In Meetings Behaving Badly: Five Collaboration Killers
Do You Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Meetings? Here’s What To Do About It!
I have a love-hate relationship with meetings.
When a meeting goes well, there’s nothing better on the face of the earth. Ideas are generated, innovations are discovered, people are energized, and the business moves forward.
A great meeting is a thing of beauty.
Just the opposite happens when a meeting does not go well. You can taste the tension in the air, like drinking sour milk. Participants seize up and so does any possibility of creative communication. People start planning their escape, if only in their minds.
What causes meetings like this? The following collaboration killers. I’ve witnessed everyone of these five from leaders who should know better (much better), in meetings behaving badly.
Collaboration Killer One: Distraction
The first collaboration killer is distraction. It’s the most ubiquitous of bad meeting behaviors and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. You’ve seen, and done, these things:
Checking your phone for text messages
Using your laptop to take notes but reading email instead
Browsing the Internet
Answering a phone call in the middle of a meeting
Distractions like these destroy meeting effectiveness because the human mind can’t do two things at once. What we refer to as multitasking is not multitasking at all but task switching.
“When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurological high so we think we are doing better and better, when actually we are doing worse and worse,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in Reclaiming Conversation.
Task switching is okay if the tasks you’re doing are unimportant, like folding laundry and watching TV. You can always rewind a show and review what you missed. You can’t do that in a meeting, and what you miss as a leader—not just words but powerful emotional cues—can be monumental.
Make your meetings device- and distraction-free zones, so everyone gives their full attention to them. Start on time and end on time, so time management sticklers don’t feel like their day is wasting away. If a meeting goes for more than 75 minutes, give 10-minute technology breaks (and make sure to start on time after the break). If notes need to be taken for a meeting, use an executive assistant, not individual laptops, so people in the room can give issues under consideration their full and undivided attention.
Collaboration Killer Two: Interrogation
Anyone who’s ever watched a courtroom drama (or My Cousin Vinny) knows what interrogation is. An aggressive lawyer grills a witness with question after question. In the end, the poor person is shredded to pieces, and the lawyer has won the day, not by making an assertion but by undermining the credibility of the witness.
I’ve watched similar interrogations occur in many a business meeting. Not that asking questions is wrong—even tough questions. It’s the intent of the asking, however, that makes it bad meeting behavior.
The intent of interrogation is not to find the truth but to make a point or play gotcha. Its objective is to destroy the opposition without having to take a stand. That’s bad leadership, not to mention bad business.
Ask questions in your meetings. But do so in a way they can be answered. Prepare people for these questions by providing them before the meeting. Make your aim as a leader to help everyone understand the issues at hand in the best way possible, not to win an argument by publicly humiliating others or casting doubt on their credibility.
Leadership is about developing people into the best version of themselves. It’s not about beating your chest in public, trying to prove how smart you are. Use meetings to do the former and never do the latter.
Collaboration Killer Three: Mischaracterization
Of all the bad meeting behaviors, this is the sneakiest: mischaracterization. Mischaracterization clothes itself in the robe of active listening but does so deceptively because it doesn’t accurately paraphrase what’s being said.
When you’re on the receiving end of mischaracterization, it feels good at first. Words like, “So what you’re saying is …” introduce a statement, but what follows is an incomplete version of what you actually said. So you’re stuck defending yourself to someone who’s putting on a show of listening. This person isn’t really listening, however, or they would have correctly reflected your point of view.
A version of mischaracterization is taking something to its logical extreme. Any idea, especially one being considered in a group discussion format, has conclusions that don’t make sense when pushed to their illogical limits. Going to that extreme, however, twists the intent of the speaker.
For example, you may propose in a meeting qualifying incoming leads from trade shows because your sales team is wasting hours of their time running after people who fill out a form to win a large-screen TV but have no interest in doing business with your firm. Mischaracterization would say, “So what you’re saying is we shouldn’t offer prizes at all at our booth. Maybe we should stop going to trade shows entirely?”
No, that’s not what you’re saying. By misrepresenting it, this person forces you into a defensive mode rather than a collaborative one and poisons communication on this topic.
Like asking good questions, restating what a person says is a powerful active listening skill. Do it, however, in a way that truly represents the perspective of others, not entraps them in something they’re not saying.
Collaboration Killer Four: Grandstanding
This bad meeting behavior, grandstanding, is the exact opposite of mischaracterization. When grandstanding takes place, no attempt at active listening is made. A person just locks and loads: talking on and on and on until they run out of gas or someone cuts them off.
Grandstanders can appear righteous in their causes or claims to be protecting some historic virtue (I once sat through a forty-five-minute grandstand by the founder of a struggling nonprofit prior to an important vote about its future. Guess which way the vote went?), but they kill collaboration. And when collaboration is killed, the death of the organization is not far behind. As it was with this nonprofit.
Meeting communication thrives when bursts of sentences and short paragraphs are spontaneously exchanged by all the people in the room, like a human popcorn popper. This dynamic is destroyed when pages or chapters of endless content is recounted.
You can prevent grandstanding before it happens by defining upfront what it is and holding people to a strict standard of discussion dynamics. It’s trickier to cut someone off in public when they launch into a long-winded tale, but it can be done in a gracious way. Make sure, however, to follow up one-on-one with that person. Most grandstanders have no idea they’re doing it and need a little coaching to help them get better.
Collaboration Killer Five: Stonewalling
The final collaboration killer is stonewalling. As the term implies, stonewalling erects a barrier between one’s self and others that, like stone, is impenetrable to input. Stonewalling occurs in meetings when one or more members adamantly cling to their point of view, refusing to compromise in any way.
Corporate scandals of past decades would have been prevented by courageous stonewallers, so the practice is not bad in itself. It becomes bad when stonewalling is indiscriminate. That is, when the issue clung to is not mission-critical or related to the violation of a core value.
When meeting discussions do not involve the breach of ethical standards, then collaboration and compromise should be the law of the land. In this context, stonewallers are not brave corporate whistleblowers but inflexible, self-willed obstructionists.
Sure, have opinions. And hold those opinions passionately. I sure do. But don’t let them hold you. Allow others to challenge your opinions without getting combative or defensive, and let a better option emerge as a result.
Make Meetings Matter Again
Meetings are great opportunities for you as a leader to inspire your people and align them around the mission and vision of the organization. They’re also fertile ground for fresh ideas and exciting innovations.
Meetings can also be filled with dysfunction, for we as human beings are filled with dysfunction. This, too, is something for you to address as a leader.
Stop the distractions that interrupt your meetings and destroy their effectiveness. Teach people how to ask good questions, not as a way of catching others in a mistake but as a way of gaining understanding. Teach them also how to reflect others’ points of view by accurately paraphrasing them back to them. Finally, for the sake of everyone, ask your grandstanders to talk less—a lot less—and learn how to have a real, dynamic, interactive communication where iron sharpens iron.
In other words, stop hating your meetings, and do the things that will make the people in them, including you, love them again.
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