The Engagement Secret: Cisco’s Discovery to Drive Team Success

One-on-ones really work, but only if you run them the right way.

Teams that run the right meetings at the right times outperform other teams. As CEO of a company dedicated to helping teams run successful meetings, I know this to be true from personal experience, from copious academic research, and from mountains of anecdotal evidence. Large scale data, however, has been thin on the ground. 

That’s why I was thrilled to learn about research at Cisco highlighted in the new book Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. In it, the authors claim that a weekly check-in between the team leader and team members made a significant difference in a team’s collective engagement scores. 

This matters, because engagement scores are highly correlated with performance. People who say their work is meaningful, appropriately challenging, and appreciated do better work and stick around longer. 

In short, engaged teams create more value at a lower cost. Working as part of an engaged team is also way more fun. That’s winning all around. I spoke with Goodall, currently SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco, about exactly how they achieved this result. Here’s what they found.

1. The team member takes the first step.

In the past, team leaders scheduled one-on-ones and set the agenda, often requiring team members to report progress since the last check-in. Each meeting took 30 to 60 minutes, so most were held no more than once a month.

It turns out asking people to account for themselves every 30 days or so doesn’t make anyone happy. Go figure.

At Cisco, they flipped the check-in. Instead of the leader requiring a report, the team member decides what gets shared. Once a week, team members can choose to send the leader written the answers to two check-in questions:

  • What are your priorities this week?
  • How can I help?

This puts the focus on the real work the team’s doing right now, and on those areas where the manager can do the most good by helping out. 

2. Team leaders respond.

The Cisco team members send their written check-in. The system then shows if the team leader reads these answers and gives the leader a way to reply in writing. It also tracks if they have a one-on-one meeting to talk about it.

When Cisco first introduced the system, many teams embraced it and enjoyed the hoped-for engagement boost. Others, though, let it slide. 

If a team leader asked their team to check-in once or twice but didn’t push it if they didn’t, there was no engagement boost. Similarly, if a team member checked-in but the leader didn’t reply, the team member stopped checking in; again, no improvement. 

The engagement boost only happens when team members regularly check-in and regularly get a reply. How regularly? At least once per week.

Also, while knowing that your team lead read your check-in helps, a direct reply means much more. A live conversation works best. Once they had data showing these weekly one-on-ones reliably boosted team engagement and performance, Cisco took the next step.

3. The business ties meeting performance to job performance. 

Explicitly calling out meeting performance as a job expectation is one of the game-changing practices we’ve identified across many organizations with a high-performance meeting culture. 

When Cisco saw the power of the well-designed weekly check-in, they too found a way to hold people accountable for this performance. They set an expectation that team leaders needed to reply to at least 80 percent of check-ins within a week.

Now, the number of check-ins getting replies is up to 92 percent. 

Engagement comes with frequency of care.

As I spoke with Goodall about Cisco’s work, he mentioned many times that the key was frequency of attention. He’s currently experimenting with the format of team meetings to see how increasing the frequency of positive attention between team members impacts engagement. 

Smaller-scale studies at the University of Michigan found that “High performing organizations have three times more positive energizers than average organizations,” including positive attention exchanged in one-on-ones.

Strip out the academic language and what you see is simply, fundamentally human.

We are most engaged and do our best work when we know that the people around us care. We know people care about us and what we’re doing because they show us they care in their responses. We believe they care because they show us not once, not sometimes, but frequently. 

As Cisco’s data shows, a weekly check-in is one great way to ensure a healthy frequency of care in your team. I can’t wait to see what they discover when they really dig into the team cadence meetings.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the percent of check-ins Cisco team leaders were expected to reply to within a week. The expectation is 80 percent.

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