Meet Me at the Water Cooler! – When The Real Issues Don’t Surface During The Meeting

April 3, 2017 3:06 am

There are times when we will encounter a working culture whose communication has turned backwards: issues are not addressed in meetings where they could be dealt with, but are instead discussed in secret among staff without ever being resolved. Not only is this an unproductive environment, it involves issues that if not resolved, can fester causing more damage in the long term. So how do we turn it around before the molehill becomes a mountain?

First, we need to understand why this type of meeting culture exists: there may be a lack of safety in speaking up. This usually comes from a fear that challenging the ideas of leadership might be a “CLM” (career limiting move), or that criticizing the work of one’s teammates could lead to a less than pleasant working relationship. They might also have simply never been asked to contribute: work culture is top-down, and if the established processes do not solicit participation, it’s normal to see an unengaged team.

The secret to overcoming, and eventually changing these dynamics lies in leadership – understanding how to better engage staff. Start a dialogue with the team leaders and/or management to encourage them to change their meeting dynamics. They may be stepping out of their own comfort zone to do this, but this is a chance for everyone to grow, and leaders need to know that starts with them.

Here are some suggestions for how leaders can change the tone of the meeting. We’ll go from the boldest to most passive:

  1. Have the leader, if willing to do this, open the meeting by announcing: Today we’re here to challenge the status quo. We need to therefore identify the issues that are getting in the way, even if it’s issues with respect to my leadership.
  2. For problem-solving have the leader start the dialogue by bringing forth a sensitive issue with a solution that could be seen as really innovative or somewhat risky. This will loosen participants up for ‘blue sky’ thinking (creative ideas that are not limited by current thinking or beliefs)
  3. Ask the leader if s/he would be okay with stepping out during the sensitive parts of the conversation with you reporting back what the collective group would like them to hear upon their return. This makes you, the facilitator, the bearer of bad news. Help the leader understand that if they respond to your reports in a constructive way, it will encourage the team to open up, be more willing to uncover real issues and take better ownership of their opinions.

If the work culture or leadership isn’t open to this type of approach, or it isn’t effective when implemented, we can turn to the power of anonymity and confidentiality.

  1. Without leadership present, set a meeting norm ensuring confidentiality. “We agree that what’s said here, stays here” can open teams up to voice their concerns. This is one degree ‘safer’ than speaking up with leaders present. State that anything said will be communicated back to management where required without any identification as to who said what.
  2. Some team members may still be afraid to even voice their opinions among their peers. If the team is still unwilling to speak up, create another degree of ‘safety’, a way for team members to contribute their opinions anonymously. This could include:
    1. Notes or comment forms put into a box
    2. Using a ‘whiteboard’ function on an online meeting platform with a feature turned on that disables who’s submitting ideas
    3. Collecting sensitive ideas via e-mail before the meeting

In every case, you will collect the information and present it to the leadership at the next meeting, shifting the responsibility off of the team.

These techniques will produce an immediate positive effect on the meeting culture of any organization, but they also help you to figure out the deeper problems underlying the team. You’ll learn the true nature of the team you’re working with and what really matters to them. Then you can prioritize the right changes and work to ensure a culture of engagement. Here are a few ways you can nurture this new spirit of openness with the team. Feel free to use one or combine them all!

  1. Always have questions that will get everyone in the meeting thinking
  2. Always start with a round-robin, or put people into sub-groups and have one person collect responses to report out
  3. Use a creative brainstorming technique to get people ‘thinking out of the box’ or generating new, fresh ideas

There’s another crucial way to keep the culture open and positive – making sure to invite the right team members to each meeting. For an in-depth look at this topic and some key techniques to eliminate meeting bloat, check out my post “Who to invite”!

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