Check ins improve psychological safety and participation

As agile coaches we facilitate workshops, meetings and sessions every week. Most often, we use check ins at the very beginning of meetings. It is an easy way to improve meetings and build trust between team members. In this article we’ll explain why and give you some examples of questions you can test with your team.


Check in's

You host a meeting and ask a question to the attendees. Dead silence. No one speaks up. You probably know the feeling. It makes meetings dull and collaboration tough. And yes, we all struggle to speak up at times. Specially in a hybrid world, where it’s harder to read physical and social cues.

A short check is a short exercise used to “kickstart” the meeting. Every team member answers the same question or exercise. As members do the exercise, they check in to the meeting and are “warmed up” for the coming session.

For keep things simple, we call all check-ins, warm-ups, energizers etc. for check-ins. What’s important is that the exercise is fit for purpose. Some of the are social and fun, others energizing and some engage the brain and connect people to the topic.

When we use check-ins, we usually tend to think they serve two different purposes:

Build trust & reinforce social connections in the team

Tre ulike håndtegnede fargerike skisser som på ulike vis forteler at vi har følelse inne i oss, selv om de ikke synes på utsiden

Feeling safe is feeling the presence of connection to other humans, to quote Stephen Porges. Check-ins create and strengthen the feelings of connections; hence they will help build the foundation for high performing teams.

An organization’s ability to innovate is tied to its social connections between the members of the organization, and in the teams. Building trust and working with psychological safety is acknowledged as the foundation for high performing teams. People and teams who feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions and challenging status quo without fear of negative social consequences is positive for the overall innovation capabilities. These organizations are more likely to innovate quickly and increase their ability to change.

Sharing a personal piece of information of yourself helps the other team members get a better understanding of who you are, what you feel, how you think, reason, and react. Regularly check-ins are micro-steps of building interpersonal trust within the team and reinforcing the social connections in the team.

Make everybody speak up, early on

The longer people stay silence in a meeting, the harder it is for them to speak up. And since the purpose of a meeting most often is human interaction, we want people to chip in. This enhances the power of the team which is driven by the joint intelligence of the group.

Check-ins prime the team for just this. They make people talk early in meetings and lowers the bar for contributing and talking later. After people speak once, they are more likely to participate again. Making people contribute and speaking up increases the team’s collective intelligence. An early check-in makes the team smarter.

The right to pass

Mann som holder hånden foran ansiktet. Konturene av mannen er synlig, men fokuset på på hånden som signaliserer "stopp"

Right to pass is a Sharon Bowman technique, and it basically means that if someone don’t want to participate in an activity, they have the right to pass. Every team member has the right to pass check ins (or other activities) in the meetings. All they need to say is “I am going to pass on this one”. For this to work, there can be no judgement within the group. We have varied comfort zones, and it is impossible to know if we’re asking too much from a person. If someone doesn't want to take part, we’ll not force them.

In practice we find that people rarely use their right to pass. But providing it as an option give people the ability to choose, which in turns make people feel safer in the group.

If this day was …

As a facilitator, it’s a good idea to have several different check-ins to choose from to prevent people getting bored and to fit the question to the meetings purpose.

Our number one go to technique for check ins, is the “If this day was … [insert noun by your choice], what would it be?”

When answering the questions, we give a short explanation of why we’re answering the question that way. E.g. “My day is heavy rain because of…”

A list of If this day was … check-ins

  • If this day was a weather report, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a record, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a delicious food, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a sport, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a movie, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a cartoon, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a celebrity, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a drink, what would best describe your day?
  • If this day was a Holiday, what would best describe your day?

Armed with the “If this day was … check in”, you always got a check in ready. The easiest way to start is by using this question for some time but keep changing the noun to make it a bit more exciting.

Here’s a few more examples to get you started. Most of these is used to warm up workshops and collaborative meetings. Only your imagination sets boundaries for how to check in to a meeting.

A random list of check-ins we tend to use (depending on team & meeting purpose)

  • You must sing karaoke right now, what song do you pick?
  • 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s: Which decade best describes this your mood?
  • You’re going sail around the world, what’s the name of your boat?
  • What would your superpower be and why?
  • What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?
  • Google “Florida man” + “your date of birth” – share your favorite result with the team.
Skjermdump av nyhettsak om Florida-mann som ble bitt av krokodille etter å ha hoppet inn til krokodiller
  • The zombie apocalypse is coming, what 3 things do you bring to the bunker?
  • You have your own late night talk show today, who do you invite as your first guest?
  • You can add anyone to Mount Rushmore, who would it be and why?
  • You are about to compete as a wrestler, what is your stage/artist’s name?
  • Just today you can turn into any cartoon character, who would you choose and why?
  • If you could be any supernatural creature, what would you be and why?

Hope you found this article useful. Feel free to keep the conversations going.