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We Have to Stop Meeting Like This!

2010/05/19

There are certain assumptions most of us would recognize as “reasonable” ways of going about meeting together. These are the “way we do things,” assumptions that lead us to run meetings the way we do, almost without thinking about it. A sample of such typical assumptions includes:

  • Meetings should use time efficiently. Such meetings have an agenda that should be followed.
  • Meetings should lead to decisions to be implemented.
  • Meetings should be kept small. Those invited to a meeting should be those few people with the most power and influence over the meeting’s topics and eventual implementation of any decisions. After the meeting these people will communicate the decisions to others.
  • Meetings should achieve closure on key issues. It is natural if unfortunate that we have to spend most of our meeting time and energy on resolving areas of disagreement. Those items we all agree on will pretty much take care of themselves without much discussion.
  • Roles in the meeting reflect levels of responsibility and authority. It is normal for the person with greatest responsibility and authority to run the meeting and sit at the head of the table.

Do these seem familiar? Many of these assumptions may be so obvious that we do not think about how things could be any different. It is the “common sense” nature of these assumptions that suggests the power of their influence on the way we meet together. And it is the “common reaction” that meetings are a waste of time that points to the ineffectiveness of these assumptions.

Assumptions in Use: the Control Approach to Meetings
Assumptions can be hard to see, but you can see the behavior they support. Below are some meeting behaviors that are characteristic of these assumptions in practice. These behaviors form what could be called the “Control Approach” to meetings as they emphasize control of participants, activities, and outcomes.

  • Meeting rules are used to keep the meeting on track.
  • Time allocated for different points and opportunities to speak to the group are managed carefully.
  • The meeting has been kept as small as possible to make it easier to get things done.
  • Overall participation is uneven with some participants saying or doing little for long periods.
  • Some participants are given “the floor” to present their position to the whole group.
  • Experts are asked to diagnose problems and report their recommendations.
  • Much of the focus of the meeting is on problem solving and on identifying responsibilities for problems.
  • Time, attention and energy are spent on resolving disagreements.
  • Decisions are reached by voting or by exception as when the leader asks in closing “does anyone have a different view?” Each person is expected to defer to the majority view.
  • Subsequent actions are delegated to others who may not be at the meeting given the desire to keep the meeting small.

The pervasiveness of the assumptions underlying the Control Approach can also be seen through the many prescriptions for how to behave in meetings. From early guides to Parliamentary procedure, to the century-old “Robert’s Rules of Order, ” and on to the many books, courses, and videos on running effective meetings, there is a similarity to recommendations for how to hold effective meetings which reflects the importance of authority and order in managing meetings.

The presence of the Control Approach to meetings is also identifiable through “artifacts” or physical signs of the way the meeting is being conducted. For example, items like gavels, norms or rules for behavior, rectangular conference tables or classroom style seating, timed presentations, and meeting room location (e.g. in the executive suite) all hint of an approach to meetings that suggests that controlling is considered the best or right way. Even the language we use reflects these assumptions, for example, “yielding the floor,” “chairing the meeting,” or “tabling” some topic.

Typical Consequences of the Control Approach to Meetings
The purpose of most meetings is to get something done. Does the Control Approach to meetings create the outcomes we want? While this approach has advantages in certain situations, it also presents a number of challenges that can create difficulties. Below are  some of the consequences of the Control Approach.

Decisions:  A decision is reached, by the group as a whole, or by the senior leader present. The outcome or decision may not be supported by everyone. Others may feel alienated by the decision, having “lost” their position. In some situations, there may be more effort to defeat some proposal than to resolve the problem.
Time:  The meeting is conducted within the allotted time. Limited time may mean the group may end the discussion without arriving at common understanding or alignment on the topic.
Size: Meeting participation is typically limited to those with the most authority for implementing outcomes. Quality and creativity of decisions may suffer due to lack of diverse perspectives. Those not included in the meeting feel little responsibility for its decisions.
Conflict Disagreements are worked on in the meeting to resolve and remove them from blocking progress. There are missed opportunities to find common ground and innovative solutions. Some people may withdraw from the conversation rather than share an unpopular view.
Focus:  Problems provide a clear task or focus for the meeting. Focus on problems leads to blaming and defensiveness. The focus is more on past actions than on defining a better future.
Involvement: Individuals have an opportunity to advocate their position and engage others in supporting their ideas. When disagreements arise, individuals will either actively oppose it, perhaps forming a sub-group around the issue, or they will withdraw from active participation.
Taking Action: Individuals will comply with the meetings outcomes if there is appropriate follow-up. Individuals may express their views privately outside of the meeting, possibly undermining the meeting outcomes. Without follow-up, the meeting outcomes may never be implemented, or be “forgotten” in a few months.

The Control Approach is not necessarily a poor or inappropriate way of conducting a meeting. It has both positive and negative implications. The point is that it is accepted without questioning whether there is an alternative.
Next up: A Different Way of Meeting.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/05/28 10:20 am

    Great post, Dr. Lent! Very informative and looking forward to the next installment.

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  1. Meeting Guidelines « An Economy of Meaning

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