Editor’s Note: The following article is the third in a four-part blog series (here’s last week’s entry) about the use of restorative practices in the workplace. It is an excerpt from Richard Cohen’s free, online resource, Check-In Success.
The series is part of our ongoing efforts to apply restorative practices to the six facets of society, including the workplace, in our quest to build a new reality—one in which we all have more voice, choice, and responsibility.
By Richard Cohen
Check-ins are a powerful tool to
- strengthen relationships
- reveal what’s true
- generate energy and enjoyment, and
- help groups learn.
They are an approach to encourage each person in a meeting to speak to their peers. One by one, group members respond to a selected question or prompt. Prompts are chosen to elicit who participants are, how they feel or what they think about an almost limitless range of work-related and personal concerns.
Leaders use check-ins deliberately to further a group’s development and, ultimately, to enable it to perform at the highest level.
Check-Ins Strengthen Relationships
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. They intentionally encourage openness and vulnerability.
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.”).
Check-Ins Reveal What Is True
Check-ins tap into the craving people have for authenticity and the feelings of connection and ease that can accompany it.
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 revelatory.
Gradually, 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.
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.
Check-Ins Generate Energy And Enjoyment
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.
Check-ins also enable 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.
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).
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.
They tap a group’s collective insight into the substantive issues they face, and 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 the quieter 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.
Check-Ins Are an Essential Practice
It can seem counterintuitive, but to enable groups to do their best work, we need to reserve time to enable them to
- step back
- hear all voices
- come to know one another
- and even 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 very hard to build a house without one.
For countless leaders, for all the reasons detailed above, check-ins are an essential practice.
Check out our next installment to learn about Richard’s story, and get access to his check-in archive.