Cartoon by Aaron Chassy.
[This article orginally appeared in GOV Loop on December 5, 2017].
I think I must have worked in the “meeting-est” workplace ever created. Don’t get me wrong. At times, we accomplished amazing things and enjoyed the work along the way. When meetings were organized, well-run and productive, we left with a feeling of accomplishment and professionalism. Other times, not so much.
Maybe folks were just lonely. Others probably craved an audience. As someone who often chaired meetings, I learned to spot some meeting derailers while picking up some tips from some real “meeting mavens.”
The first rule is knowing what meeting you’re in. If you are there to share information, don’t go looking for a decision where it isn’t going to take place. If the meeting is decisional in nature, look to see if the information, people and timing are all in sync. If the decision isn’t “ripe” or hasn’t been teed up for action, the meeting is unlikely to be successful. If the meeting is ceremonial, look for the script and don’t look to add any last minute improvisation. This will get you noticed, but not for the right reason.
Another staple of most organizations is the working group meeting. It may be formal or informal, lasting weeks or months (or longer) and involve your own department or agency or reach across agencies.
Be on the lookout for these characters who make or break the success of regular meetings of a working group:
The Oxygen Thief: This person is in love with the sound of his own voice and rather than share the air, will not think twice about giving verbal expression to every thought he has. I always found it worked to best to sit next to this guy, not making eye contact that could be interpreted as recognizing him to speak yet again, but instead using the phrase, “Okay, let’s hear from others” or whispering “why don’t you hold that thought for now.”
The Echo: This is the person who brings one idea to a meeting and repeats it, perhaps using slightly different words, at every opportunity. This can occur when someone feels she hasn’t been heard. As chair, I try to repeat or re-phrase what I hear to check and to emphasize that I’ve gotten the point so as to minimize the echo effect.
The Seagull: This is the notorious character who swoops in, craps on everything, then leaves. A good chair will not let this behavior derail a meeting since most seagulls do what they’re going to do. After the first fly-by, the chair may need to take the opportunity to meet with the seagull off-line to review the norms of the group, including being present at the start and end of the meeting and respecting the agenda.
The Man-Splainer: This is the new name for an old behavior – the perfect combination of condescension and arrogance from a male meeting participant who seems oblivious to how his point is coming across – or often not landing at all because of its delivery. It’s made worse when he begins by interrupting or talking over another (usually female) speaker and then repeating a point made earlier in the discussion.
An admonishment from the chair that we don’t interrupt each other and a subtle jibe such as “I think that point was already effectively made” may help deter this behavior. A more direct conversation after the meeting may also be required.
Thank goodness meetings are not always showcases for bad behaviors.
Successful meetings occur by drawing on the following good practices:
Have a PAL. That stands for “Purpose. Agenda. Limit.” People should all know why they are there, what they are going to discuss and how long they have. This helps to set expectations and with luck, align behaviors to reach the meeting’s objective.
Use diversity to go broad and then go narrow. A diverse working group will bring together a range of experience and ideas. Here is where you can get your idea fairies and your devil’s advocates, your hardcore subject matter experts and your spirited idealists. Use this diversity to explore the topic fully (given reasonable time limits) and then focus in on what can be achieved. A good chair will create conditions for the exchange and consideration of ideas from many sources.
Who’s your Hemingway or your Angelou? Regardless of the genre you need, it’s good to know in advance who will capture the words so they can be translated into action. This may be the scribe with a good memory, note-taking and organizational skills to get meeting notes to all participants. The seasoned author will capture the information, prioritize actions for follow-up and include deadlines. If a meeting occurs and nothing happens after, was there ever really a meeting?
Look for the Closer and if you don’t see one, be one. This is the person who often will be listening more than talking and who picks a spot deep into the meeting to summarize, pose the unasked question, identify areas of agreement and posit next steps. It may be the chair but doesn’t have to be. This is always an effective set of skills to deploy when a good meeting gets bogged down or risks ranging too far afield. A good closer can improve outcomes and sometimes save the day.
In government, no one really accomplishes anything all by themselves, which means that meetings are a fact of life. You can make them more or less successful by taking steps to learn the behaviors that aid or inhibit your efforts.