The department managers sat glumly waiting for the meeting to begin. They knew it wasn’t going to be good news as corporate had been suggesting for months that cuts needed to be made. When the meeting began, it didn’t take long for tempers to flare, as fingers were pointing from one to another in an attempt to cast blame. “Well, if you had completed the project on time…” “Look, don’t blame me for the delays; the timelines were completely unrealistic!” “This isn’t the first time these miscalculations have occurred; you seem to have great difficulty projecting start dates with any accuracy.” “How could we have known that regulators were going to be so demanding?”
There are several types of “high heat” meetings to consider:
a) those where the highest authority takes on one individual in the group and peppers the person with questions while others sit in silence, eyes down;
b) those that are highly argumentative with a small number of people taking strong, fixed opposite positions;
c) those meetings where departments come ready to point fingers at each other and
d) meetings where conversation is completely crippled due to the lack of trust among members and/or with the leader.
Sometimes a high heat meeting is simply one in which the stakes and the anxiety are equally high and all members feel the tension. Years ago I remember a group of senior level bankers who spoke so sarcastically to each other that it made me uncomfortable. When I surfaced their behavior, they assured me that it was perfectly normal among bankers. At the time they all agreed; later in the hallway, one came up to me to say that he also had trouble but would never say anything to the others.
In all of these meetings, there are several important factors to keep in mind:
· Where is the power base and how is it functioning?
· How strong is peer pressure and the desire to fit in?
· How dysfunctional has the communication become?
· Is there any mechanism for correcting the behavior problems?
· Has the “heat” become so volatile that more damage is done in every meeting than any productive work?
· Are “meetings-after-the-meeting” emerging as a way to process the tremendous anger and frustration felt by members?
· Are those who prefer a “competitive” conflict style becoming more and more belligerent while those who prefer an “avoiding or accommodating” style becoming completely paralyzed by the toxic atmosphere?
High heat meetings require a number of carefully executed strategies to ensure that meeting “derailers” are neutralized:
1. Begin with pre-reads and pre-meeting questions. Pre-reads encourage members to come prepared to talk intelligently about the issues. A business case for change or a white paper can surface many of the critical issues to consider in a safe, neutral environment. Key questions framed at the end can encourage members to think “outside the box” about the issues and come prepared to be reflective. It also helps to keep the focus on data rather than assumptions and projections.
2. Assign some members to play the role of “devil’s advocate” and then note on the agenda where the devil’s advocate position will be heard. John Kennedy used this strategy after the failure of the Bay of Pigs when he realized the importance of hearing dissenting viewpoints. Remember that a devil’s advocate will never be as powerful as a real dissenter, but it will at least open discussion to different perspectives. By programming it into the agenda, it forces a more well-rounded discussion.
3. Clearly state the overall purpose of the meeting and the desired outcomes for each agenda topic. If we speculated on the desired outcomes of the meetings mentioned above, they would sound absurd: our desired outcome is to point fingers and determine who to blame, or our desired outcome is to completely embarrass one individual to the point where he or she wants to quit his or her job. Instead the focus should be on the problem or the associated decisions: our desired outcome is to agree on the root causes of the problem, or to define the criteria for an effective decision. The desired outcome is like a compass that constantly pulls us back to due north.
4. Define the ground rules upfront so you can legitimately intervene if discussion deteriorates. I’m always surprised that people are uncomfortable defining ground rules, yet they work every time. Let’s imagine we had a ground rule for our team that discussions involving one individual should be addressed one-on-one and not as a whole team. That ground rule would allow a facilitator to ask the question, “Is this a discussion between you two that could be moved off-line as our ground rules would suggest?”
5. Never start the meeting without a facilitator and an agenda with timeframes. The facilitator performs the neutral function of keeping the meeting on track and moving forward. An individual who has strong opinions about the topics or who is going to present information to the group should not be the facilitator. Simply select another team member to perform the role and empower the person to keep the topics within the assigned timeframes. This permits a facilitator to interrupt and say, “We’re about half-way through our time for this item. Do we feel we are half-way to our desired outcome?”
6. Encourage the use of process tools that move discussion forward. Last week I was working with a departmental team that is in the midst of a major transformation and is experiencing many demanding challenges. There are so many reasons to argue and get upset. To help the team address the problems, I took large butcher block paper and listed the department’s 16 key process steps in a row that ended up being about 20 feet long. We hung the paper up on the wall and then gave each member the ability to identify challenges or problems on sticky paper star bursts. Within minutes of asking participants to place star bursts where problems occur, the star bursts popped up everywhere along the process steps. As we read them we immediately sorted them into a 4-Blocker based on criticality and ease of fix. Selecting the most critical/hard to fix, we further examined what was broken by using the five process groups (initiating, planning, implementing, closing and controlling) and the 7Ss (shared values, strategy, system, structure, staff, skills, and style or approach). Based on what they uncovered most problems were occurring in the initiating and planning phases because of unclear strategy and poorly defined structure (role and responsibility clarity). They proceeded to work on their cause maps, identifying short-term containment strategies and approaches for longer term fixes. The entire process left the group energized, focused and unified.
So many people tell me that they hate their meetings, yet we often do very little to make them better. Instead we suffer as victims of circumstance, allowing the bullies, grandstanders and snipers to take over. It’s time to show what finesse, competency and positive energy can achieve.