Actions to take: Avoid statements implying that you will never judge your employees' work. Be open about the fact that part of your job is about checking up on whether they are successfully meeting expectations. Also also be the type of manager who explicitly checks in with employees and coaches them to more effective performance. Accept that the role of manager is a complex one, and do both.
Do you check-in with your employees, or do you check-up on them?
The former is non-judgmental. It is about making sure they have everything they need to get their work done. It is about convincing them to be candid with you about their shortcomings so that you can effectively help them improve. The latter is judgmental. It is about telling your employees what you think of their work. It is about ensuring the job is getting done to satisfactory standards.
This is the point where your inspirational management blogs will describe the horrors of being a check-up boss. "Foster an environment where your employees never feel criticized. They'll never fear any kind of reprisal or judgment about their work, so they will be far more likely to come to you for advice or to show you where they are having trouble. Stop the check-UP and focus on the check-IN!"
That is an over-simplification that will lead to disaster.
Managers are judging our employees' work. That is explicitly part of the job. If a boss tries to convince employees that all conversations are just check-in conversations, they are setting themselves up to betray their employees. The fallout will be enormous. Imagine it. Over and over, your boss says things to convince you that they're just here to help. They have no ulterior motive—they absolutely won't judge you in any way.
That boss has painted themselves into a corner. Eventually, they will have to do some kind of check-up. Maybe a deadline is past; maybe the employee is doing sub-par work in some area; or maybe it's just time for annual employee evaluations. The better they did at convincing employees that they're "just here to check in," the more two-faced they will seem when it comes to make some kind of judgment about the employee's work.
Instead, be honest with yourself and with your team. "As your boss, I'm here to help, and I am here to keep you on the right path. I hope that you will come to me for help on any and all of your work issues. I would like to offer my perspective and give you advice whenever you are wondering how to proceed with something. I am also here to check in on your work. Part of my job is making sure we all get our work done, which means I'll need to probe at your progress occasionally. The times when I need to do that are usually times when things aren't going perfectly for you, so it might be a sensitive subject. I will do my best to handle those conversations with grace. But there is no point in pretending that I'm only a guidance counselor for your work."
This check-in vs check-up dichotomy relates to two fundamental and much more talked-about concepts: coaching vs feedback. If your employee is consistently underperforming, feedback conversations and coaching conversations serve different purposes, but they are both important. For instance, they might consistently fail to meet deadlines. They need to know your opinion on the issue. You need to check-up on their progress at fixing the issue and communicate your judgment of their work by giving feedback. A helpful boss will also coach their employees to better performance. They will have check-in conversations with a non-judgmental tone to collaborate on finding ways to improve.
If you successfully communicate to your employees that your job is about checking-up and checking-in, you can often have both of these conversations in the very same meeting.
The average boss tends to default to one or the other. Either they're always checking-up, thereby creating an authoritarian environment where their employees see them as unhelpful, judgmental, and useless. Or they are always checking-in, thereby creating an environment where their employees see them as a fake friend who says one thing but does another (because the job ultimately requires it). Better bosses recognize that managing people is a complex process. It requires us to be judge and mentor at the same time.