Recently I’ve been offering tips and techniques for making meetings more productive – and more popular. A few weeks ago I listed 10 tips for meeting leaders (“10 Tips for Leading Meetings That Matter”), and then on May 30 I shared a reaction to that first article that was largely inspired by Bob Leek of Multnomah County, Oregon (“Making Meetings Matter: Distributed Leadership”).
Those ideas, in turn, sparked a comment and a question from Steven Beary, Principal and CFO of The Beary Group. Steven observed that Bob’s suggestion to “call for adjournment” if a meeting isn’t going well relies on Roberts Rules of Order, which is a common source of principles for leading public-sector meetings. As Steven pointed out, in most private-sector organizations that kind of pushing back or “taking over” a meeting could well be seen as insubordination, and in any case could easily become a “career-limiting move.”
Steven then asked the following question:
… given that Robert’s Rules aren’t generally in play during private sector meetings, I think it would be valuable if you were to provide ‘real world private sector’ suggestions as to how the participants can get things back on track without the benefit of the power provided by Robert’s Rules and/or when the leader(s) tend not to be as ‘empowering’ as we would like them to be.
That’s an important question.
I believe that many of the “rules” I identified for meeting leaders in Chapter four of Making Meetings Matter can actually be employed by anyone participating in a meeting (as long as the meeting leader isn’t an outright tyrant – and if he/she is a tyrant, you ought to get yourself out of Dodge as quickly as you can).
Like so many other aspects of orchestrating a conversation, your effectiveness as a meeting participant depends more on your mindset and resulting tone of voice than anything else.
By that I mean you should always remain respectful of the formal leader and deferential to his/her authority and role. When you offer observations about how well (or how poorly) the process is unfolding (such as commenting that the conversation seems to have wandered off topic, or there is a need to move more quickly towards a decision), be sure you are seen as offering helpful suggestions, and not complaining or attempting to take over the meeting leadership.
Don’t challenge the leader; offer your comments as tentative observations intended only to support the meeting’s purpose and agenda.
Perhaps these more specific suggestions will help:
Pay attention to the “tone” of the meeting
Some meetings are somber, serious discussions of challenging issues or important information; they often require tough decisions with difficult compromises and trade-offs. Others are intended to stimulate brainstorming and creativity. If you want to move the meetings towards a light-hearted, candid conversation, try a joke, or some tongue-in-cheek observation about the group, the company, or the news of the day. If you sense your leader wants a more serious, focused meeting, stay matter-of-fact, keep your comments short and to the point, and help keep the agenda moving forward.
Tolerate uncertainty and differing perspectives as long as possible.
Our most important work in organizations is focused on solving problems and/or producing new ideas – product designs, marketing campaigns, new ways of understanding why sales are growing or shrinking, cheaper ways of operating the business.
However, I sometimes think the biggest barrier to effective problem-solving is the tendency most groups have to close in on a solution too quickly. Most people have a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it can highly stressful to experience a gap between where the group is and where you want or need it to be. And that’s true whether you are the formal leader or “just” a participant.
However, the more widely a group can search for an answer the more likely it is to discover (or invent) an effective solution. So be very careful about letting your own need for an immediate solution drive you to cut off others or ask the group “get back on track.”
Watch the leader closely and do the best you can to “read” his or her intentions and satisfaction with the way the meeting is going. That doesn’t mean just letting the conversation wander all over the place, but if you are clued in to the what the leader is looking for you’ll be in a better position to make constructive suggestions that support leader rather than challenge him or her.
Own your feelings and observations
When you feel compelled to challenge another participant, or the leader, own your feelings and use “I” rather than “You” language.
Recognize that feelings and judgments are subjective; beware of using adjectives or other words that claim a “universal truth” about someone else. If you are trying to get the conversation refocused, say something like “It seems to me we’re losing track of the issue here. Could we stick more closely to the agenda?”
That language signals that you are expressing an opinion and asking the group to get back on track – not that you are passing judgment on anyone else or chastising the leader for letting the conversation get unfocused.
To sum it up: intervene if you believe a shift in direction or tone is necessary, but never lose sight of your positon as a participant. Don’t challenge or confront the meeting leader; instead, offer observations and make requests. If the other participants share your concerns, your “pushing back” will usually be seen as “pushing forward.”
What other approaches have you found useful in refocusing meetings that have gone off track?
These tips are described in more detail in Chapter Four of my most recent book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. I am on a crusade to make every meeting matter. Life is too short to waste your time in unproductive, boring meetings that don’t make any difference at all.
If you agree with me and want to transform your meetings, contact me today for a free 20-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. To explore what is possible, please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter.