How a team reacts to a meeting reminder pop-up is a good indication of how productive their meetings are. If the reminder is met with a sigh, or ignored all together, it's a signal that the team may not be communicating very well. If instead of being met with hostility or indifference, there's an air of anticipation of a challenge or conflict to come, it is a sure sign that the team relishes their productive time together.
I consider myself to be a pretty empathetic leader. I believe in the best of people, and that a diversity of voices from a group of well-intentioned and smart professionals can do great things. At the same time, I have seen (and led) some absolutely terrible meetings that bogged the team down and wasted time and resources. There are many factors that make bad meetings, below are some of them:
- A Decision has Already Been Made - When a team is expecting to debate and come up with a decision, but they enter the room to find out that the decision has already been made for them. The debate session has become an information session. Even worse...
- An Information Session Disguised as Debate - More frustrating than being informed about a pre-determined decision is a disingenuous debate that would not change the decisions already made. Everyone may have an opinion, but their opinion doesn't matter.
- Someone is Actively Disengaged - This could take the form of someone working on their computer while a meeting happens around them, or someone zoning out and requiring constant "reminders" of the very last point being discussed.
- People are Non-Participatory - Somewhat different from being disengaged -- People are engaged and listening, and they have an opinion, but they do not speak up because they feel intimidated due to variety of factors includng seniority ("I'm too junior to have an opinion"), personality ("I'm too shy to speak up"), fear of conflict ("I don't like disagreeing with people"), blind trust ("She's done this a million times, so she has to be right").
- Blind Resistance and Active Derailing - When someone on the team has no interest in having an honest discussion, and is actively holding back the group for no other reason other than they are disagreeable.
Poor meetings can result in resentment, grudges, and worst of all: apathy. Those attributes do not build great teams. I want to find a way to turn resentment into understanding, grudges into cooperation, and apathy into participation. I want to help my team have great meetings. It dawned on me one day that I can break down intense and productive conflict into two ground rules, and I asked my team to try them out:
- Say All that You Want to Say - I make sure that every debate is exhaustive, and that no one ever holds back their arguments, in part or in full. We want the team to truly know the motivations behind an argument so that we can gain a new level of understanding and empathy that may very well change our initial positions. When the whole team feels uninhibited in voicing their opinions, we ensure that nothing is left unsaid and all viewpoints are taken into consideration. If you are dissenting, then your position becomes part of the diversity of voices that gets factored into a consensus. If you are in agreement, then your voice reinforces a decision to come. This rule ensures everyone participates - not saying anything is the worst thing you can do in a meeting.
- Never Leave the Room Unsatisfied - Being satisfied doesn't mean everyone gets their way. What it means is that when the meeting ends, no one is resentful. Resentment is the genesis of mistrust, and mistrust tends to manifest in people acting contrary to team consensus. I ensure everyone has, before everyone leaves a meeting, that everyone is satisfied with how the meeting ended and no one is resentful of the decision being made. In the end, it doesn't matter if the decision made is your position or not as long as the debate results in a consensus that everyone can agree and align to.
The rules are designed to give the team permission to genuinely engage with each other, and over time, being naturally engaged becomes ingrained as muscle memory. To help ease the team into the new dynamic, I turned into a broken record at every meeting. I would start by reiterating the ground rules, and throughout the meeting I would ask team members if they have "said all they had wanted to say" to ensure we are completely exhaustive in our debate. Finally, just when we're ready to close off the meeting, I would ask the whole team if they were fully satisfied with the outcome, and if there is dissatisfaction, we work through it as a team. I repeated that routine for weeks until the team found a new level of comfort to be genuinely open with each other. I knew we were on the right track when team members called each other out when we found ourselves avoiding awkward topics and confrontation.
I have been blessed with working with great team members in every one of my roles. My colleagues constantly argued and debated, but at the end of each meeting we would go back to our desk as friends and colleagues without harbouring resentment or ill will. I've seen the benefits of a team that conducts genuinely open meetings: Good decisions being made, team members feeling that they're always heard, and no resentment or scorekeeping. With those benefits in mind, I would very much prefer a loud and contentious meeting room over a room of silent nodding heads any day.