Confronting frustrations and “cover your ass” culture of stupid and useless meetings

Most business people are fed –up with endless and unproductive “cover your ass” climate of stupid and useless meetings. No one speaks up about the endless lack of organization or aimlessness of the meetings and lack of productive or action as a result of meetings. Few people confront the real and important issues staring them in the face.

So who is to blame for this situation that takes up our precious time and energy? Everyone owns some of the responsibility for ineffective meetings. It seems like few people speak open about what is on their mind or honestly about the topics at hand.  We sit through boring decks of PowerPoint presentations, waiting for the meeting to end so that the real work can get done back in our cubicle or the  complaining can start in the washroom.

The desire to eliminate these frustrations and anger over worthless meetings is understandable but the ability to diagnosis and solve the problem is inexcusable. Finding out and problem solving to fix the problem is lackluster in our organizational lives. The enemy is our inability to deal with conflict in a productive and caring way. Lack of truth-telling, inability to handle feedback and lack of caring confrontation contributes to boring presentations, poor decision-making, and unnecessarily revisiting the same problems over and over again. A “go along to get along” persona often signals an overly controlled and authoritarian management style and a stifling workplace climate. Colleagues who are afraid to speak honestly to people’s faces do it behind their backs or in the restrooms on break from the meeting. This behavior eventually breaks trust and leads to a “cover your ass” culture of inaction.

Business Week recently reported that self-directed work teams are, on average, 30 to 50 percent more productive than their conventional counterparts. The following are some examples of organizations that attribute major productivity results to the advantages of self-directed work teams:

* AT&T — Increased the quality of its operator service by 12 percent.

* Federal Express — Cut service errors by 13 percent.

* Johnson & Johnson — Achieved inventory reductions of $6 million.

* Shenandoah Life Insurance — Cut staffing needs, saving $200,000 per year, while handling a 33-percent greater volume of work.

* 3M’s Hutchinson facility — Increased production gains by 300 percent.

We found that the teams that scored the lowest on involvement and self-direction saw the poorest financial returns and highest employee grievances among those organizations during the recent global economic crisis. In contrast, groups that communicated candidly about risky securities, lending practices, and other potential problems were able to preserve shareholder value.

I believe that caring confrontation should not just be encouraged but be rewarded by team leaders and by the organizations. culture. I’ve developed three techniques to help team members no matter at what level in the organizational interact with more courage, openness and in a caring way to challenge inappropriate behaviors, decisions and strategies. This fosters a culture of truth-telling and authenticity which have been shown to be key elements of a more productive workplace.

1. Engagement –Share and pair by creating more time for input from sub-groups on the team. When 8 or more people are in a meeting, those with strong communication skills, confidence and quick thinking will dominate. Even strong speakers may find it hard to take risks in front of a larger audience. One solution is to break a big meeting up into groups of two or three to brainstorm for a few minutes, and then have a spokesperson from each group report back to the entire team. Smaller groups promote higher degrees of risk taking and increase the odds that more people get a chance to share their view-point and ask questions about critical decisions that affect their “quality of work life”. Lastly it is important to remember the more employee involvement in contributing to strategies and operating procedures the more productive and higher level of satisfaction.

2. Designate a process facilitator.  In my research and experience, I’ve found it difficult for anyone on the team to play this role of “team facilitator or process coach”  who can advocate for more honesty and openness on the team. A facilitator’s job is to observe and call out people or the team  when something is being left unsaid. For example, a person might raise concerns over an important strategic direction and they are ignored or talked over by others. This group dynamic is called the “plop” and needs to be pointed out to the team so they can deal with the different opinions and ideas of all members. The facilitator has the responsibility to hold up a mirror for the team when thing are being dismissed out of hand. They always try to tap into the emotional levels of the interaction, such as unconstructive comments or personal attacks.  If the facilitator does not confront issues like someone dominate the “airtime” or ask why others are being quiet or not speaking-up. These process issues if left unspoken can reduce  the teams ability to confront conflict and build an open communication climate that leads to better problem solving and decision-making.

3. Teach employees how to create and organize effective meetings. Don’t assume good meetings will just happen. Teach and train members on how to increase employee involvement through more productive problem solving and decision-making tools.  A critical element in this process is the ability to handle conflicts and solve problems. The most needed process tool is the understanding how to confront others in a “caring confrontation” manner through specific feedback. This approach to supervision eliminates the “old “command and control “style of leadership.  can cause conflict and maybe difficult to initiate, but usually it’s a gift aimed at helping the team members to respect each other and stay on track and speak their “truth” so performance and task activities can be improved. We should deliver and receive it that way. Use phrases like “Let me play devil’s advocate“ I feel frustrated by our inability to be candid about the negative effects of this ad program.” and “Think about this.” When receiving caring feedback, thank the person who offered it and make clear the points on which you agree and clarify were we don’t agree. We’ve found that if you think of the person giving you honest feedback as caring, rather than critical, you become less defensive and more open to changing the team process or your behavior.

A highly effective team needs to pay attention to both the task at hand and how the team works together. Team consensus is impossible when people don’t get a chance to talk or give input to decisions. The number one characteristic of effective team leadership is the ability to create an open atmosphere of trust and respect. Solving problems requires that team members look at a problem from 4 sides—human, technical, urgent and strategic or long-term viewpoints. Team members are unafraid to ask tough questions or propose different ways to attack the problem. Risk management is another area that relies almost completely on people’s admitting their mistakes. It takes work to create a candid environment supported by respectful, honest communications and caring relationships, but it’s a challenge every leader should embrace.


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