LeaderShift Project ArticlesMale leader and employee having a one-on-one conversation in an office


Rock cairn located on the Royal Arch hike in the Flatirons in Boulder

Rock cairn located on the Royal Arch hike in the Flatirons in Boulder.

Rock cairns are a marker for adventure-junkies like me, showing the right way on a not-so-well-defined hiking trail. It’s a neat solution!

So how does this rock cairn relate to employee check-ins?

Leaders need to build a metaphorical cairn each time they check-in with employees.

Never has the metaphor of “building cairns” been more apt. Not truly useful to anyone, but certainly useful as metaphysical reminders of what had been accomplished. Leadership junkies, like me, could find metaphorical cairns to be helpful reminders.

As I built my consulting business, I’ve settled into the mind frame of seeing the whole world as a series of dots to be connected. When I am faced with uncertainty, I see it as an opportunity to find out more information. The journey is challenging, but it can be worthwhile.

Creating a symbolic cairn can be a reminder that leaders can make a valuable difference in this world if he or she chooses to take action ­and show people there is good left in this VUCAD world we live in.

A simple gesture such as a check-in can help make someone feel wanted.

So, I thought I’d offer your own metaphorical set of stacked rocks to help you make sure your team is on the right track.

5 tips to keep your employee check-ins productive & effective

1. Actually have check-in meetings!

We tend to sacrifice employee check-ins because “there’s always next week.” Don’t make it a bad habit at your workplace. Even my most dedicated clients sometimes get too busy to check-in with their employees.

They are so occupied with what they’re doing that they don’t seem to notice what people in your organization are doing or feeling. When this occurs, employees lose their sense of purpose and start to feel alienated.

The solution is simple: Try checking-in with each member of your team at least once a week.

I hear the lament constantly from people whose managers frequently bail on 1-on-1s. Don’t fall into that trap.

2. Make it a safe place to share concerns.

Employees should feel like you care about them as people and that check-ins or 1-on-1s are a place they can speak freely. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question or share concerns. That kind of thinking flows into everything you do because you know that everything you do affects the culture of your company.

If they’ve got something to say, wait patiently (don’t “over-manage” them) while they compose themselves and share their thoughts. This is important. If they are afraid of speaking their mind or not comfortable sharing problems, you won’t know.

TIP: Ask questions, and then listen! Sometimes you can just ask, “What about the job/project keeps you up at night?”

When you open the conversation, you introduce new ideas and address concerns your employees might not have felt comfortable bringing to you outside of the check-in. By letting them know you are available, it makes check-ins more productive and engaging.

3. Be honest and thorough.

No one likes to fall short of their goals. To prevent this, be clear about priorities, as they often change from week to week. Set realistic expectations and deadlines. And don’t forget to keep your team in the loop. Be prepared if things take a turn for the worst, and look for chances to get back on track. Be upfront and specific about any areas to improve or build on.

And if you don’t know something, say so. When you do this, you get to do what’s most important: learn together.

4. Be a coach, not a boss.

When employees are stuck and looking for a solution, don’t just jump in with the answer. You hire people for their skill set, but they need help to get unstuck. You know what they should do. And you may even be correct in your thinking. But how do you stop yourself from just jumping in and providing the answer for them?

Rather than instructing, help others reach their own conclusions by coaching them.

Your job as a leader is to help the employee get unstuck. Ultimately, you have to come up with a solution to the problem, but that solution should be a result of the employee finding it.

When faced with a challenge, take time to coach employees on how to solve the problem. This is an alternative to just providing them with the answer and hoping they will find the success they need.

This doesn’t mean you can’t offer suggestions and options– or even explain why you think one option would work better than another– but whatever they decide should be their decision.

Help them grow faster by empowering your employees so you’re building a team that’s comfortable making decisions without your input.

Test your leadership aptitude with this self-assessment.

5. End the check-in on a positive note.

The end of a conversation is just as important as the beginning. Even when you’re having a tough 1-on-1, don’t underestimate the power of ending on a positive note. The last impression is the one that will be remembered!

Ending on an actionable, future-focused note keeps people motivated and operating with an optimistic and productive frame of mind.

I’ve had teams complain that their managers start their morning meetings talking about the bad things that are happening in the business. Dealing with something negative at the start of an employee’s day can lead to a bad mindset for the rest of the day, or even longer.

When ending a tough conversation, try to think about how you can leave the other person with a positive outlook or feeling. Instead of just walking out and closing the door behind you, you could leave with a simple message that could still have an impact.

Your presence changes everything

Perform employee check-ins regularly (if not weekly!) and keep these tips in mind. Things might get pretty chaotic, and even if they don’t, there’s no denying that it’s a good idea to set aside some time to talk face-to-face with your employees.

Which tip will you implement on your next check-in?


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