Leadership beats culture — How to make your meetings count

Titanic Disaster Hearings — Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

How was your last “bad” meeting? Frustrating, demotivating, draining? Ever led discussions, which ended in “decisions”; and still, the topics kept coming back again and again? After meetings, everybody gets busy moving — but all in different directions? Conversations and meetings are where leadership takes place. Time to make your meetings count.

There is no alternative to us having conversations with each other in order to make sense of complex situations, to make good decisions on the myriad of potential courses of actions, and to coordinate people and organizations. While some leaders dream of magical mind-to-mind domination techniques — in a free society, there will be meetings.

But, meetings are costly. Bain Consulting (Mankins, Brahm, & Caimi, 2014) estimates that a weekly executive management meeting costs an organization 300,000 person hours annually — if you include all preparatory meetings. And it seems much of this time is time wasted (Hall & Hall, 2017). Some estimate losses of $70 and $283 Billions to unproductive meetings in the US alone (Keith, 2015).

How can you ensure that your meetings are time well spent instead? There is much to be said about designing an organization smartly, deciding what meetings are necessary, who is to participate, carefully crafting agendas, preparing materials and decision options etc. However, even if you get all of that right (or wrong) you will still be in meetings and your only influence is what you do right then and there.

How can you make sure that meetings you participate in will be worthwhile? Three things:

  1. Get out of your own loop
  2. Balance the dynamic
  3. Combine options over time

1. Get out of your own loops

The most energy efficient mode for our brain is “autopilot mode.” Whatever happens around us, including what other people say and do, is scanned for patterns we are familiar with, which we then re-enact once again. To become aware of what is happening instead of blindly following our unconscious patterns we need to exert energy and pay attention. Kahnemann’s (2011) best seller “Thinking, fast and slow” illustrates this basic principle beautifully.

How do we turn off our autopilot during meetings? By listening to ourselves. Next time you are in a meeting listen intentionally to your inner reactions when someone speaks. Observe your autopilot and you will discover conversations like this one:

“I am standing before the executive team, making a presentation. They all seem engaged and alert, except for Larry […]. He turns his dark, morose eyes away from me and puts his hand to his mouth. He doesn’t ask any questions until I’m almost done, when he breaks in: “I think we should ask for a full report.” […] Larry obviously thinks that I’m incompetent — which is a shame, because these ideas are exactly what his department needs. Now that I think of it, he’s never liked my ideas. Clearly, Larry is a power — hungry jerk. […] I’m not going to include anything in my report that Larry can use. He wouldn’t read it, or, worse still, he’d just use it against me. It’s too bad I have an enemy who’s so prominent in the company.” (Senge, 1990)

After this interaction what kind of report will the person prepare? What will Larry’s assessment be? What will Larry and others decide based on this? Will this make a similar pattern more or less likely next time around?

The above internal conversation is a great example for how our autopilot works: the ladder of inference originally developed by Argyris (1982). Unconsciously, we run up this ladder so quickly that we do not become aware of our interpretations and inferences. Our conclusions feel obvious; therefore, we see no need to check their validity.

The way out of your own loops is to observe this autopilot, to listen to our inner reactions. Find opportunities to write down: a) what the person is saying and b) what your initial internal answer is. (You can also do this just listening to other people without being involved. What is being said? What is my first reaction?) This provides you with amazing insights into your autopilot, into how you view the world and how you continuously shape it to be consistent with your beliefs.

Once you hear what the people are saying instead of re-enacted your own loops you can respond to what they say. You can become curious about where the person is coming from and where they want to get to. This enables you to connect and move the conversation forward.

“Without sensing where someone is and is moving to — you cannot connect. Without connection you cannot take the person with you.”

