Monday, July 29, 2013

The secret life of meetings

Come in. We're just getting started.
For years I was frustrated by business meetings. I had big ideas, you know, but I could never get them the consideration they deserved.

I decided it might have something to do with my timing, so I'd wait for what I imagined to be the right time to introduce my brilliance.

What I failed to understand was the whole context of a meeting. For example, I now suspect that many meetings are called only so that the person who called the meeting can demonstrate to everyone else that he or she has the power to call a meeting.

It's interesting that at Reader's Digest, where I worked for 16 years, the rule under founder Dewitt Wallace was: no meetings. The company published the most successful magazine in history. When others took over after his death, one of the first things they did was build a suite of meeting rooms. Perhaps they were necessary to discuss the two bankruptcies the company has endured.

Here are some other hidden dynamics of meetings. They are from Ron Ashkenas, a management consultant who I suspect has sat through his share of crazy-making meetings.
First, when people show up at meetings, they come with different perspectives. No matter how clear the purpose of the meeting, some attendees will consider it high priority and others will just attend because it's on the calendar; some will have had the time to prepare and others will struggle just to get there on time; some will feel strongly about the topic while others will be happy to go along with whatever everyone else wants to do.  
Second, people have different (often-unconscious) personal agendas. In some companies being part of a meeting is a status symbol, in which some people continue to participate in a project even when they have little to contribute. Meetings might also serve as much-needed social gatherings, particularly in companies where people are highly distributed or travel frequently. There also are times when participants use meetings to score political points.  
Finally, during meetings, people relate differently to leading or being led. Some participants are comfortable letting someone else take the lead, while others will sabotage the leader or become passive aggressive. Similarly, some managers naturally take charge while others will hesitate to exert influence or power.
No wonder nobody would listen to me.

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