The Power of the Check-in: Keeping Employees Motivated and On-Point

Is there anything more maddening as an employee than hearing from your manager that you’re not making progress as they’d like? Especially when you’re running fast AF from the moment you first check your email to the moment when you shut it down at night?

As an experienced executive reporting to the C-Suite, I wrongly believed that I knew how to counter it. Simply said…just stay checked in about priorities. Right? Easy!

But what happens when your manager/leader is too busy to keep your check-ins? In the best case, the leader is “sure you’re on track” and with an over-filled schedule decides your weekly meeting is the expendable one. In the worst case, the leader is just too distracted and doesn’t think about it that much.

Let’s continue the picture a little further down the road.

Employee A has done the hard work of establishing a regular check-in schedule, documenting targets and milestones achieved. The employee identifies barriers in a timely way and raises them to the leader’s attention, using appropriate communication tools to do so (first email, then texting, next phone calls, finally drop-ins). The employee carries on after not getting any feedback, certain that at this point (and after so many pings) that the leader has the info and now needs a solution. So by hook or by crook, the employee wrangles a solution, reports out (albeit to radio silence) and proceeds — feeling trusted and valuable.

And as leaders, we wonder where motivation goes and how we can boost productivity and meet sales goals (which might or might not have ever even been communicated). 

Finally, a check-in happens, and the poor employee isn’t met with appreciation or accolades for having solved the problem and kept the target on track best as possible. The employee is instead met with some amount of disregard for having spent so much time focused on something that isn’t even a priority anymore. “Why were you working on X when we needed to get Y prepped and out the door for the Z summit in two weeks??!! When I didn’t respond, didn’t you get it?” The leader is aghast and irritated. Perhaps opportunities have been lost as a result.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of check-ins, the “Z Summit” wasn’t even on Employee A’s radar. At some point in the check-in gap, the leader had a crisis meeting with another division, decided at a dinner meeting to attend the Z Summit, and then proceeded with the product team to get the new features in place for the launch.

Guess who is in trouble? 

I’ll give you one guess…it’s NOT the leader.

This post is a plea not to the employees of the world, but to the employee-leaders…

Do NOT miss your check-ins. 

The point here is to establish the check-in as a key part of how employees maintain and understand the critical alignment they need to perform.

In the scenario above, I posit that the employee is in the right. The employee has been absent a leader’s attention and done his/her best to stay productive and solve problems using available knowledge and resources. Further, how do we think the employee now feels? How willing is the employee to carry on in the future with initiative and new ideas? It might take 6 months, but this employee will inevitably shut down his/her idea factory and become, as my husband says, one of the “grey mice.” 

Not a whiskery, cute little white mouse with bright eyes, pink ears, and an inquisitive nature. But a plodding, grey, repetitive mouse in a maze of someone else’s creation, running each day through a given pattern, getting a shock or a treat, and then doing it all again the next day.

And as leaders, we wonder where motivation goes and how we can boost productivity and meet sales goals (which might or might not have ever even been communicated). We wonder where the buzz has gone and why people are eager to pack up their desks at the end of the day. We vow to talk to HR about how to bolster morale, and we create a new line item to fund a laser-tag outing. We might even add a milk-frother to the coffee area in the breakroom. We vow to spend more time “walking around” and talking informally with employees…after we get back from the board meeting, of course.


Employee morale is in large part based upon a couple of things: 1.) a paycheck. People work to earn money — reduced to its base, it’s a simple transaction. And 2.) Because they like and/or believe in the work being done. They feel fulfilled by the work they do, by the team they work with, and feel valued by the company/organization and challenged by their projects.

The key to number 2 above is the check-in. When a leader provides feedback in real-time and discusses with the employee the reasons for various goals/targets/directives, the employee forms a rounder, context-rich understanding. His/her role in advancing the project becomes clearer, and motivation deepens. The fabled story of two stone masons working on a wall comes to mind. To the inquiry, “What are you doing,” Stone Mason A answers “I’m laying bricks.” In contrast, Stone Mason B answers, “I’m building a cathedral.” 

Who is more fulfilled that day and in life?

While the discussion about how to align individual employees with large organizational goals is the subject of a future post, the point here is to establish the check-in as a key part of how employees maintain and understand the critical alignment they need to perform.

