One Simple Practice to Bring Your Team Together

user Sarah Holliman
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In a world where business decisions are being made over Zoom calls and emails, the ability to truly connect with other team members has been minimized at best. When your work environment no longer allows for coffee runs, lunch dates, in-office collaboration, and even small talk, relationship building takes a backseat to simply getting things done. Yet, now—more than ever—it is critically important to create and sustain these connections.

Let’s face it, in today’s shelter-in-place environment, it makes sense to become even more task-oriented than we might otherwise be inclined. We are all juggling the realities of working from home with competing responsibilities, including childcare, education, elder care, cleaning, and more. Addressing these multiple demands (sometimes simultaneously) is requiring us to do more in less time, making transactional interactions between co-workers necessary and useful for exchanging basic data. Transactional interactions alone, however – while highly efficient – are also measured and detached.  And when prolonged, the absence of sufficient interpersonal communication can leave room for misinterpretation and even lead to feelings of diminishment. At the end of the day, the trade-off in a largely transactional environment is real human connection across your entire system (e.g., team or organization)…the ramifications of which can wield a long-term impact on trust, culture, and ultimately, performance.

So how can you thoughtfully and systematically build authentic relationships across your team when any interaction requires an appointment? Start by holding regular team meetings purely with the intent of “checking in.” The idea of a team check-in is deceptively simple, yet highly impactful when implemented with the right intent, modeled by the most senior members of the team, and held regularly. Particularly in moments rife with uncertainty and anxiety, having a safe container for sharing concerns and showing vulnerability is an extremely valuable way to connect with your team, create space to listen, and build deep, trusting, and authentic relationships that can stand the test of time.

For many years, we’ve introduced the “Relationship Check-In” (or Check-in Circle) to senior teams whether they’re engaged with us in high-stakes business transformation consulting efforts or as part of some of the deeper leadership development work that we do. This process invites your team to practice authentic sharing and deep listening by providing personal responses to a simple prompt. In a 3D world, the best check-ins are held while seated in chairs situated around a circle with no table in the middle, and ideally, no phones or devices allowed. If anything, the pandemic has proven that this exercise can be just as effective in a virtual environment.

At Trium, we hold a team check-in circle every week and have been doing so for many years. Team members, without fail, cite this one-hour weekly tradition as a treasured and integral part of our connected culture. These suggestions can guide you through your own weekly check-in process.

  • Establish ground rules – For the relationship check-in to be successful, team members must have the experience of being part of a sacred and safe space. This requires:
    • Confidentiality – agree that what is said in the circle, stays in the circle;
    • Authenticity – allow people to share what is on their mind without judgment, and if they would rather “pass,” support that too; and
    • Empathy – gift team members with the experience of being seen, heard, and understood. Let them speak without interruption, with no cross-talk or commentary.
  • Frame the exercise and choose a clear, relatable prompt – In our weekly circles at Trium, we often revisit the question, “What’s present for me personally and professionally is…” as this provides space for all team members to share whatever is most prevalent in their worlds at that time.
  • Don’t rehearse – Share what comes up for you in that moment. The power of a check-in is that it slows you down enough to provide you access to your internal world – and then additionally, provides others insight into the “real” you too. If you spend too much time strategically planning what you are going to say, you inadvertently give up the opportunity to be vulnerable and authentic – not to mention, you’re then not fully listening and being there for others! Many people at Trium start with, “What’s coming up for me right now…” which demonstrates that even though there are many ways that they could have answered the prompt, they are simply sharing what is in their heart in that point in time.
  • Assign the prompt to a different team member each week – Once your team becomes facile with this approach, you can get creative by providing each team member the chance to lead a circle and come up with their own prompt, as desired. Potential check-in questions can range from how you are (really) doing to providing greater insight into who you are as a person or what your thoughts are on a given topic, such as:
    • One thing I am truly grateful for in these times is…
    • Something that is currently draining me is… Something that is currently energizing me is…
    • One leader or leadership experience that has shaped me is…
    • A passion of mine that others might not know about me is…
    • Someone on this team I genuinely want to appreciate is…
  • Agree on a common rhythm – Suggest at the beginning that each person shares for a certain amount of time (usually no more than 2-3 minutes) based on the number of people participating. After the prompt is shared, give people a minute to gather their thoughts, then ask for a volunteer to go first. If you are sitting in a circle, go clockwise from the first person. If you are in a virtual environment, go alphabetically by first name following the first person who starts. The first few times, you may want to make sure someone models the exercise so that people understand what’s expected. If ground rules are in place, and the first person to speak shares deeply and authentically, this inevitably sets the tone for the rest of the group to follow. Use the phrase, “With that, I’m in” to signal to the next person that you are complete.
  • Modify the check-in for different scenarios – Check-ins can be adapted for many different situations. For example, there may be times when you need to urgently share information with your team and don’t have the time for a full check-in. In this context, one-word check-ins can be equally powerful and inspiring, e.g. “My intention going into this session is…” As another such example, check-ins can be shared yet unspoken – particularly relevant when you want to create space for a large number of people to share in a compressed period of time: “In the chatbox, share one phrase that describes how you are feeling after hearing this update from the team.

A relationship check-in is not intended to be a substitute for 1:1 communication. Person-to-person conversations will always be important. In these particular times, however, as people are seeking greater connection, check-in circles can both supplement 1:1s and demonstrate a company-wide commitment to developing authentic working relationships. Our clients tell us consistently that relationship check-ins have unlocked potential in their organizations by enabling deeper levels of trust, communication, and unity. Moreover, check-ins build a foundational sense of psychological safety and foster an appreciation for belonging to a community. By regularly inviting empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability into group dialogues, team members are able to strengthen bonds that help dissolve defensiveness.

In our experience, these sacred rituals have become highly anticipated weekly events that offer profound moments of connectedness. While transactional interaction will always have its place, it’s never been so important to be in relationship with your entire team. Give the check-in process a try over the next few months and reap the benefits for many years to come.

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