In the first part of this piece, I explicated a simple process approach to having effective meetings. I also mentioned that it is not enough to focus on the process alone. In this second part, we will be looking at some soft elements that can make or break the effectiveness of any process no matter how tight. Let us begin with a few questions.
How open is your meeting environment? Openness here does not refer to physical space (although the architecture of a room can have a significant impact on the people that use it – a discussion for another day). Are people free to express their original thoughts and opinions during meetings, or are they constantly trying to read your mind and align with your opinion? Are they able to disagree with you or any other team member constructively, or are they constrained by the fear of reprisal, being labeled in very uncomplimentary ways because of their contributions? Are they free to think for the good of the team, or do they always have to ‘look over their shoulders’?
A classic outcome of a situation where team members cannot fully express themselves as described above is a psychological phenomenon called groupthink. Groupthink is one of the reasons why a group with talented and highly knowledgeable individuals can sometimes make irrational or sub-optimal decisions. It is the tendency for a team to converge on a position, not necessarily because that position is the most reasonable, being a product of superior arguments, but because of other non-rational factors. For instance, agreement or conformity is induced consciously or otherwise by group pressure, or the pressure brought on by a ‘significant’ member of the group – often the leader. It culminates in lack of unique and independent thinking and suppresses creativity so that the winning idea is not subjected to rigorous evaluation before it is selected.
In truth, as a leader, you may not even notice whether the thoughts and ideas your team members express are their independent thoughts, or they are just trying to ‘read your mind’. While this may not always be your fault, research suggests that, it is often a response to the leader’s narcissistic, or even charismatic tendencies – there is such a ‘halo’ over the leader’s head, that team members are unable or even unwilling to question their ideas. Sometimes, it is not the de facto leader who drives the team, it is simply another member of the team with a ‘strong’ personality, or that person that everyone assumes has the leader’s ears.
Here are a few tips to manage this:
- If you have the kind of effect that I described above on your team, excuse yourself from meetings but be sure the team can take down the details of the proceedings for your eventual consideration (without any specific attributions for ideas of course).
- If you are going to be part of the meeting, do not begin with your ideas. Frame questions or comments as neutrally as possible. For example, rather than saying ‘we have this matter to resolve and I think we can resolve it in this particular way, what do you think?’ say ‘we are faced with such and such situation, what are your thoughts about how we can resolve it?’ This can even be framed more dispassionately depending on the situation. Of course, it is still your responsibility as the leader of the team to set the objective of the meeting.
- Engage de-biasing strategies to gain insight. Two of such strategies include an adaptation of the Delphi Technique and Devil’s Advocacy. With the Delphi technique, your goal is to collect team members’ thoughts about a matter anonymously to allow for free expression and open critique. You may then drive the discussion of the various ideas in a face-to-face meeting while the contributors remain anonymous. This way, you minimise the chances of the ‘bandwagon’ effect on ideas. The Devil’s Advocacy technique, in its simplest form, involves appointing someone / some people on the team whose responsibility is to critique the recommendations provided by the rest of the team until all the critiques raised are sufficiently addressed and the entire team can come to a consensus on the most optimal choice.
- As much as it is practicable, entertain and evaluate every idea. Put another way; do not shoot down someone’s idea simply because, on the face of it, it appears dumb. Explore it with questioning, and give the idea an opportunity to float. Let it sink only when it is found to be truly void of merit, and not just because of the antecedents of the person behind the idea.
- Build trust in your team. When it is all said and done, these techniques and strategies will work because the team believes that the leader is after their best interest. There are several things that you can do to engender trust among team members as well as between the team and you. One very effective strategy is to facilitate open communication among team members; do not hear a matter in the absence of the other parties concerned. Facilitate (do not direct) the conversation until team members can resolve their differences among themselves.
I can imagine you saying, ‘this takes too much time’. That is the most common defense leaders give for not taking these steps. While time pressure is the reality of the world of work today, a resilient team is also one of the backbones of sustainability in these times.