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ALL HANDS

How to fix these common bad habits in office meetings

Getty Images/Frederick M. Brown
Why not turn the dull office meeting into a meaningful exchange of ideas?

As a rule, most of us believe that meetings suck. Indeed, it’s a well-earned belief.

And while there are many well-documented reasons meetings generally do suck, there’s also a way to improve them, make them useful—and even enjoyable.

It starts by placing the responsibility with the people in attendance. There are a lot of classic behaviors that derail even the most meticulously planned and well-run gatherings.

The usual suspects

Here are some common ones (with fictional names added for effect):

We have Primo, the accountant who livens up, makes eye contact and engages when it comes his turn to speak, then slumps a little and tunes out when someone else is doing the talking. There’s the nay-sayer, let’s call her Frankie, who makes a point to deflate each idea anyone proposes, under the guise of needing to “tell it like it is.” There’s your coworker Pat who makes sure to compliment others, but ends up only saying what they believe others want to hear (and therefore fails to contribute any useful new ideas to the space). Gabe relishes sharing long, meandering anecdotes to the planned meeting agenda, which may or may not fit the actual subject under discussion. Then there are those like Violet, who has imaginative ideas and thoughtful insights, but shrinks and shies away from sharing them.

The impact of these characters is felt by everyone in the meeting. Primo frustrates others because he doesn’t listen, and suppresses any viewpoints that don’t align with his own. Frankie throws around the “devil’s advocate” rationale to dismiss anything that is non-status quo, and ends up curbing innovation. Pat wastes air space with platitudes and offers nothing new. Gabe diverts all conversational progress down the rabbit-hole of a long and seemingly pointless tale. Violet (and everyone else) sits silently and stews.

How can you—no matter what your title is—make meetings better when you’re up against this (or a similar) cast of characters?

The answer lies in assigning and enforcing conversational roles to the workplace meeting. Three of them, to be specific: Each person in attendance becomes either the member, the critic, or the observer.

Before delving into those roles and how they work, note the importance of assigning and enforcing roles. Don’t ask for volunteers: Primo will leap at the opportunity to be a member; Frankie will insist on being a critic; and Gabe will escape into being an observer.

The point is to assign people roles that get them out of their behavioral norms.

Once you assign roles, hold people to them. Whether it’s you or someone else running the meeting, it takes a firm hand. Roles should be balanced over the course of several meetings, and can rotate either during a meeting or by taking turns from meeting to meeting. Fairness and equal opportunity are important for an effective and productive discourse.

Are you a member, a critic, or an observer?

Members are the ones who effectively own the meeting and are ultimately responsible for its outcomes. Members carry the conversation. They debate. They listen to one another, and respond sincerely and respectfully. By the time the meeting is over, if all has gone well, they reach a consensus on whatever decisions or actions result.Critics are there to help the members have a successful meeting. They can’t speak during the members’ conversation, but at least twice during the discourse, the members must pause and hear from their critics, who, one-at-a-time and succinctly, offer critical feedback on the quality of the meeting, the substance of the conversation, and how well positioned the members are to reach a conclusion.

Observers have no speaking authority during the course of the meeting. They can only listen and reflect, and ideally use those observations to improve in their respective speaking roles at an upcoming meeting. This is what makes it so important to assign the roles equally across several meetings, so that everybody knows they’ll have their turn in each. Of course, there should be nothing personal about who plays what role at any given time.

We have worked with each one of these characters dozens of times, and the impact of assigning conversational roles is striking every time.

Instead of grumbling about the obligations of meetings, Primo, as an observer, will thank you afterwards for the rare opportunity to sit back and listen without the burden of thinking about what to say when he’s up. A Primo character will see that others can step up when he steps back, and that can come as a relief. Others may tell you that they’ve never seen Primo listen before, and will marvel at how you made it happen.

We once worked with a CEO in the energy sector—a classic Primo—who we assigned to be an observer for a meeting. When the meeting was over, he told us he was “thankful for the opportunity to observe how the two cultures were interacting” and “noticed who was up for change and who was not.”

While Frankie gravitates to the critic role, when she is assigned as an observer role, others have room to explore new things without fear of being shut down. And when she is a member and starts to play the devil’s advocate card, the person running the meeting simply reminds her that there are critics assigned for that purpose, and she should stick to sharing her own ideas, not her negative reactions to others’. One Frankie we met—a senior finance leader in the food industry—came out of a meeting in which she was an observer and marveled at how great it was to see others being the critic for a change: “I was cynical about these roles at first, but now I will be the biggest advocate for using them in every meaningful meeting we have,” she told us.

A Pat we’ve encountered, an HR senior vice president at a telecommunications company, was forced to critique rather than congratulate and found it “liberating for people to challenge each other in such a constructive way.”

One call-center supervisor, a Gabe-type, was surprised to hear that many others experience the same customer complaints that he and his group are so familiar with. As a critic, he was unable to tell his own stories and instead got to ask the members to provide specific examples from their own experiences.

The Violet of our cohort, an esteemed doctor from a small, rural community shone as a member in a conversation about improving health outcomes for women, and was told she had some amazing ideas. She later remarking that she’d “tried many times in the past to share those ideas with this same group, but no one was really listening to me.”

The fact is that it’s easy for all of us to slip into our usual roles and behaviors, and we rarely view our own behavior as problematic or as getting in the way of collective progress. Primo doesn’t know he dominates; Frankie doesn’t know she suppresses new ideas; Pat isn’t aware of how unconstructive it is to always be in agreement; Gabe doesn’t know he talks too much; and Violet believes that she tries to speak but others don’t care about what she has to say.

But when your team members are restricted to the roles of member, critic, and observer, they are each liberated from their usual social roles, without judgement.

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