Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, April 03 2012
You know you’re having a bad meeting when…
Meetings: Where Inspiration Goes to Die
Michael Wilkinson says that many managers spend 50 percent or more of their time in meetings. The founder and managing director of the country’s leading facilitation company, Atlanta-based Leadership Strategies, Wilkinson says that the vast majority of our meetings are bad ones.
In his top-selling book, “The Secrets to Masterful Meetings: Ignite a Meetings Revolution!” Wilkinson says that one of the worst aspects of bad meetings is not simply that they are down time. They actually do damage.
“Bad meetings waste time, consume resources and wear down people’s energy and passion,” he explains.
A real puzzlement is why otherwise productive, effective individuals passively accept the fact that they spend half their time in a kind of results-free dead zone.
“If bad meetings were a virus, the Surgeon General would declare a state of emergency in most organizations,” Wilkinson declares.
Create a Revolution in your Organization
It doesn’t have to be this way. Wilkinson is convinced that meetings can be a vehicle for transforming entire organizations. The key is empowerment.
The first step is to get your organization’s leaders to buy into something Wilkinson calls “Your Meeting Rights.” Once adopted organization-wide, each employee becomes a catalyst for raising the bar on meetings and making bad meetings unacceptable.
“Your Meeting Rights” include radical notions like: You have the right to be informed, at least 24 hours in advance, of the meeting’s purpose and expected products. You have the right to start and end on time. You have the right to have the people, viewpoints and information essential to decision-making on hand.
In addition to know your “rights,” Wilkinson advises creating a small transformation team that monitors progress, rewards success and takes corrective action if needed.
Making Good Meetings from the Top, Middle and Bottom
Whatever your role in your organization, you can be a revolutionary. If you are a top executive, you can take the lead in transforming meeting culture through decision-making and policy-setting. If you are a mid-level manager, Wilkinson advises using “The 5 Ps of Preparation” (see “The Power of Prep”) to improve meetings that you lead.
If you are a junior employee you can still be a revolutionary by using “guerilla facilitation,” says Wilkinson. Use "the 5 Ps" to ask questions. For instance, if the meeting leader just jumps in without stating the meeting purpose and deliverables, you can ask, “I wonder, does everyone know the purpose and products for this meeting?” If the meeting appears to be at an end you can ask whether a recap of the purpose, outcomes, decisions and next steps might be helpful.
I Meet, Therefore I Am
If a meeting were held in a forest and no one attended, is it still a meeting? Probably. Meetings have a weird way of taking on their own lives. Meetings beget themselves, as in, “It’s Monday, so we have a staff meeting” and “It’s Friday, so we have a team meeting.”
Meetings also are reassuring in an odd way. They affirm us and reduce stress: We met, we made a decision, therefore we’ve done our bit. And, as with other forms of group process, meetings provide a stage upon which participants can perform. Meetings give leaders an opportunity to lead. They give management wannabes a chance to show their stuff. In meetings, long-timers can offer sage guidance and go-getters can go-get.
That is, of course, unless participants have succumbed to the drudgery of rudderless meetings and given up. In that case, be on the lookout for the big D: dysfunction.
A huge challenge to good meetings is what Wilkinson terms “dysfunctional meeting behavior.” At Leadership Strategies, dysfunctional meeting behavior is defined as “any activity by a participant that consciously or unconsciously expresses displeasure with the session, the facilitator or some outside factor.”
The pathology is all too familiar: the person who has side conversations, the one who does other work, the doomsday prophet, the meeting zombie (the body is present, but the mind and spirit have left the building). Unfortunately, such behaviors are very common and very toxic.
According to Wilkinson, these behaviors cannot be ignored, since dysfunctional behavior that is overlooked tends to feed on itself and infect others. It also tends to escalate. A relatively benign behavior such as arriving late can eventually be augmented by audible sighing, eye-rolling, verbal attacks and sudden stormy exists.
The solution? Wilkinson suggests that you think strategy rather than public humiliation (which can make things worse). If you are the meeting leader, try on-the-spot generalized empathy (“We have all had a long and tiring day.”). Or try approaching the individual privately during a break or post-meeting, again with empathy. You can also walk over and stand next to the problem child or ask her a direct question. Or try a round-robin: ask a question and go around the group, soliciting input from each person (including the zombie).
The Lever that Moves the World
Just as bad meetings can demoralize and numb us, good meetings can lift us up. To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall move the world.” Begin to see meetings as that lever and you can revolutionize your organization’s world.
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Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.