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Check In Before You Check On

Step One: Take responsibility for your own state of mind.

Check in before you check on.

Checking in means having a meaningful conversation.


Uncertainty tends to breed anxiety, and for most people, uncertainty is the only certainty there is at the moment.

We all thrive on a bit of uncertainty; it spices up our lives. But it needs to come as just that—a spicy addition to an otherwise solid foundation of certainty.

When there is more uncertainty than certainty, it’s easy to drift into victim mode—which is what we also call going below the line. If we do, it tends to spread as we suck others into our drama triangles.

If you have two or more people reporting to you, you’re a team leader. As a team leader, you need to think about what you can do to keep yourself mentally fit and above the line because the last thing you need now is for a victim atmosphere to spread to your surroundings.

The only thing more contagious than COVID-19 is a negative emotion. It spreads like wildfire.

Step One: Take responsibility for your own state of mind.

There are a number of ways to support a stable state of mind. What works varies from person to person.

For me, it's a combination of yoga, meditation and journaling as the foundation. With that in place, I’m better able to observe myself and check on my state. Just the fact of becoming more aware of my different states helps me manage them.

Then, I have these three principles that I try to live by:

  • Move your focus from self—poor little me—to others (It's a fundamental Buddhist concept and a key to happiness: compassion for others);
  • Focus on what you can influence (Let go of the rest. At the end of the day, don't fret about what you can’t change. Instead, focus all your energy on things that you can); and
  • Raise your expectation of your own capability (Lower your expectation towards the external world. We typically underestimate ourselves. But what’s worse is we overestimate what we think we’ll get from the world, and that often leads to disappointment. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.)

Assuming that you’ve managed to get a reasonable grip on yourself, you now need to turn your attention towards the team.

Check in before you check on.

The concept of check in is a core piece when I coach managers on Working with others.

As team leaders, we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’re dealing with an organic system when we talk about our team and its members.

The core characteristic of an organic system is that it is by definition unstable and flexible—as opposed to mechanical systems that are by definition stable but rigid.

Meaning, if you assume that your team member is in the same state every day—much in the same way that you take for granted that your car or computer is always in the same state; i.e., it will spring to life as it always does when you start it up—you’re off to a bad start.

You need to check in with them to establish what state they are in. If needed, help them shift from states that we would consider below the line and into states that are more helpful and above the line.

The more unstable an environment you’re operating in, the more frequently you need to check in.

Why is this important? It should be self-evident but we tend to forget how it works, so let’s recap.

Here’s BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model, which features BMAP: Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt:

You’re hoping that your team members will do the right thing—behavior—on their own when they realize whatever the prompt is; e.g., a customer’s need.

For that to happen, they need motivation and ability.

If they have high ability but not much motivation, it won't happen—and motivation is typically what drops when we find ourselves below the line.

But that’s not the full story. Ability has two components. One is skill level: Do they know how to do it? The other part of ability is “How difficult is it going to be to actually do it?”

Meaning, you also need to consider in what ways have you or the current situation made it more difficult to deliver good service, a great experience or whatever behavior it is you're looking for.

The big lesson from BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model is that even if motivation is on the low side, making it easier or simpler for someone to do something makes it more likely that they will actually do it.

That's why you’ll need to check in with them and have that all-important conversation.

Checking in means having a meaningful conversation.

A check in is a conversation that’s not about you telling someone what they must now do, but about you asking questions and listening. It’s not an inquisition. You’re trying to explore what’s going on for them now. In that process, you then discover what it is that’s missing.

In my world, this is the essence of leadership—understating what’s missing and how you can provide whatever that is.

The higher up the management hierarchy you are, the more important this is—because you’re the role model. If you take time to have these essential conversations about them, there’s hope that they in turn will do the same with their teams. That is how a great culture is developed.

Keep in the back of your mind the five keys to engagement. Then, with your conversation, try and uncover if any of this need attention:

  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Social Inclusion

What can you do to make things easier, simpler or more meaningful for them?

Often when we’re below the line, the simple gesture of someone taking the time and an interest in asking us about our concerns and challenges helps us get out of the rut.

But it’s exactly when we are in crisis mode that we as managers feel we don’t have the time for that.

That is the trap.

Don't fall into it.

Team leaders who demonstrate that they actually care are going to come out of this as the big winners.


Further Reading: Leadership: What, Why and How

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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