Establishing a culture for meeting effectiveness

Please imagine, for a moment, one of the typical cross functional meetings that may be held in your organisation. It could be looking at the relationship between two areas of the business, or at a problem that has developed in a key process, or at a new opportunity that has arisen.
Now please imagine that the following four things take place in that meeting:

  1. Three people arrive late for the meeting, owing to a number of perfectly plausible reasons – sorry, my last meeting overran, or I was on a call to a customer, or the printer wasn’t working
  2. A number of other people had not had the time to prepare properly for the meeting; it seems some had not read the report from the last meeting, two could not remember receiving a briefing note, and a few others thought it would be better to keep quiet, but you are sure they had not looked at anything except the time of the meeting.
  3. In looking at progress on the actions from the last meeting, it seems that due to other pressures, there has not been the progress that had been asked for. One or two had been rushed through in time for the meeting, but not in time to circulate the results, and so you spend some time getting a personal report on them.
  4. Part way through the meeting, someone has to rush out for another meeting, someone else has to respond to a phone all, and one has to reply to an urgent email. You wonder whether it is better to pause the meeting or carry on without their full attention. At least they are there which is better than the one who didn’t turn up.
Finally, please reflect on the question: “What would be the typical response to these behaviours/occurences in your organisation?”
For some of you reading this it is entirely possible that this picture may require a real stretch of the imagination. It may be difficult to imagine such a litany of transgressions at one meeting, let alone that it may be a regular occurrence. The very idea of it may offend you, and you feel that the response of others at the meeting, and the subsequent reaction of the respective management of the transgressors, would be so appalled at these behaviours that sustained repeating of them would be wholly inconceivable.
Sadly for some others reading this, I imagine that the above picture is all too common, and hardly merits more than a raised eyebrow. In fact it may be so commonplace and sustained that people take it in their stride as the normal course of events, and adjust their expectations accordingly. It may even be the case that within such a culture, the reader too has exhibited these behaviours – after all, there were other pressures on your time, and it is not as if your lateness was going to be the only one at that meeting and, let’s face it, the report was almost certainly going to have to be summarised for the others who had not yet read it!
What lies behind this difference? Nader and Lawler put it particularly well in their paper on motivation: “Organisations get the behaviours they reward, which are rarely those that they desire”. If such behaviours are rare in your organisation it is because the response of your organisation ensures the wrong behaviours are very clearly not rewarded. They take exception to them, and address them explicitly. Conversely, if these behaviours are common it is because these behaviours are their own reward and this is rarely counterbalanced by any serious admonishment by colleagues or senior management.
In other words, while we may think that our typical reactions to these behaviours is a result of the frequency with which they occur within our organisations, we actually have this backward. Nadler and Lawler’s research shows that the frequency with which these behaviours occur within our organisations is a result of our typical reactions to them.
Behaviours that can be problematic and lead to inefficiency in a physical meeting, can have even greater effect on the efficiency, engagement and outcome of a web-based meeting: in part because the level of preparation required is somewhat higher, in part because full engagement is even more important where the visual cues are more constrained; and in-part because the tools we use to gain that engagement are more vulnerable to poor meeting behaviours.
Web-based meetings have huge potential to both save on an organisation’s travel budgets, and to act as a springboard for increased efficiency, creativity, and commitment within all of an organisation’s meetings, but they need the right cultural environment to make this happen. Standards need to be set for the behaviours that will be required for meetings to be effective and efficient, and they need to be reinforced through the reactions and responses that ensure those behaviours (and the monitoring required to ensure that this is happening).
At the heart of what we are talking about is the need for management to put in place:
  • a clear picture of what is required in terms of meeting behaviours for success,
  • the means to monitor that the incidence of these behaviours is steadily improving,
  • and the investment of time and resource to make the appropriate corrections where the improvement stalls or issues occur.

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