management meeting or place him/her on a Performance Improvement Plan.
Step #3 - Discuss Goals, Establish Expectations, and Align Priorities
After taking a moment to offer praise and recognition, you want to start discussing goals, establishing expectations, and helping your team member align priorities.
Gallup found that when employees strongly agree that their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on, they are almost 7x more likely to be engaged than actively disengaged. And here's the flip-side of that. When employees strongly disagree with that statement they are 15x more likely to be actively disengaged than engaged.
While you should always have daily communication, whether face-to-face or virtually, with your team members about task and performance management, this part of the meeting is designed to help you think more holistically and strategically about goals and priorities. Think of it as a 30,000 foot view of their work.
During this portion of the meeting, make sure you:
Discuss progress on goals established in the last meeting.
Provide coaching and feedback on his/her progress. When delivering critical feedback, always attach it to a "why."
Discuss priorities, goals, and desired outcomes for the next few weeks before you meet again.
Communicate how success will be measured or assessed? How will he/she know they've met your expectations?
Talk through any decisions made in the organization that will impact his/her role. Provide as much transparency as is appropriate.
When discussing these things together, remember not to immediately jump in and offer advice. Ask more questions than you offer opinions. The most successful leaders are those who are specific about timelines and outcomes but flexible about allowing employees to get there using their own methods.
Step #4 - Give Them the Floor and Take Good Notes
To wrap up the meeting, you want to leave room for your team member to ask you questions, share feedback with you, talk through issues, or to ask for your counsel about a decision. Essentially, this is their time to use as they see fit. Sometimes they will have a lot to talk about and other times they might not. That's okay. The point is that you are allowing them time to communicate their thoughts and needs.
Also, remember that your nonverbal behavior is crucial here. You should be making direct eye contact, turning your body to face him/her directly, and relaxing in posture to communicate that you are yielding the floor to him/her.
Finally, make sure you are taking notes during this stage of the meeting. It doesn't matter as much if it's on the computer, a tablet, or a notepad. When you take notes, you communicate that you are taking his/her feedback seriously and you're setting yourself up to follow-up after the meeting concludes.
Step #5 - Follow-Up With Yourself and Your Team Member
Since you will have just taken notes during the meeting, don't wait to put your follow-up items in motion. Ask yourself what needs to be thought through, questioned, or acted upon as a result of the time you spent together.
Another thing I recommend is to take this time to quickly create calendar reminders for events that are significant to the employee. For example, let's say an employee casually tells you, "This Friday my in-laws are coming into town so we're going to have a busy weekend."
Go create a calendar reminder for the following Monday to ask him about his weekend with his in-laws. It's a simple action that communicates care for your team member. It won't go unnoticed.
After you've made your own notes and action items, send a follow-up email to your team member.
Make sure you:
Include relationship-building messages. Consider expressing how much you enjoyed your time together, or that you always look forward to hearing his/her ideas.
Outline any action steps you will be taking following the meeting. This increases accountability for you and shows your team member that you are serious about meeting his/her workplace needs.
Outline any assignments, goals, priorities, or timelines they will be expected to follow through on before your next meeting.
Send a link for him/her to schedule the next check-in meeting with you.
By taking the extra 5 minutes to send a follow-up email, you communicate that you are serious about his/her progress and development. You also increase the chances that he/she will know exactly what is expected moving forward. Finally, you reduce the likelihood that important messages get lost in the shuffle of a busy work-week.
If you'll implement consistent 30-minute check-in meetings with your team members once or twice a month and follow the steps outlined above, you'll start seeing a return on your investment immediately. It will only take you a short time to get in the rhythm of facilitating these conversations and you will love the increased clarity you gain as a result.
And you'll be the kind of leader who empowers and coaches instead of one who simply manages.
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