Here’s a quick list of reasons why the check-in should be a critical part of your leadership life:

  • Your employees feel valuable and worthy of your time. Believe me, they know you are busy. Make time to hear their voices and provide feedback, even if you feel under pressure. Under few conditions should you take other calls during these times or keep checking the clock. Standard etiquette rules apply about being with whom you’re with. But, as executives, we are too busy to be polite, right? No, you’re not. You are never too busy or too important to be polite.
  • You settle into a regular dialogue with your team that ensures trust and accountability.
  • Projects never get further off track than you are aware of. This is key. If weekly or bi-weekly check-ins aren’t enough to keep you in the know, then it’s a perfect opportunity to agree to parameters for how the employee can get your attention between times.
  • Your employee has confidence that he/she isn’t off track. This allows the employee to function with purpose and momentum. 
  • Your employee develop a sense of how other initiatives in the company sphere impact his/her projects. As adjustments to project timelines or desired outcomes are made, he/she forms a better picture of how the company’s cogs and wheels are interdependent. He/she understands how his/her work affects the work of others and grows the capacity to make better decisions accordingly. This in turn supports matrixing and reduces siloing — it improves communication and establishes cross-functional teams. It is the key to eliminating bottlenecks and pushing decision-making down. Which for you, means less time answering “annoying emails” and time spent on course correction.
  • Finally, overall productivity will soar, retention hits a new high, and sick days are a thing of the past.
On the other hand, a motivated employee is a catalyst for greatness.

When people lose their fear, they shed their grey mouse skin and the inquisitive, curious, purposeful, and innovative employee emerges. The employee arrives at the office (virtual or physical) fresh and ready to contribute. They apply their SME skills to situations and trends happening in the world around them.  While this can sometimes be off the mark, it is also the place where innovation comes from. A shut-down grey mouse can’t wait to stop thinking about the work of the office. No innovation happens in Grey-Mouseville. 

On the other hand, a motivated employee is a catalyst for greatness. There’s a great recent post by Marcel Schwantesin Inc. Magazine that talks about the power of “discretionary effort.” This is what you want to harness!

In  my case, I had to leave an organization because I didn’t want to work for a company where I wasn’t in the loop. It felt demoralizing and I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could choose to stay or go. The co-founders of the company operated as though their workers would be distracted by cross-functional meetings instead of informed. Check-ins seemed expendable. I went for more than six weeks one time where my weekly check-ins were cancelled/no-showed and not rescheduled. As an executive team member charged with some pretty lofty goals, there was no way for me to achieve them without up-to-date information about struggles, strategies, shifts in focus, and new priorities. The need to mitigate an impending cash-flow crunch could have led to an increased guerilla redirect from mass lead generation to pending sales closure and upselling existing customers. With the cash-flow crunch un-aired, the redirect never happened, and the inevitable misalignment of tactics to priorities was…well…inevitable. 

I have also had the experience of being the executive leader who cancelled check-ins. In one early case, I watched a bright, enthusiastic junior assistant begin to call in sick more often, take longer breaks, multi-task more during tasks that needed focus, and retreat inward. I viewed her role as assisting me, not of me assisting her…and if I didn’t need help that day, I cancelled the check-in. I forgot that my biggest role with her was to engage her in solutions and help her prioritize. When it came time for her yearly evaluation, I was a bit at a loss for how to deal with colleague reports that certain priorities and projects she’d been assigned to were left incomplete. I hadn’t known that she was often perceived by others as “adrift” and distracted. You can imagine the difficulty of the discussion, because we’ve all been counseled by HR (and logic) to get to the root cause of poor performance. I didn’t even know where to begin. 

Years later, I hold myself responsible for being inattentive and forgetting my role as mentor. I did not build the capacity with her that I’d imagined when we hired her, and I was a sloppy leader. There are things I wish she’d done to get my attention differently. But that loops us back to the beginning of this post where I described the things I tried to do when I was on the flipside, in a state of unchecked-in-ness myself. 

The employee-leader relationship is a dance like any other relationship. Currency and trust matter as much as compensation when it comes to employee motivation and performance. The check-in is a fantastic, simple tool to back this up. Do not substitute passive fixes like e-checkins, online platforms, reports for dialogue. Those tools are useful for tracking and charting evidence of progress, but they never substitute effectively for real check-ins.

Moral of the story…