“If you were a vegetable, which vegetable would you be?” It’s Thursday, 4 p.m., and the last team meeting of the week has just begun. I ask this question and look at the astonished faces of my team. While I would be broccoli, a colleague naturally answers, “An onion, as she is multi-faceted, like myself.” What a great answer.
But let’s take another step back. Why do I ask such a question at the beginning of a meeting? Why do I take precious meeting time for such a topic when there are much more important things to discuss?
Trust as foundation
The answer is simple. As a Team Lead, I want to build a high-performing team. In his book “The five dysfunctions of a team” Patrick Lencioni describes trust as the foundation for any high-performing team. Trust is necessary for teamwork to be possible.
What does trust mean?
In the context of team building, trust is the confidence of team members that each other’s intentions are good and that there is no need to be protective or cautious of the group. It is an invitation to show your vulnerability and to be comfortable with it. Being genuinely vulnerable also means showing weaknesses, shortcomings, interpersonal inadequacies and mistakes, and asking for help.
Building vulnerability-based trust is a challenging task. It cannot be achieved overnight. It needs shared experiences over time, credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of each team member.
How can vulnerability-based trust help?
According to P. Lencioni, members of a trusting team can openly admit weaknesses and mistakes. They ask for and offer help more often. They accept questions about their area of responsibility, look forward to working together as a group, and appreciate the different skills and experiences in the team. This leads to teams being able to discuss conflicts more openly and fosters commitment and accountability.
Building vulnerability-based trust in the remote world
With the start of the pandemic and working from home, I was looking for a tool that
- helps me building vulnerability-based trust,
- is easy to use remotely but also in person,
- doesn’t take a lot of time,
- creates a shared, repeatable experience as a team,
- and supports an in-depth understanding of each other.
I quickly found my answer: Check in!
What is a Check-in?
A check-in is a ritual at the beginning of the meeting. It allows all participants to arrive at the meeting and creates context for each other. This means that everyone knows how the others are like.feel.
Typical questions that each person can answer are: “How am I today?” or “What has my attention?”
How do I use Check-ins, and what is the outcome?
I started using Check-in questions at the beginning of every team meeting. First, I used questions like “How are you today?” and “How was your week?”. I quickly became bolder and started asking more creative, personal, or reflective questions, like
- Pick an object that you have with you and talk about why it’s important to you.
- What’s the biggest challenge you want to overcome over the next few weeks?
- What scent reminds you of your childhood?
The feedback on introducing this ritual has been terrific on every team. Team members were looking forward to the next joint meetings. We got to know each other bit by bit and learned about our preferences. Sometimes we became very personal. Step by step, trust was built up, especially evident when we talked more openly about challenges and support. We were able to discuss controversial topics easier.
My top learnings for using Check-ins to build trust
Of course, the introduction of this ritual was challenging. That is why I would like to share my learnings with you.
Leaders go first!
Leaders should always answer first. They set the level of the answer and open up the space to get personal.
Nominate the next one
To avoid silence and not prolong the exercise unnecessarily, it is helpful to nominate the next person to answer.
Adjust the agenda
Depending on the number of people to join the meeting, I plan 5–7 minutes for the check-in and adjust the agenda accordingly.
It’s okay if someone doesn’t want to answer
Sometimes a question might be surprisingly personal for someone, and it’s completely okay if this person doesn’t feel comfortable answering. This should be completely fine. Sometimes people need more time to open up, and sometimes they set a boundary for themselves around the topic of the question.
Take a turn
As a team lead or meeting organizer, it’s not your responsibility to prepare every time the check-in question. As soon as it is a habit, take a turn so that everyone can have the pleasure of preparing one.
Share the question before
After a while, I got into the habit of sharing the next check-in question with the agenda ahead of the meeting. This makes it easy for the participants to answer, and they can already reflect for themselves.
My favorite resources
You can find a lot of lists and resources by searching for the term “check-in question”. My favorite website is Checkin Daresay. In addition, I love the game Where should I begin, the book Eine gute Frage (in German), and the game Darf ich dich das fragen? (in German).
- For building high-performing teams, vulnerability-based trust is essential.
- Building trust takes work. It takes time, shared experiences, credibility, and an in-depth understanding of each other.
- Check-in questions are a simple tool to build a routine to get to know each other and build trust step-by-step.