Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
The word itself probably sends a shiver up your spine.
Meetings are a ubiquitous part of life in the working world. It is an inevitable, yet often flawed, sharing and collaboration tool for any organization involving multiple people.
In this post, I am going to talk about one of my own pet peeves in meetings: Are the participants sharing their perspective or their agenda?
Sharing your perspective is almost always the intent of a meeting. On the other hand, pushing your agenda usually wastes time and distracts from the topic at hand.
Sharing your Perspective in a Meeting
Meetings exist to engage in a dialogue and to hear different perspectives in order to make the best possible decision.
It is for this reason that many successful organizations have regulated meetings to ensure there is more dialogue and perspective sharing.
For example, Amazon limits meetings to what founder Jeff Bezos referred to as the “Two pizza rule.” The rule states that he won’t attend a meeting if two pizzas won’t feed the number of attendees. Amazon also banned powerpoint presentations and uses a different tactic to level-set during a meeting.
At Amazon, the person who calls the meeting drafts a short memo that everyone attending the meeting reads independently in the first 10-minutes of the meeting. That allows more time for questions and dialogue and less for long dog-and-pony-show presentations.
Elon Musk is known for asking his employees to leave a meeting if they are not contributing to it, because it is wasting time where they could be doing other work.
These leaders understand that there is more to learn from the people they have hired to make the best decision.
In high functioning meetings, there is a high degree of trust, which allows the team to share their perspectives freely. Comments build off of each other and ideas come together with contributions from nearly everyone present. Both people who have a perspective in-favor and opposed are given space to share because the outcome of a better decision is an important goal.
I have found that meetings like this often give me energy rather than take it away. This is the exact opposite is true in a meeting where everyone is sharing their agenda.
Sharing your Agenda in a Meeting
Unfortunately, most of the time meetings exist to have, “One way conversations.”
This may look like the person leading the meeting occupying the majority of time with a powerpoint, suggesting a decision, and then leaving minimal time for input. This gives the impression that a decision has already been made.
It could also look like a participant interjecting a speech that is not relevant to the discussion but advances their role or project. They are not looking to contribute to the topic of the meeting, but rather solicit other attendees to help them with their work.
Sometimes it looks like a senior leader expressing his agenda and looking for the attendees to agree with him.
All of these examples are unhealthy dynamics.
In fact, many of these are “Simple Sabotage” tactics. These concept was advanced by the CIA in 1944 and they published a “Simple Sabotage Field Manual,” used to train potential foreign saboteurs. It has since been declassified.
Some of the tactics in the Field Manual refer specifically to behaviors in meetings:
- Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
- When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
- Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
Most people who bring their agenda to a meeting are sabotaging something – the decision, satisfaction, or morale – and they don’t even realize it. By bringing your agenda to a meeting to make a decision, you may be doing just that.
The Problem in Large Organizations
I’ve spent the majority of my career working in large organizations. This meeting problem is notoriously bad. Most of my days were spent in meetings, hearing the same message over and over again, but with slightly different combinations of other executives.
The problem at the root of this meeting misery is unclear authority. Many of the meetings take place because it is unclear who has the authority to make a final decision. This leads to meeting after meeting on the same topic, looking for who is willing to make the decision to move forward. I saw this particularly at the corporate level of an organization.
Senior leaders in large organizations are sometimes managing egos, politics, and the desire to avoid blame. That often leads to suboptimal decisions make through suboptimal processes, including suboptimal meetings.
Industry leaders of large organizations, like Bezos and Musk, understand this risk and have created systems to avoid it.
The role of a Leader in the Meeting
Fundamentally, a leader’s role in a meeting is to facilitate the conversation and then decide how a final
“Go or no go,” decision will be made.
Facilitating a conversation is an art. It involves setting the right goals, ground rules, and agenda. It also involves managing dominating voices and encouraging quieter participants.
A final decision can be made in a number of ways – majority, consensus, delegated authority, or a sole decision maker. Each one should be used in the appropriate situation. What is important for the leader to do is define how the decision is being made. That often prevents disappointment and frustration from the participants in the meeting.
Effective meetings prioritize perspective sharing, encourage open dialogue, and prevent personal agendas from hijacking the conversation. Leaders play a crucial role in facilitating discussions and defining decision-making processes to ensure productive outcomes.
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