In today’s ever-changing world of work, the need for real-time feedback and support has never been greater. That’s why forward-thinking organisations are ditching the annual appraisal and replacing it with performance check-ins.
When done right, check-ins have the potential to transform the performance management process, boost engagement and productivity, and humanise the relationship between managers and employees.
But they aren’t guaranteed to succeed. If the manager is unable to handle the human side of people management, or if the employee goes in with the wrong attitude, the check-in process will fail.
This guide offers some handy tips to help both managers and employees get the most out of check-ins.
A bit of background …
If you’ve suffered through annual appraisals, you’ll know that they are no longer fit for purpose. Not only is it ridiculous to give feedback just once a year, but the whole process is also time-consuming and expensive as well.
In fact, given that annual appraisals are more likely to demoralise than engage, you could say they are a complete waste of time, money, and resources.
But it hasn’t always been that way. In the middle of the twentieth century, when the annual appraisal was first introduced, it made perfect sense to provide feedback on a yearly basis.
Back then, work was repetitive, steady, and predictable. Most people performed the same task over and over, day after day. There simply wasn’t the need for more regular feedback.
Today, however, work is defined by constant change, varied jobs, and project work. To stay on track, employees need ongoing feedback, support, and guidance – something only check-ins can provide.
What are check-ins?
Check-ins are regular, informal meetings between employees and managers, where both parties discuss progress, goals, and personal development – and any issues that may be affecting these.
Instead of happening on a set date, they take place when they are needed. This way, you can discuss and resolve issues as they arise, and continuously align work with personal and organisational goals.
Here are just some of the benefits that check-ins bring for employees, managers, and organisations:
- Provide feedback and support in real-time
- Address issues as they arise
- Constantly realign work with goals
- Build better, more human relationships between employees and managers
- Improve communication, transparency, and information flow
- Empower employees to drive their personal and professional development
- Build a culture of trust, honesty, and openness
- Make work more engaging, productive, and enjoyable
Tips for managers
As a people manager, you have a huge effect on your reportees’ experience of work. This fact is summed up by the well-known saying: people leave bad managers, not bad jobs.
When it comes to performance management, the role you play is especially important – and never more so than with check-ins. Unlike the annual appraisal, a check-in is a human process. As such, it requires a genuine interest in the happiness, performance, and development of individual employees.
Check-ins may test even the most experienced manager, as they require a distinct set of skills that haven’t been a core requirement until now. These include the ability to listen, to empathise, and to understand the myriad different opinions, problems, and personality types that make up the average team.
While the transition from annual appraisals to check-ins will require time, planning, and training, you can increase your chances of success by following these tips.
All successful relationships are built on trust, and no more so than in the workplace. Without trust, the check-in process would fail before it started. After all, what good is feedback and advice from someone you don’t trust?
It is important that employees feel that you, as their manager, genuinely have their best interests at heart. It may take time to develop this level of trust – and longer for some than others – but the best way to do it is to lead by example.
This means exhibiting the characteristics you would like to see in the best employee: enthusiasm, an interest in others, and a willingness to help whenever called upon.
It is also important to practice what you preach. If what you say and what you do are aligned, people will learn to trust your character and integrity.
Trust works both ways, of course. This means letting go of the urge to micromanage and interfere, and trusting your team to do their jobs well.
A check-in shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but rather as a continuation of previous conversations. It is important that you return to issues discussed in earlier check-ins, to ensure that problems have been resolved and progress is being made.
This involves a degree of preparation, or at least an excellent memory. If you arrive at a check-in with no idea what the employee is working on, and no recollection of the issues you discussed with them in previous check-ins, they’ll soon lose faith in the process and your ability as a manager.
Technology can help here – either by providing a place to record the outcomes of check-ins or by generating relevant talking points and insights based on employee-specific data.
Learn to listen
Managers are used to being assertive and taking the lead, but check-ins require a different approach. This is about the employee, and so their opinions, thoughts, and concerns are of paramount importance.
Research by The Harvard Business Review has revealed that the more you listen to employees, the better they think you are at giving feedback, and so the more likely they are to trust what you say.
On top of this, listening to your team members reinforces the fact that check-ins are not an exercise in powerplay, but a chance for two adults to meet on equal terms. This process should flatten any perceived hierarchy between the two parties, and allow them to talk openly and without fear.
Have meaningful conversations
Although check-ins are about the employee, it is your responsibility as a manager to ensure that the conversation stays on track. If an employee has little to say, or simply hasn’t given enough thought to the issues they want to discuss, it is your job to guide the check-in in the right direction.
Having a list of key talking points can provide a check-in with a logical structure and flow. Adobe, for example, believes that successful check-ins centre around three elements: expectations, feedback, and growth and development.
The expectations element covers goal setting, tracking and reviewing, and helps ensure that the employee’s work is aligned with goals at all times. The feedback element involves discussing past performance and identifying areas in which they can improve. The growth and development element is a chance to outline the training and experience that the employee needs to progress.
Together, these three elements form the backbone of a successful and meaningful check-in – and offer something to return to if the conversation drifts off course.
Bridge the personal and professional
When building authentic relationships with your reportees, one of the biggest challenges you face as a manager is finding the right balance between the personal and the professional.
Check-ins require a more human approach than traditional performance management processes, but work is still a professional environment.
Some managers become too pally with their team in an attempt to gain their trust, or simply to be liked. But too much of this and the relationship can veer into unprofessional territory. On the other hand, maintaining a distant, formal, and purely professional approach could stifle the check-in process completely.
