In our latest blog Vicky Ferrier, Associate Partner at TPC Leadership explores the reasons why meetings sometimes go awry and the steps we can take to run better more productive meetings.

May I just clarify the question? You are asking who would know what it is that I don’t know and you don’t know but the Foreign Office know that they know that they are keeping from you so that you don’t know and they do know and, all we know, there is something we don’t know and we want to know. We don’t know what because we don’t know. Is that it?

BBC Television’s Yes, Prime Minister

Conducting a Google search – “why meetings don’t work” – yields 211 million results, with everyone from psychologists to management gurus suggesting simple steps to improve them. Advice abounds: meeting length (keep them short); whether we should stand up (doesn’t work for everyone according to HBR); the importance of setting goals, objectives and outcomes; inviting the right people; involving everyone; documenting actions and using emails for status updates rather than meetings. Simple huh?

No doubt, adopting these practices will improve your meetings, and yet if the solutions to a seemingly intractable problem are so simple, why then does almost no-one say “yay, can’t wait to get to my next [back-to-back] meeting” and “that was a great investment of my time”?

Why meetings are generally ineffective?

To understand why meetings are generally ineffective, we need to dig deeper into the psychology of groups and how groups shape our social identity. People are social animals, who, on the whole, prefer working collectively rather than individually, but dynamics such as group norms (unwritten group rules) can stifle contributions. Social loafing is a phenomenon which explains why meetings are often unproductive: people often exert less effort to achieve a goal in a group than when they work alone.

Groupthink

Decision making can be hampered by groupthink, a term coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis, which occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”. Such groups value harmony and coherence – “getting along” – over accurate analysis, critical evaluation, seeking outside views and considering alternatives. Groupthink causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader. It strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus and is responsible for maintaining the status quo.

We often have meetings based on the belief that pooling the resources, knowledge and intelligence of the whole team will yield better results, but this is often not the case. A 1985 study by Garold Stasser and William Titus of Miami University and Briar Cliff College respectively, revealed counter-intuitively, that in a group situation, instead of revealing information known only to ourselves, we talk about things everyone already knows. Why should we fail to share vital information that could improve the intelligence of the collective and improve the chances of meeting shared goals?

Research by Wittenbaum et al (2004) suggests this is down to:

  1. Anxiety: before a meeting people are unsure how important the information they know is and are also anxious to be seen in a good light by others in the group. Information that emerges during a meeting as shared by the group comes to be viewed as more important and so people repeat it. People are seen as more capable when they talk about shared rather than unshared information. To be on the safe side people prefer to stick to repeating things that everyone knows and, bizarrely, others like them better for it.
  2. Pre-judgment: people make their minds up to varying degrees before they have a group discussion. The information on which they make their pre-judgement is likely to be shared information available to everyone. Then, when the group discussion starts, whether consciously or unconsciously, people tend to only bring up information that supports their pre-judgement. Unsurprisingly this is the same thing everyone else is bringing up.
  3. Memory: shared information is likely to be more memorable in the first place, so more likely to be brought up by someone. Also, if more people in a group know a piece of information, whether because it’s memorable or for some other reason, then there is a greater probability that one of them will recall it in the discussion.

Be comfortable with ambiguity

Of course, there are countless other reasons why people don’t share information. In the real-world office politics plays its part. People often have goals which conflict with the rest of the group and seek to further their own goals rather than the shared goal. Status also is important, as those with a higher status are more likely to share, whilst those lower down the food chain often feel unable to speak up. Being seen to not know the answer is also often at play in meetings, especially by those in professions and with job titles that denote expertise or status. It requires us to be comfortable with ambiguity.

Creating a Thinking Environment

One way we can reduce counter-productive behaviour and dramatically improve meetings is by creating a Thinking Environment™ which is built on the premise that everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. Kline’s way is a way of being in the world, not just a theory and a set of skills: an unusual way of paying attention that dignifies and respects the thinker so that they begin to think for themselves clearly and afresh.

Allowing people to think independently – to think for themselves, as themselves offsets the dangers of groupthink and encourages the kind of creativity and innovation most organisations would admit is in short supply. To create the future, you have to imagine it first, and that requires thinking – creatively, critically and generatively. It requires us to be comfortable with ambiguity, which for many of us is so painful, we will do anything to avoid the ambiguity of not knowing, even jump to the first answer that comes along to put us out of our misery (see Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing). It requires us to stay with the question, not to rush to answers.

That the brain works best in the presence of a question is a key tenet of Kline’s work. Too often in organisations, questions tend to focus on the problem: why didn’t you hit your target? Why did that happen? Why isn’t this working? Problem focused questions often start with a “why”, which often takes you into the past or deeper into the problem. This can mean that the person being asked the question becomes more focused on the problem state and therefore becomes less resourceful and sees a drop in energy. It also can quickly lead to a blame culture.

Focusing on the problem may in some instances be appropriate, for example trying to correct a process or a procedure. However, it rarely gets the best out of people and does not respect how we know the brain to work.

Leading with Questions

In Leading with Questions, Michael Marquardt, suggests great, solutions-focused questions:

  • Cause the person to focus and stretch
  • Creates deep reflection, and to access our wisdom
  • Causes people to think more deeply
  • Challenges “taken for granted” assumptions that prevent people from acting in new and effective ways
  • Raise awareness of the need for change and so people are more open to change
  • Generate courage and strength
  • Create new thinking and lead to breakthrough thinking
  • Generate the keys that open the door to great solutions
  • Enable people to have a better view of the situation – to see things from a fresh perspective
  • Generate powerful and positive action

A Thinking Environment, addresses Marquardt’s list, as questions play a key role. In part one the thinker is asked “what would you like to think about and what are your thoughts” (and “what more do you think, or feel, or want to say about….”). In part two, the incisive question explicitly uncovers limiting assumptions, especially the key, bedrock assumption that is limiting the thinker’s progress towards their goal.

For Kline, listening is an experience using all of our senses and being fully present. Listening powerfully, is rooted in her Quaker upbringing: Quakers conduct “clearness committees” which are founded on the belief that “each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems”.

What is the answer to better meetings?

The answer to better meetings, therefore requires a shift in mindset: changing the meeting length, email distribution list and making them outcome focused will no doubt improve the quality of your meetings…..a little. But, starting with the questions – framed in the language of the desired outcome – rather than an agenda – will yield better results. If you don’t purposefully create an environment in which people can think at their best, it’s like opening a packet of seeds and expecting a tree to grow. Yes, the potentiality of a tree exists in a seed, but the seed needs other resources – soil, nutrients, water, light – for a tree to grow. People are the seed, the environment we create allows them, and therefore the business, to grow, or not.

Vicky Ferrier is an associate partner with TPC Leadership. For more insight on how to move forward get in touch.