Frequently Asked Questions – and Answers! – about Check-ins
1. My check-ins mostly consist of going over project updates. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just have staff members email me status reports?
You definitely shouldn’t spend much time in check-ins on project updates. Instead, ask your staff members to include quick bulleted updates in the written agenda they email you ahead of time, so that you can read the updates before the meeting – and can instead spend your check-in time on the items that truly require back-and-forth conversation.
Before a check-in, ask yourself: What are you trying to get out of this meeting? What are the items you’re most concerned about? Then, as much as possible, focus your time on those items – not status updates!
2. Is it okay to save up most conversations with a staff member for our check-ins in order to avoid interruptions the rest of the week?
Well, check-ins aren’t meant to substitute for ongoing communication. While you might save big strategic conversations for your check-ins, make sure that you stay accessible the rest of the week. You don’t want staff members to be stalled on their work for several days while they wait for your check-in if a few minutes with you would allow them to move forward.
3. I have a lot of contact with my staff most days, so would there be any point to doing formal check-ins as well?
One of the advantages of check-ins is that they help you step out of the day-to-day back-and-forth and ask big questions like, “what progress are we making on X?” They also give you time for debriefing projects, giving big-picture feedback, and other things that might not happen in the rush of day-to-day work.
4. I have some staff members who work remotely. How do I do check-ins when I can’t meet with them in person?
It’s fine to just do your check-in meetings by phone. Be religious about scheduling and keeping these calls; when you’re working in separate locations, you’re less likely to talk regularly if you leave things ad hoc. So create a schedule and be vigilant about sticking to it!
5. Sometimes I leave check-in meetings with more items on my to-do list and fewer on my staff member’s! I want to check in, but it seems to increase my workload every time. What am I doing wrong?
Drawing on a famous piece in the Harvard Business Review, we often tell managers to think of each project or task as a monkey someone is carrying around on their back. When you assign a project, you’re handing over the monkey. After that, you need to be careful not to “take the monkey back” by stepping in to do pieces of the work (or all of it!) yourself. So for instance, if you see that an email campaign isn’t working well, don’t take the monkey back by rewriting it. Instead, after you talk with your staff member about the elements that need to change, they should do the rewrite – so the monkey stays on their back and doesn’t hop back to yours.
Check-ins are a great time to practice not taking the monkey back. When you’re tempted to step in and take on your staff member’s work, try phrases like these:
- “What do you think?”(In fact, you might make this your mantra!)
- “What you are leaning toward?”
- “Can we talk through how we might change this, and then have you revise the draft based on that?”
- “What do you think a good solution would be?”
- “How do you think we should approach it?”
That said, sometimes the next steps that come out of check-ins will be yours. But they should be in the vein of reviewing the staff member’s draft or giving feedback on work, rather than doing their work. (The exception to this is if it’s a piece that truly only you can do, such as calling an important donor.)
6. Asking my staff members to use a standardized check-in agenda template feels micromanagey to me, especially for more senior staff members.
Most people find it helpful to have a template to work from, no matter how senior they are, and it also helps you, the manager, by ensuring that specific categories of topics are covered (such as upcoming priorities and debriefing recent projects).
But if a staff member seems resistant, you can suggest trying it for a month and revisiting it if it’s not working well by then. Additionally, let staff members know that they’re welcome to suggest an alternative or to adjust the template to better fit their context (and that should help with buy-in as well).
7. I manage several staff members who do similar work. Is it okay to do one big check-in meeting with all of them, rather than meeting individually?
Group meetings work well for communication and coordination, but not for individual management, where you’ll be giving feedback and really delving into the details of each person’s work. Instead, save staff meetings for conversations that truly involve the entire group and set aside time to regularly talk individually with each person.
8. I’d love to hold weekly check-ins, but my schedule is packed. How do I find the time?
It’s okay to consider context and other demands on your time, and it’s fine to use a schedule that you can more easily accommodate rather than feeling that you absolutely must spend one hour every week with every person on your team. For instance, you might hold check-ins every other week rather than weekly, depending on the people you’re managing and the needs of the work. And you can switch things up; when things are moving quickly, such as in the final weeks of a campaign, you might meet several times a week, but only meet weekly in slower times. And if a staff member is fairly autonomous, you might meet less frequently, such as every few weeks.
 William Oncken Jr. and Donald Wass, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” Harvard Business Review, November–December 1999.