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Better Meetings

Meetings Aren’t Meant to Make People Crazy

Encourage productive conflict, and get things resolved.

The following is excerpted from the new book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track.

So much of the interaction you have with colleagues is in meetings, yet so many meetings have become horribly ineffective. Instead of creating a forum for productive conflict to be surfaced and resolved, meetings are often just hour-long displays of the power and politics on your team. The actual work of discussing options and coming to a solution is relegated to side conversations and the dreaded meeting-after-the-meeting.

Changing how you manage your meetings is key for turning productive conflict into a healthy habit.

State the purpose of  the  meeting. I’m always amazed at how much time is invested in meetings where no one really knows why the meeting is happening. We’ve become slaves to our calendars, mindlessly showing up at the allotted time in the cleverly named meeting room, filling the time with drivel until our phones chime and tell us to move to the next room. If you want to be productive, you need to break this fog. State the purpose of the meeting in the agenda and reiterate it at the start of the meeting. While you’re at it, talk about what the meeting is not about. “This is our weekly operations meeting. We’re focusing on issues that have a yellow or red-light status. Anything with a green-light status needs to be held for our monthly review meetings.” If you want them to eat their productive conflict vegetables, you have to take the dessert off the table.

Specify the  purpose of each item. Be clear about the kind of discussion each agenda item requires. If an agenda item is for information, say so and facilitate the discussion appropriately. Don’t get into debates and don’t go over the time limit—that wastes the time you need for productive conflict. If something is for decision, be clear on the decision criteria and specify whether everyone gets to vote or whether you’re looking for recommendations and then one person will decide.

Filter and focus. Ask people to filter their contributions and focus on points that add value. Don’t waste time on violently agreeing with one another. “I’m looking for different perspectives and new ways of thinking. If you agree with what’s been said, don’t say the same thing over again.” Remember conflict-avoidant teams will take any opportunity to have pleasant conversations instead of challenging ones. You will need to cut off endless agreement and compliment effective arguments.

Reiterate your ground rules. If your team has spent time developing ground rules (which I recommend that you do), then remind everyone about the most important ones at the start of the meeting. “Just a reminder that we’ve all committed to starting with a positive assumption and having conflict productively.”

Head off passive-aggressiveness. Be explicit at the start of your meeting that issues need to be addressed in the meeting, not after it.  It’s not a fail-safe approach, but if you call out difficult or contentious discussions at the start of a meeting and ask people to share their points of view candidly, it will increase the likelihood that you get the issues on the table rather than leaving them for hallway gossip later.

Leave 10% for wrap-up. I find it so demoralizing when a team has a great meeting and then ruins it by failing to create alignment at the end. Take the meeting seriously by setting a timer with an alarm to go off with 10% of your meeting time remaining. If your meeting is longer, you’ll need more time to do a proper review. Set the rule that the person speaking wraps up and other contributions are held for the next meeting. “I know a couple of people were still in line to speak. Is this something we can continue over email or should we schedule time to discuss this issue again?” This approach will seem harsh at first, but the alternative is to waste the efforts invested in 90% of the meeting because you don’t land them. Failing to ensure alignment also sets up nasty conflicts later.

Review items and restate the outcomes. For each item, mention the purpose of the conversation, any decisions that were made, and the next steps, owner, and timelines for what needs to be done. Be prepared that stating these things explicitly might expose misalignment that requires clarification and sometimes even an additional meeting.

Agree on what you will communicate. Too often, it’s left to the individual discretion of the people around the table to decide what they will and won’t communicate. Leaving each team member to decide on what gets communicated can create misalignment and push conflict even deeper into your organization. Instead, draft the high-level themes that people should communicate and decide with whom they should be shared. Just as importantly, decide what isn’t ready to be communicated and agree that those issues will be kept within the team until further notice.

Evaluate yourselves. Take one minute at the end of every meeting to gauge your performance. “How did we do? Was the time used wisely? Were we paying attention to the right things? Did we get to the outcomes we needed? Did we follow our own ground rules?” You don’t need a seventy-two-item survey but getting a quick measure from participants and some thoughts on how to improve things for next time is a good habit to form.

Say thank you. If you’re trying to encourage a conflict habit, take a moment at the end of the meeting to reinforce any positive changes. For example, “Thanks for being so open about the tough issues today, I appreciate your candor.”  Or, “It got a little heated there for a bit. I appreciate that everyone stayed engaged and talked through their perspectives.”

Habits take time and effort to build, especially when they’re designed to disrupt a pattern. Do the little things each day to clarify expectations, test for alignment, challenge with different perspectives, and uncover problems before they get out of hand. By adding a little productive conflict to each day, you’ll wind up with fewer unpleasant, unproductive conflicts in the long run. If you’re starting to establish a conflict habit, start small. Just because you have seen the light doesn’t mean your colleagues, who might be more anxious about conflict, will appreciate your enlightenment.

In Brief

  • The best way to keep conflict productive is to make small, frequent disagreements part of your daily habits. Begin to sprinkle a little conflict to help your teammates develop a taste for it.
  • Invest time up front in clarifying expectations whenever you face a new task, a new project, or a new role.
  • Make dissent more normal by adding tension to even the most routine conversations.
  • Get more skilled at delivering feedback to help your colleagues understand the unintended impact of their behavior.
  • Use appropriate humor and code words to keep difficult discussions light and to avoid triggering defensiveness.
  • Set clear expectations for how meetings will support productive conflict, and use the start and the close of your meetings to reinforce those expectations.

Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author and the host of the ChangeYourTeam blog. As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she advises on business strategy and executive team effectiveness and has worked with executives at companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Aviva, TD Bank, and SONY PlayStation. Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology and has served as an evaluator for the American Psychological Association's Healthy Workplace Awards.

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