For More Productive Meetings, Do a Mindset Check-In First

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Apr 9, 2018

“Bring the mind into sharp focus and make it alert so that it can immediately intuit truth, which is everywhere. “ — Bruce Lee

We live in a distracted society. Having focus is a scarce currency. No surprise distractions are taking a toll on workplace productivity. As long ago as 2004, some research put the cost of “not paying attention” at $588 billion per annum in the U.S. alone.

When your team’s minds are elsewhere, both collaboration and productivity suffer.

Meetings are a necessary evil. Teams solve problems, improve their game, and innovate when they work together. However, most executives spend too much time in meetings  —  up to 23 hours a week —  causing their minds to wander rather than being present and focused.

Self-awareness is recovering the role it deserves in the workplace. Research by Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, shows that self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st century  —  self-aware people are more successful, more confident, build better relationships, and are more effective leaders.

Checking-in before a meeting will help your team remove distractions and regain focus. Let me explain the “why” and “how” to do it.

Benefits of a mindset check-in

“How you enter a space and how you leave a space is as important as what happens in the space.” ― Emily M. Axelrod

Checking-in is an intentional practice for a team to open a meeting or session. Each participant shares what (mindset) they are bringing to the table before the work conversation starts — one at a time. When everyone can remove their personal distractions, it’s easier to focus on getting the job done. A mindset check-in is about the status of your mind, not that of the project.

Checking-in increases self-awareness and brings clarity about where everyone stands. It intentionally reminds team members of the commitment to work together.

Check-in allows people to be present: Worrying about what happened before the meeting or what will happen afterward keeps everyone’s mind busy. The purpose of enabling participants to share whatever is on their minds is to connect to the now and here. When you realize what’s distracting you, it’s easier to put those things aside and get your mind into the meeting.

Check-in drives understanding: The ritual of check-in drives both self and collective awareness. Knowing where everyone’s mind is at, drives clarity. You can adjust how you facilitate the meeting or be more tolerant if someone is acting defensive or being more silent than usual. When you understand someone else’s mindset, you become less judgmental of how they behave.

Check-in gives everyone a voice: Teams benefit from diversity of thinking. Cultural fitness is the ability of a group to expand its perspective by encouraging diverse ideas and points of view. Unfortunately, introverts, outsiders, or junior employees - — to name a few — feel intimidated to speak up. They fear being judged. The opportunity to share where their mind is at encourages a space for everyone to speak up freely.

Check-in reinforces trust: When you have an unbreakable relationship with someone, it’s easier to share your blind spots or weaknesses. However, which comes first? Brené Brown said: “Vulnerability is not weakness. It’s the most accurate measurement of courage.” Sharing what keeps your mind busy is the first step. Bringing your vulnerable self to a meeting will encourage others to do so too.

Check-in reminds us that we are human: We’ve been raised to think that work and personal life shouldn’t mix. However, building a wall between the two has created anything but balance. We are one single entity; what happens at work doesn’t stay at work.

It’s time to bring your soul back to work, as I wrote here. Our most powerful professional asset is our humanity. Your personal beliefs, mindsets, and emotions influence how you play at work. And the other way around.

My experience with check-ins

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” ― Zig Ziglar

I’ve used check-ins throughout my career but not consistently. It wasn’t until three years ago or so that I recovered the value of this simple act and started implementing a more structured and purposeful approach to it.

At my previous job, I brought in a consultancy to help us implement a reorganization. During that journey, we (re)discovered check-in. However, the initial reaction was anything but positive. Most people felt it was unnecessary or too touchy-feely. Others, paradoxically, thought it was a distraction.

Adopting a new process in the corporate world is more stressful than changing your personal looks. People tend to reject and judge any new process that is a departure from business as usual. Especially one that exposes emotions and makes executives feel uncomfortable. Over time, however, check-in became a critical part of our meetings.

My personal journey has helped me become more empathetic when I’m coaching teams to experiment with this process.

Check-in: A step-by-step process

When — At the beginning of every meeting. Remember to include it in the agenda. I recommend that you start in small doses. Begin with one or two teams. It’s better to go deeper with a couple rather than trying to change everyone at the same time gaining no depth or traction.

Duration — Checking-in shouldn’t take too long. As a thumbs rule, aim for five minutes tops for an 8 to 10 participants meeting. Initially, participants won’t share much and then will jump to the other extreme. It takes some time to find the sweet spot between people staying silent or oversharing.

Roles — Designate one facilitator to manage check-in in a purposeful and timely manner. This role should rotate among team members. Preparation is essential. Everyone in the room participates regardless of roles ( facilitators and bosses check-in too). Some people feel uneasy “sharing” in front of their boss. I understand it’s hard but the payoff  —  exponential trust and candor  —  is worth it.

The ritual — The facilitator asks a check-in questions (see examples below). Each member takes a turn to answer. It could be in clockwise order or popcorn-style (anyone chimes in when they are ready). The moderator says “thank you” or just lets the next person check in. There’s no room for further questions or comments. People simply need to listen and be present. Body language can quickly get in the way. What’s keeping your colleagues’ minds busy could be unexpected. Avoid making strange faces or crossing arms when someone else is opening up; it can easily backfire.

Keep this in mind: Check-ins are meant to provide a space where people are listened to. Learn to walk in their shoes.

Check-in questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” — Voltaire

There are as many check-in questions as teams on earth. Here are a few that have proven to be very effective in my personal experience:

What has got your attention? — This question allows people to focus on what their mind is up to. Are you distracted by a personal problem, another meeting, or thinking about the baseball game that’s happening right now? This question gives people room to decide how personal, or not, they want to go.

What are you bringing to this meeting? — This question invites participants to reflect on how each one contributes to the team. You bring your mental state, your issues and solutions to a particular project. You have superpowers and kryptonite that affects how you interact with other team members. People can build on any of these specific areas to answer the question.

What kind of a day have you had so far today? — This question is similar to the previous one but focuses on the day rather than on the person. It’s safer, but also creates some detachment which can limit in-depth awareness.

I prefer the second question. I believe vulnerability makes teams more powerful: Addressing the issues the most direct way possible accelerates trust. But not every organization is the same. Try different approaches, see what works for your team.

The spirit behind check-in is what matters the most. You want to increase self and team awareness. Regardless, if the approach is playful, intellectualized or emotional, everyone needs to play (with the same rules).

Try it for client meetings

Include check-in in client meetings. I’ve coached some teams to do so and it’s powerful. When clients play with the same rules, they become part of your team. Also, tensions with corporate clients are sometimes driven by misunderstandings. When a client tells you that she just argued with her husband, it makes a difference. Not only do you become more understanding, but it strengthens the trust and relationships.

Add closing rounds to your meetings. Finish with the same spirit that the session started. It brings clarity on agreements and next steps. One of the reasons why most meetings are a waste of time is that people leave the room without clarity. The closing round should address everyone’s mindset on how the meeting went.

Role model behavior. People will feel uncomfortable first. As a leader, you have to take the leap and dive deeper than anyone else. Your team will test your genuine commitment to change. Be patient. If you want your team to take check-in seriously, you need to expose yourself. Not just sharing what’s keeping you distracted but the “why.”

Remember, check-ins are anything but a distraction. Increasing self-awareness moves your team from not paying attention to having focus. Understanding the mindset each brings to the table, makes meetings more productive.

What’s got your attention? Share your thoughts.