Contracting participation

Have you ever been in one of those meetings where it is clear that some people really don’t want to be there, and others try to get away with the absolute minimum? Maybe you have had to run such a meeting in the past – perhaps a cross-functional project of some type? If so, you will recognise that the meeting lacks energy, and progress between meetings tends to be slow at best.

So what do you do about it?
Well that depends on the answer to the question: ‘Who is right?’ – is it the people who try to engage their recalcitrant colleagues, or is it the people who feel they really should be somewhere else?  See  Who should I invite to my meetings?
If some of those attending really would be better somewhere else, then this should be identified at the outset, and the means found to make it happen.
But if attendees only ‘feel’ that way, then the issue is more one of communication and contract. The question then becomes: ‘Do they recognise the value they have for the meeting and vice versa?’
It is sadly far from uncommon in many organisations for people to arrive at a meeting with no real idea as to why they (personally) are there, or even what the meeting is intended to achieve. This is a major source of both inefficiency and frustration, and should be avoided.
Where participation is required, that participation should be agreed (contracted) at the outset – ideally before the meeting takes place, but if that is not possible (e.g. within a crisis) at least in the opening minutes of the meeting.
There are a number of mechanisms available to contract participation. These include:
The obvious: 
  • Clear objectives and agenda outline what the meeting is to achieve and how, and it may therefore be obvious to people, by virtue of their role and responsibilities, why they have been invited. These may be sufficient in cases where people can safely assume what is likely to be expected of them at the meeting.
  • Groundrules help to clarify more general expectations of how people are to participate in the meeting
  • Use of a Parking Lot within the meeting helps to reinforce the focus of the meeting and re-establish the implicit contract of why people are present
The specific:
  • A Hopes and Concerns exercise provides a collective means for individuals to establish their own personal contract with the meeting, both in terms of expectations by the meeting, and in terms of what value they are seeking from the meeting
  • Pre-meetings (interviews) with people prior to the (first) meeting can help to clarify exactly what the attendees are seeking from the meeting, and what the meeting will be seeking from the attendees. This can be documented and reviewed, and will help to keep things focused and productive.
The developmental:
  • Where you are concerned that success for the meeting may require development of a particular attendee (either in skills or in attitude), this can be contracted with the individual beforehand and set in the context of periodic developmental reviews within the programme of meetings. Where the individual is not a direct report, it may be prudent to involve their line manager in this process, if only for updates.
  • There may also be a need to conduct ‘difficult conversations’ from time to time where individuals need to step-up-their-game.

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