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The Dark Side of Checklists

Do You Love Checklists As Much As I Do? 

Over the 4th of July, Erin and I each took some time off to spend with family and friends.  While the distances we traveled were different (Erin and her family headed to the East Coast to hit the beach and my family headed to a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota),I realized that we both used a similar tool to get planned and ready for the trips — CHECKLISTS.  We typed checklists, wrote checklists, had multiple checklists going at the same time (at least I did) and most importantly, checked things OFF the check lists (it feels so good!).  

Don’t get me wrong: checklists are great. They make sure you remember things like toothbrushes, swimsuits, underwear. They help us to plan for contingencies, too and can quickly remind us what we might be missing. Their intent is to reduce stress.  Many of us do this at work, too. These checklists help us manage the scope of our jobs that seem to get bigger and bigger, and make sure we remember everything and keep everything straight.

The Dark Side of Checklists

There is a dark side to checklists.  The intent of the checklist is to reduce stress and make sure we remember everything, so that by the time we get to where we are going we can focus on the IMPORTANT stuff, like spending time with family and friends.  However, the dark side of checklists is that in many cases the checklists become the FOCUS, rather than being a tool to help us focus on what is REALLY IMPORTANT. I can get so caught up in checking items off my list that I forget that I am doing all of this so I can play games with my kiddos and spend time with friends.  

The dark side of checklists shows up at work too.  I have especially seen this show up in human resources.  We want to have good processes that allow us to remember the details AND make sure we can truly FOCUS on what’s important: like building strong relationships with our employees, listening to our employees, engaging our employees.  

But it’s all too easy for the checklist to become the focus.  We focus on completing the form, submitting the paperwork, checking the box.  And when we do that, we don’t just lose focus on what’s important. Instead, we actually lose ground with our employees. Employees start to feel like a number rather than someone who is valued for the work they do. Just like that, the purpose and intent of our checklists is lost and we find ourselves causing damage.

Maintain Your Focus on What’s Important

This doesn’t mean that we should get rid of processes or checklists.  It does mean that we focus on making sure we don’t lose focus on what’s important.  Next time you write a checklist or complete a process (especially one you do often), make sure to stop, step back and think about WHY the checklist is in place.  Why is this process so IMPORTANT? What are the RESULTS I’m trying to drive by having this in the first place? If it isn’t clear, or if you find the focus is more on the checklist, then that is your red flag to step back, reevaluate, and put the focus back on your original purpose.

Do you find that you are going through the motions and checking boxes on your HR processes?  If so, it may be time for a step back to identify why it’s important and how to maintain your focus. 

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