Factors and suggestions
In my previous article, Not more advice on meetings part 1, I identified how advice on meetings has become dislocated from reality.
For thirty years I have designed and facilitated sessions that have delivered great benefits to all those involved. I am now asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?
I think there are two, closely related factors that contribute to the problems with most meetings:
- The Boss
- organisational culture.
Most meetings are run by the manager.
This means they have triple, mutually exclusive, roles. One role is to control the team, their direct reports; the second is to control the process of the meeting; and the third role is to contribute their personal ideas and to get these ideas heard.
Maintaining these three roles requires The Boss to become dominant.
Managers adopt a defensive behaviour when faced with so many people in one room at the same time. Awkward issues are ignored. The excuse is that they will take too long but the underlying problem is that The Boss fears losing control.
In an effort to keep the meeting on track (his track), the contributions of the individuals are suppressed, ignored and avoided. Air time is dominated by one person or the most senior members. No one else speaks. Silence is taken as agreement.
The Boss will maintain that he (usually “he”) is democratic (everyone has an opportunity to contribute), and is consensual in his approach (silence means agreement.) What this really means is that everyone has to agree with him.
During the meeting, individuals remain quiet and plot assassination attempts. The meeting is a vitality vacuum, a coma inducing episode
Yet, in contrast, as soon as the attendees leave the meeting room, they burst into energetic conversation. The ideas spill out – improvements, changes, how to make the plans better, what they would contribute if allowed to, who they know that might help….
What a waste. Sow the seeds; abandon the crop.
The second factor is related to the first factor and it is organisational culture.
Meetings develop a culture that reflects the most negative organisational aspects – tradition and hierarchy.
Those who may challenge are told to keep quiet and are usually accused of being negative. “Don’t you understand,” the argument goes, “that the purpose of a meeting is agreement? If everybody disagrees the whole time, we will never achieve anything.”
This attitude totally undermines the collaborative purpose of a meeting.
Another aspect of meetings that reflects negative organisational culture is the criticism and rejection that greets new ideas. An idea, when first floated, is often imperfect – there has not been time to think it through. The generator of the idea may have identified something that the others have not and this person would now appreciate help in refining their idea.
The further characteristic of most meetings is that the amount of air time you are allowed and the perceived credibility of your contributions is in direct proportion to your grade and how long you have worked there.
Show us your scars; parade your medals. Status trumps originality, the traditional is regurgitated, progress is stifled, stale air is recirculated.
The meeting becomes a prevention of the emergence of new ideas.
A consequence of this approach is that contributions are not welcomed outside your specific area of expertise. So, not only are individuals encouraged not to communicate with each other but so, too, are whole departments.
This emphasises a silo mentality, eliminating the sharing of information and the generation of ideas across boundaries.
In conclusion, the hierarchical and bureaucratic culture of the organisation, plus the readiness of The Boss to reflect that culture is perpetuated in an activity the purpose of which is engagement and collaboration.
To help overcome these challenges, I suggest two things:
My first suggestion, an attitude, is: people must understand that the responsibility for the success of a meeting rests with all.
This is neither a skill nor a technique, but a high level unifying objective, a fundamental approach. Everybody must understand this concept, not only in individual meetings, but throughout the organisation.
Adopting this attitude leads to a number of powerful beliefs and actions. For example:
- a meeting is a collective effort
- all contributions are welcome
- participants will listen
- meeting rules will be agreed and adhered to by all.
My second suggestion is feedback. Time must be allocated to discuss the continuing purpose of the meeting and its process, plus the individual behaviour of the participants – what is helpful and successful, what prevents the meeting from being as effective as we would like?
Following on from these high level approaches, I have many practical hints that I can suggest that will help your meetings. For example:
- treat different agenda items in different ways
- separate the generation of ideas from critical thinking
- agreement is what you aim for at the end, not the beginning.
Instil an all embracing attitude and invest in feedback. Then you can agree practical guidelines so that your meetings will become engaging, stimulating and results oriented events.
If you are determined to improve performance, or have a commitment to solve a problem but might be unsure how to start, let me know.