2. Balance the dynamic

How can you move a group conversation forward? Most people will think of pushing, of exerting their energy on others to move them. However, what happens when everyone pushes for their individual solutions? One after another participants make their statements of what “should” happen — with an occasional push back to someone else’s proposal. This leaves you with a chaotic conversation not moving anywhere:

Instead, for a productive a conversation, there needs to be a balance of the four possible speech acts described by David Kantor (2012). These are based on decades of investigation into the fundamental structure of verbal communication:

  1. Move — initiate ideas and offer direction
  2. Follow — complete what is said, help others clarify their thoughts, and support what is happening
  3. Oppose — challenge what is being said and question its validity
  4. Bystand — actively notice what is going on and provide perspective on what is happening

Most of us prefer one of these with many leaders coming into their positions by being strong movers. This is one of reasons for leadership conversations to take place as described above. People do not connect, depth and reflection are lacking, new and shared insights are rare. Less than optimal decision-making is the result.

In an effective meeting, the conversation is balanced and flows. People are not stating individual positions disregarding what has been said but continuously enrich the conversation. Perspectives and aspects are added resulting in new and superior insights. The evolving dialogue flows like a spiral; the group is moving and thinking together (Isaacs, 1999). The superior results are shared by participants, which makes implementation and coordination easy.

In your next meeting, observe what speech acts dominate and balance the conversation by providing what is missing. To maximize your impact do it with the intentions described below:

“When you balance the conversational structure with positive intentions you create a strong container for superior insights and outcomes.”

3. Combine options over time

When the dialogue reaches a natural plateau or time is running out you can offer a synthesis and a proposal for how to continue after the meeting. If participants are thinking and moving together a short verbal statement is probably sufficient. Starting with by-standing you can offer a summary, propose a combination of supported solution aspects, and at least one concrete next step.

A different intervention might be called for if people have difficulties agreeing, the group is large, and / or you have little time. Collect from each person which solution components are most relevant for success for them. Display this collection physically, e.g. via flip chart, cards on a pin-board, post-it notes etc. Provide each person with three dots and have them vote: “What is most important for us to start with?” Each person can put all three dots against one of the aspects or distribute their dots across different aspects. This will provide the group with an astonishing picture of core aspects they agree on. (Re-)Focusing on agreement instead of differences gives you a robust foundation for next steps.

Alternatively, or if the picture remains ambiguous, you can map solution components on the dimensions of (potential) impact and (necessary) investment. Write down each solution component on a card. Take a card in your hand and move the card slowly upwards and to the right. Have the group tell you when to stop. Afterwards, do the same with the next solution component and place it on the board. The group will create an agreed and differentiated picture similar to the one below.

The visual mapping makes prioritization easy. Even more importantly, it introduces the notion of implementing one component after another over time. Often, groups get hung up on what to do as an ideal solution instead of focusing on what is a good (enough) next step to make progress.

“Everything becomes possible when you combine instead of fighting over either-or and focus on steps over time instead of some imaginary ideal solution.”

When leaders and leadership teams “get out of their own loops”, “balance the dynamics”, and “combine options over time” meetings become productive, the organization moves, and superior results manifest. What is your experience?


More culture & leadership insights: Nico Czinczoll is a trusted advisor to executives and management teams. Nico helps them to develop and implement robust strategies, smart re-organisations, and effective leadership for growth. His clients include innovative digital champions, complex industrial Fortune500 / Dax30 corporates and family-owned hidden champions.

More by Nico on LinkedIn: #leadershipinsightsfromtheroad

Sources:

  • Argyris, C. (1982). Reasoning, learning, and action. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Hall, K., & Hall, A. (2017). Bad meetings: Analysing the cost to business. Training Journal, 21. September 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/features/bad-meetings-analysing-cost-business
  • Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together: A pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life. New York: Currency.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Kantor, D. (2012). Reading the Room. Chichester: Jossey-Bass.
  • Keith, E. (2015). 55 Million: A Fresh Look at the Number, Effectiveness, and Cost of Meetings in the U.S. Lucid Meetings Blog, 04. December 2015. Retrieved from: https://blog.lucidmeetings.com/blog/fresh-look-number-effectiveness-cost-meetings-in-us
  • Mankins, M., Brahm, C., Caimi, G. (2014). Your Scarcest Resource. HBR, May 2014 issue. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2014/05/your-scarcest-resource
  • Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

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