MEETINGS ARE A part of corporate life. The way they are conducted usually reflects the prevailing corporate culture and says a great deal about the way an organisation is run.
In some companies, it takes time just to gather everyone together. Getting all members to arrive on time and be well prepared is another issue altogether. In these types of firms, people seem to assume that nothing much will come out of the meeting or that starting late is the norm. It is probably no coincidence that such companies tend to schedule more meetings than they need to.
In other places, the primary challenge is not bringing people together but making things happen at the meeting. If you have called the meeting, there are some challenges to consider. For example, how can you encourage the local team to speak up when someone from the head office dominates the proceedings? How do you promote innovative thinking while keeping the discussion on point? And how do you get participants to engage in a constructive debate without worrying they will upset colleagues or be perceived as negative or hypercritical?
There is no single solution in such cases. But if there is a persistent feeling in your company that meetings are unnecessary and unproductive, then it is time to take action. By taking specific steps, you can ensure team meetings bring about positive discussions and productive outcomes.
High energy groups
Every meeting becomes fruitful if the participants are brimming with ideas but things can quickly get out of control. Just think about what it is like when everyone is trying to talk at the same time, when one person refuses to let his or her pet subject go, or when separate conversations are going on around the table. If you are in charge, it is crucial not to quell the sense of energy and enthusiasm, but you must manage it well. When necessary, re-establish the ground rules so that one person speaks at a time. Bring people to order by projecting your voice and using first names to get their attention. Write down any extraneous issues on a flip chart and make it clear you will address those problems later. Then refocus the group on the immediate goals. One useful method is to give them a task. A high-energy group will prefer to do something immediately, so perhaps ask them to jot down six critical points fast, and then get two people to read out their suggestions.
Low energy groups
The symptoms are all too obvious – distracted behaviour, questions unanswered and heads dropping as people doze off. Remember that the approach and energy level of the person who chairs the meeting sets the tone and mood for the meeting. Try to remain upbeat without appearing false or contrived. If people are obviously down, it is always worth considering why. Perhaps half of them were in the office till midnight finalising a significant project, or maybe not everyone is thrilled with the latest bonuses. It is often a mistake to directly blame the participants for their low energy levels. To overcome the problem, do something to get people thinking. Change the seating arrangement, bring a different item to the top of the agenda or even suggest a coffee break for 10 minutes.
Meetings are interrupted for all kinds of reasons. Mobile phones keep buzzing, assistants appear with messages, and someone always has to leave halfway through the meeting. The trick here is not to be too authoritarian. You may get on top of the interruptions but people may not contribute much to the discussion and may feel they do not have as much say in the outcome. If one form of interruption repeatedly occurs, such as a ringing mobile phone, then pause the next time it happens. Even without saying anything, you can effectively draw attention to the interruption and cause peer pressure to take over. At other times, a short break is enough to allow everyone to take care of various distractions and then refocus.
Sometimes, it becomes clear that there is a sense of animosity among some of the participants in a meeting. If this happens, remain neutral. Acknowledge that there are differing points of view and remember that conflicts can have positive and negative effects. Emphasise the positive and try to clarify differences by summarising alternative opinions on a flip chart. This will help isolate areas of disagreement or misunderstanding. When doing this, ask “closed” questions to get direct answers and clear information. “Open” questions will tempt people to go off at a tangent or make unsupported statements.
The natural inclination of a senior manager is to take control of the situation. In a meeting environment, an overly dominant boss may cause the other participants to stay quiet, dither, or simply agree when they ought to be pushing back. When a senior colleague drops into your meeting, acknowledge their presence but do not feel obliged to let them take over. It is only natural to invite comments, but maintain control by asking everyone else for feedback as well. If all else fails, tactfully remind the boss that the discussion in your meetings is usually a lot more animated. They may get the hint.
Leaders at all levels must know how to get the most out of their teams. This includes gaining full co-operation from team members whenever there is a group meeting. Therefore, study the group dynamics and take the necessary steps to maintain control and provide direction. In the end, the success or failure depends on the person in charge.
TIPS TO WIN
The opening question
Consider changing the way you start a meeting with your team. Instead of going straight to the first item on the agenda, which is usually an update or the minute of the previous meeting, kick off with something that surprises people, yet get things moving in the right direction. Make a conscious effort to set the tone, examine the key purpose and stimulate creativity. Present your opening question in a way that encourages discussion, requires people to think a bit and expect answers. Of course, consider the context of the meeting, but you might ask something like: "How can we increase sales by 10 per cent in the next three months without increasing costs?"
Meetings are not just a forum to share information or give individuals a platform to express their views. They should be used to prompt clearer or broader thinking and enhance problem-solving. During a meeting, try to get the participants to comment and build on what others have to say. Draw everyone into the discussion by asking whether they have anything to add or whether they have an alternative way of seeing things. By this approach, you will be sure to get a better range of ideas and more analytical thinking. The results will be more insightful and will build consensus and commitment at the same time.
You can use three basic styles when chairing a meeting: free fall, directive and semi-directive. The first lets participants set the agenda and allows the discussion to evolve as different issues are raised. This style works best when the participants can work without being directed, when the tone is deliberately informal, and when there is no specific time limit or outcome. The directive style sets out a clear agenda and specific objectives. This is appropriate when the participants expect to be driven, if time is tight or if outcomes are of utmost importance. A leader who knows a lot more about the subject than the other participants may adopt this approach. The semi-directive style allows for a high degree of flexibility. This style is especially useful when issues are not clear, agenda items need explanation along the way, or when you want to inspire new ways of thinking about specific problems. Most meetings fall into the semi-directive category but conclude in a directive style to ensure everyone is clear about the next steps.