The Hidden Side Of Meetings

Managers at every level almost universally complain that many of their meetings are a waste of time. It’s an old story, repeated over and over: “We didn’t have an agenda.” “We didn’t manage the time well.” “We didn’t have the right people to actually make any decisions.” It’s a long list of dysfunctional behaviors that are familiar to just about anyone who has worked in an organization.

Of course the really dysfunctional thing about this litany of misbehavior is that everyone knows these activities impede progress — and everyone knows what’s needed to do things right. The “secret tips” to effective meeting management are not very secret. Just about every manager has been exposed to them at one time or another — in standard management training programs, on posters, even wallet cards and trinkets. Yet despite all of this investment, meetings are still a problem, forcing companies to periodically run campaigns to make them more productive.

So why is it so difficult for organizations to develop and sustain more effective meeting patterns?

The answer lies in the fact that meetings are not simply logical business mechanisms, but are also social systems that are embedded in the cultural and emotional reality of an organization. This means that whoever runs a meeting also has to take into consideration a number of non-rational dynamics that aren’t covered in the standard meeting manuals. Here three you might not have considered:

First, when people show up at meetings, they come with different perspectives. No matter how clear the purpose of the meeting, some attendees will consider it high priority and others will just attend because it’s on the calendar; some will have had the time to prepare and others will struggle just to get there on time; some will feel strongly about the topic while others will be happy to go along with whatever everyone else wants to do. So in order to get the most out of this meeting, the leader needs to understand where the participants are coming from.

Second, people have different (often-unconscious) personal agendas that may influence the character of the meeting. In some companies, for example, being part of a meeting is a status symbol, in which some people continue to participate in a project even when they have little to contribute. Meetings might also serve as much-needed social gatherings, particularly in companies where people are highly distributed or travel frequently. There also are times when participants use meetings to score political points. Tuning it to these motivations is another challenge for meeting leaders.

Finally during meetings, people relate differently to leading or being led. Some participants are comfortable letting someone else take the lead, while others will sabotage the leader or become passive aggressive. Similarly, some managers naturally take charge while others will hesitate to exert influence or power. When you’re leading a meeting, be aware of your own comfort level and leadership skill, while appreciating others’ ability to be led.

Taken together, these unconscious and non-rational aspects of meeting management can undermine the effectiveness of meetings even when you follow the standard prescriptions. But understanding them — and taking them into consideration — can give you a better chance of actually getting something done.

 

Reprinted from HBR.org

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