In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

Meetings: some counterintuitive advice

Meeting visualOh, the meeting, that time where you hope you can get through your PowerPoint presentation within the allotted time, have everyone love your ideas, and walk out getting exactly what you want. Oh, magical thinking.  Meetings are never that tidy and easy.

Yet meetings are an essential part of introducing new ideas, one reason we developed an entire segment of our video learning program, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspectives, to this topic, interviewing the talented Brice Challamel, author, entrepreneur, innovation expert, and a master of running meetings.

Some of his recommendations:

  • The worst thing you can do in a meeting: present a fully formed, perfect idea. You’ll be tempted to want to shove the idea down people’s throats, cautions Brice. Instead introduce your idea as a work in progress and ask people for their suggestions, whereby they become your allies and collaborators. The idea will get better as will your relationships.
  • The best way to get people’s support: Ask people what it would take for them to support the idea. And then listen respectfully to their suggestions. If people feel they are listened to, they will listen to you.
  • What ideas people support: Their own. The best way to get people to support your idea is to make it their idea. Again, ask for what they think should be included vs. trying to get them to buy into your version of the idea.
  • How long you should talk: Spend a small time presenting the idea, and leave the majority of the time for discussion about what people heard. This is how you improve an idea and gain support. “It’s important to remember that the purpose of the meeting is to gain allies for later,” says Brice. It is during the meeting conversations that we’re able to do that.
  • What your PowerPoint needs to be: “Keep it as simple as possible so you have room for improvisation based on what’s happening in the room.”
  • When to let go of an idea: “Sometimes it’s better to lose your idea and save the relationships,” says Brice. “You’ll have other ideas, but it may be difficult to repair damaged relationships.”

Learning from the persuasion scientists

BigSmall book coverInfluencing people and decisions is complex, but there’s much we can learn from persuasion scientists. This past weekend I read the great new book, The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini. Here are some highlights, all based on fascinating research studies that the authors explain in the book.

Communicating

  • Before a meeting or interview, write about a time you felt powerful and/or adopt a high-power physical posture. “High power” people are more persuasive.
  • Make sure to present your credentials before trying to influence a group. Authorities’ opinions dominate people’s minds, shutting down cognitive consideration of other factors.
  • Focus first on the possibilities and potential of your proposal, as potential arouses more interest than realities. Once the attention is focused on the potential, provide supporting information about the benefits, e.g., testimonial, research data.
  • Admit uncertainty vs. convey over-confidence. A person’s expertise, when coupled with a level of uncertainty, arouses intrigue. As a result --  and assuming the arguments that the expert makes are still reasonably strong -- this drawing in of an audience can actually lead to more effective persuasion.
  • Similarly, consider using a list of “worst practices” instead of “best practices.” People pay attention to and learn from negative information far more than positive information. Also, downside information is more memorable and is typically given more weight in decision-making.

Influencing Decisions

  • Ask people to choose between two options vs. offering just one.  Then influence them to opt for your preferred option by pointing out what could be lost if they don’t select that option.
  • Similarly, people make decisions based on context and comparisons. By first presenting an option that people think is a bit too costly, or one that they might think will take to much time, you can achieve the desired impact of making the target proposal seem even more like the “Goldilocks proposal that it is – just right.
  • Determine whether you’re trying to get buy-in or follow-through. If it’s getting people on board, make the sequence of steps as flexible as practical and emphasize that flexibility when announcing the initiative. If the bigger issue is execution, give the rollout sequence a very structured order and emphasize how, once in place, the program will proceed in a straightforward, uncomplicated fashion.

Forming Relationships

  • Explicitly use someone’s first name more often when seeking to influence them.
  • Identify uncommon commonalities between you and another person, fulfilling people’s desire to both fit and still stand out.
  • When meeting someone for the first time dress at a level that matches your true expertise and credentials. This is in keeping with a fundamental principle of persuasion science – authority. Authority is the principle that influences people, especially when they are uncertain, to follow the advice and recommendations of those they perceive to have greater knowledge and trustworthiness.

Getting Commitments

  • Remind people of the significance and meaningfulness of their jobs, and show how what you’re asking them to do is related to that meaning.
  • To get people to follow through on promises, e.g. I’ll bring up your idea in the executive staff meeting, ask how they’ll go about accomplishing the promise they’ve given to you. This specificity helps them follow through.
  • If you believe that you will encounter resistance with your requests for an immediate behavior change, you might be more successful if you instead ask for a commitment to change at a given time in the future, say three months from know.
  • Appeal to people’s sense of moral responsibility to the future version of themselves.

Meetings

  • Ask people to submit information before a meeting. This often increases the number of voices that are heard, potentially leading to a greater number of ideas generated. Similarly, ask people to spend a few moments quietly reflecting on their ideas, writing them don, and submitting them to the group. Doing this can help ensure that any potentially insightful ideas from quieter members won’t get crowded out by people with louder voices.
  • The person who leads the meeting always speaks last. If a leader, manager or family elder contributes an idea first, group members often unwittingly follow suit, leading to alternative ideas and insights being lost.
  • If you want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation, have people sit in a circular seating arrangement.
  • Creative sessions are often more fruitful when held in rooms with high ceilings.

Building your network

  • Just ask! People tend to underestimate the likelihood that a request for help will result in a yes. Plus, those who can help often don't  offer because they wrongly assume their help isn't needed. Why?  Simply because it wasn’t asked for.
  • People who help others but don’t ask for favors in return are much less productive than their colleagues. The way to optimize the giving process in the workplace is to arrange for exchange: a) be the first to give favors, offer information or provide service, and b) be sure to verbally position your favor, information or service as part of a natural and equitable reciprocal arrangement. (“I was happy to help. I know that if the situation were ever reversed, you’d do the same for me.”)
  • Provide explicit thanks and genuinely communicate your appreciation for the favors done and the efforts made on your behalf.