As you can see, this is a tough art to perfect, and there’s no one right way to act or be. All any manager can do is to approach their job in a manner that commands respect while remaining authentic, approachable, and human.
It helps to get to know your reportees beyond the professional façade of their jobs and to take an interest in their lives outside of work. Likewise, be more than a job title yourself. This will naturally shift your relationship from a purely professional one to something more personal.
Remember that everyone is different
It goes without saying that no two people are the same, and this simple fact gives your job a level of complexity that is perhaps impossible to master. You cannot become a mind reader, after all.
The key here is to know that everyone is different, and not to expect one approach to work with everyone. By genuinely listening to your reportees’ thoughts, ideas, and concerns, as well as observing the way they work and interact with others, you should get a fairly good idea of what makes them tick.
It is also important to accept that a diverse workforce includes diverse characters and personalities. Some people are outgoing and talkative, while others are quiet and introverted. Some respond well to constructive criticism, while others need a softer touch.
Rather than asking people to behave in a way that is unnatural to them, you should encourage them to be the best version of themselves – whatever that may be.
Ask for feedback yourself
Check-ins are a great way to introduce real-time feedback, but this doesn’t have to be a one-way process. After all, the whole point of feedback is to gain insights into performance, ultimately allowing you to improve at what you do.
As a manager, you might be doing too much of something, while neglecting something else. Unless someone tells you, you may never know. And who better to tell you than the people you manage?
Of course, you should also have your own check-ins with your own line managers, where you can focus on your personal development and needs. But a check-in with an employee is also an excellent opportunity to understand what they need from you.
Tips for employees
Let’s be honest, traditional performance management practices did little to involve or engage you as an employee. If you’ve ever sat through an annual appraisal, or been ranked on a 1-to-5 scale to summarise your efforts, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Check-ins offer a completely different approach. Rather than satisfying a bureaucratic need, this is a process designed for you, in which you play a central role. Instead of being a bystander in your own performance review, you are now an active participant.
While this means a greater say in your own progress and development, it also means greater responsibility – the success of check-ins largely depends on how you approach them.
To ensure you hit the ground running, we’ve put together the following tips designed to help you make the most of the check-in process.
Forget old ideas about the employee-manager relationship
For many of us, work means a hierarchical organisation with a clear chain of command from top to bottom. In this type of structure, the employee-manager relationship is naturally unbalanced. When the two meet, it is the manager’s job to talk, and the employee’s job to listen.
With check-ins, there’s no room for this old dynamic. Instead, you and your manager meet on the same terms, with the same goal in mind – to make your experience of work better. This means working together as a team and as equals.
So before you go into a check-in, forget any old ideas you have about the employee-manager dynamic. Remember that you are an equal party in this meeting and that your voice and opinions matter.
Along with trust, perhaps the two most important ingredients for a successful check-in are honesty and openness. This process isn’t just about receiving feedback, but also getting to the bottom of any issues you may be experiencing at work. That means shining a light on all those aspects of work you find difficult, problematic, or downright frustrating.
Sounds simple enough, right? But in fact, it’s probably the opposite of what most of us are used to doing at work. Like many employees, you may be more accustomed to putting on a brave face than discussing work-related problems – even if they are making you miserable, or stopping you from being at your productive best.
Check-ins demand a different approach, where both you and your manager discuss how work is really going, and then work together to make it more enjoyable and productive. For this to work, you have to be honest and upfront from the start.
Take ownership of your development
You may also be used to taking a passive role in our own professional development, where training is thrust upon you, and other people tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are without asking for your input.
Unsurprisingly, many employees feel like there is very little interest in their professional development – like the only way to move forward in their careers is to move on.
Check-ins are different. Rather than being a mere recipient of advice and feedback, you get to play a lead role in your own development. This means not only discussing how work is going but also the direction you want to be heading – and the skills you need to get there.
See problems as potential solutions
The modern workplace can sometimes seem cold, unforgiving, and strangely competitive. Everyone is so busy trying to prove how capable they are that the idea of having problems or failing in some way, seems too risky to entertain.
This is because we’ve learned to associate problems and failures with weakness. Successful people don’t have problems, and they never fail. We’d sooner pretend that everything is fine than admit that we are struggling.
But this attitude has things the wrong way around. Every time we have a problem, there is an opportunity to fix it – to make work better. Every time we fall short, we have an opportunity to take stock, reflect, and see what we could do better next time.
These moments contain the seed of positive change and true growth. So rather than skirting around problems, discuss them during your check-ins. This is the only way things will improve.
Be willing to take constructive criticism
Remember that honesty runs both ways; not only should you feel able to speak your mind in a check-in, so should your manager. Of course, criticism should always be given in a constructive and supportive manner, as a way of improving your performance and experience of work.
Sometimes even the most constructive criticism can feel like a personal attack. But this is just an error of perception. If your manager only ever told you how great you are, you’d never learn anything new.
The truth is that other people’s opinions are important. They allow us to see things from a totally different angle. Ultimately, these different viewpoints help us to better understand our work, and the action we need to take to move forward.
Take responsibility for the process
The beauty of check-ins is that instead of happening on a set date, they happen as and when they are needed. For this reason, both you and your manager should be able to schedule a check-in at any time.
Not only are you jointly responsible for ensuring that check-ins take place, but also that talking points are followed up in future check-ins, and that you are satisfied with the outcomes of these conversations. If you aren’t satisfied, bring it up with your manager.
After all, check-ins aren’t just another administrative box-ticking exercise for you to sit through, but a dynamic process designed for – and performed by – you.