Clean Up Your Meeting Hygiene

Over the past 7 years, the team at Stoked has had the privilege of working with groups of people in different industries all over the world. We feel like it’s one of many responsibilities to share what we learn. To identify the patterns we see and try to make some sense of them.
Overwhelmingly, cultural practices are at the top of the list of themes. Primarily, because as we do design and innovation work within an organization, we see culture as the primary accelerant or limiter for the success of innovation work. It can make or break the innovation efforts inside a company.

First off, you may be questioning us as experts in this field. We’re not. And thank God, because this field is rife with antiquated ideas about how humans can and should behave. About what motivates them. And about how they can work together for the greater good of the company AND themselves.

We don’t talk about healthy culture because we’re organizational development experts, we’re talking about this because we’ve been immersed in lots of different cultures over the past 8 years of teaching and leading innovation work. Some amazing, and some toxic.

Culture is a BIG word, and it encompasses a lot, so I’m gonna narrow down the scope a bit for the sake of this article.
If culture is a collection of behaviors inside an organization, then let’s focus on just a few of those behaviors.

Meetings are the places were cultural norms are spread the most! They are like pop-up classrooms where leaders and colleagues model behavior, new or impressionable employees learn behavior, and the rest of us continue to practice whatever action we are used to, creating a well-worn groove.

Here’s an example:
OUTER WORLD
To set the scene, let’s say I just got hired at a big packaged goods company. Maybe I’m a junior marketing guy. It’s week one. I’m likely wearing khakis.
I’m attending one of my first big meetings. There are some peers of mine, some folks junior to me, and a couple of people in senior leadership.
A problem is posed to the group.
I offer a potential solution/idea.
My idea is shot down immediately by a peer for one reason or another. Maybe they’ve already tried that idea. Perhaps there isn’t the budget for it. Maybe there isn’t enough time to execute on that idea. All good and valid reasons to push back on my new potential solution.
INNER WORLD
I guess what we do here is judge each other’s ideas in real-time and in front of others?
Apparently, at my new company, there aren’t separate times set aside for idea generation and idea evaluation. 
Frankly, I’m feeling a bit embarrassed, and my feelings are hurt. Why would they call me out like that in front of senior leadership?
Honestly, I don’t feel like my peers are trustworthy right now. And if I can’t trust them, who do I trust?
Shit, now I’m feeling super alone in this new place.
Oh well, I just won’t talk anymore for the rest of this meeting and see if I can fly under the radar. And I’m damn sure not offering up any more ideas!

OUTER WORLD
Two days later, I show up to a meeting with a smaller group of people. This meeting is to launch a new project I’m leading in conjunction with someone else.

INNER WORLD
Walking down the hall, I’m feeling psyched to get started on a real project. To connect with my team and form some bonds that will serve us all in the future months and years!

OUTER WORLD
As I arrive, there are 5 people in the conference room. It’s dark because there is a wall mounted monitor on with a spreadsheet that someone is using to track to-dos. Everyone has their laptop open in front of them as well as their phone, bouncing back and forth between the two.

INNER WORLD
Man, it sure feels sleepy in here. No one even noticed that I’ve walked in and sat down. Someone is talking on a speakerphone, but I can’t see them. Apparently, this is the person I’m running the project with.

OUTERWORLD
I ask if we can do intro’s and I hear someone on the other end of the conference line say “This is Kathy. I’m the lead on this project. Welcome to the team. OK, we’re just discussing dates for the project and setting some guardrails up for the team. Also, we need to assign a few roles today, so we leave with a clear plan, and everyone knows what to do this week while I’m out of town.”

INNERWORLD
What the fuck?
I guess we don’t really connect as individuals and team members here before we embark on meaningful work. We just sit down in the same room while looking at our email and hope for the best. I don’t feel connected to anyone on my team in the slightest way. Again, this doesn’t feel like a group of people I can try things with. I feel like I have to have the right answer for everything from the jump! That’s terrifying. And who is this person that is apparently my lead? I thought I was the lead?

Right?

We’ve all experienced this in our lives, and maybe the internal voice sounded a little different. But what we’ve learned is that most people leave meetings like this feeling like they did something wrong. Feeling inferior and less than. Feeling isolated and even afraid of losing their job.
Obviously, no one intends to make people feel like this, but often people are so unaware of their own behavior and don’t know that they are spreading these behaviors like a virus. Then they are confused when morale seems low.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of self-awareness, but the notion of cultural awareness is a little less prominent. 
Being culturally aware is the ability to identify the behaviors that help or hinder an organizations ability to achieve its goals. Once cognizant, there are several paths to adjust or introduce new practices that suit the companies needs and working styles.
Being self-aware allows us to make changes in our personal life to live amazing lives. Case in point, I recently became aware that I spend inordinate amounts of time planning for the future or reflecting on the past. While both of these instances can be valuable, it makes it hard for me to be fully present in the moment. So, more and more I try to wake up from my thought-life and show up fully in the present moment.

Being culturally-aware will enable us to make similar changes in our work life to lead great companies, provide amazing careers for our employees, and serve our users and customers to the best of our ability!

At Stoked, we’ve been designing experiments that allow companies to take an inventory of both personal and cultural behaviors that give them a clear picture of HOW they operate. They can start to see where they are maximizing their human potential and where they squander it.
What we’re learning is that there are a handful of regular offenders. Behaviors that have been around for ages that no one even notices as offenders just because of how often they present. 
The actions that we’d like to address here are the most frequent offenders that show up in meetings!

1) Being mindful of process allows for a time of generation and a time of evaluation. This will help when employees are asked to contribute ideas and then are critiqued in real-time in front of their peers…which never feels right!
2) Encouraging a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. Hierarchy can be tricky. As long as there is a sense of leadership instead of a fear of “getting it wrong,” there is a chance for employees to grow and keep challenging themselves vs. showing up trying to prove themselves right.
3) Kill the technology. It has become culturally acceptable for people to show up in meetings with phones and laptops so they can continue to “work” while the meeting is in progress. We find it more valuable to have everyone in the meeting participating in the meeting. That requires showing up entirely. Being present. And when you’re not needed, feel free to leave the meeting.

Our takeaway here is that we can be more mindful and intentional about our behaviors. Others, especially new employees, are picking up cues everywhere they can and watching how we behave in meetings will undoubtedly be how they act moving forward. Are we treating others how we hope they will treat us?