What the Boss is Really Thinking | Thought Bubbles from a Team Meeting

By: Gene Morrissy

Meetings lose their value when people do not raise critical issues or provide feedback. Let me explain.

Recently, my colleague Steve Madenberg wrote a blog post about unproductive senior team meetings, and he offered some sadly humorous “thought bubbles” that may be found over the heads of participants. Steve presented sound and helpful ideas for fundamentally structuring meetings differently. His blog also made me think about what kinds of thought bubbles float over the heads of leaders during meetings.

Meeting participants are often unhappy with the way things go during meetings. I offer a number of statements that might run through the minds of team leaders:

  • Why is Joe so silent during meetings? I know he has something to add!
  • Why can’t these people put down their phones for the next hour? This topic affects their groups directly.
  • I hate it when the kids fight. Why can’t they all just get along?
  • Why do we even bother with this meeting since no one seems eager to address the real issues?
  • These slides Martha is showing go on and on and on. Doesn’t she understand you do not have to boil the ocean?
  • Why aren’t these meetings more productive?

Between these and the thoughts Steve offered in his earlier post, I suspect many people can relate. Structure, intentionality, and bringing things to conclusion are always important considerations to increase the value of the time spent in meetings.

However, there is an even more basic element that has to be uncovered and dealt with. There is often a lot of frustration or dissatisfaction with the way things are operating in these meetings, but it is often not addressed directly. This can be due to fear of getting a negative response, competing political agendas, or a reluctance to create discomfort. The aggravation is often discussed among individuals after the meeting is over in subgroups. How many times have you observed or been party to a conversation after a meeting where someone voiced unhappiness with the nature of a conversation, the behavior of some members of the team, or what items didn’t get raised in the meeting? You know it is not a good thing, so why does it keep happening?

You might reflexively say, it seems so obvious! People do not want to have conversations that create discomfort among people they have to work with day in and day out. You see it in soap operas where people go down in flames because they do not clarify or express problems directly. The fundamental element of trust and the feeling of psychological safety are not evident in these teams. It is often because we have not learned that these sorts of conversations will not result in the end of the world. What we fear does not typically occur. More often than not, one’s worst nightmares do not become reality.

What can be done about it? How can teams learn that bad things do not happen if conflict or feedback to the team is expressed? It takes practice, practice, practice, as one very famous violinist said when asked how he got to Carnegie Hall. A team needs to call out the problem and work on it to the betterment of the team. Individuals need courage and should experiment in small ways by being direct, candid, and authentic despite their fears. To show courage, an individual must allow themselves to be vulnerable, accepting the risk that goes with it. It may also mean admitting to their reluctance to put a spotlight on the need for more candid conversation.

Comments need to be relevant to the issue or the process without making them personal. When individuals do raise questions about team process, someone should point out that the sky did not fall because an individual offered a constructive comment. This is the responsibility of every single member of the team, not just the team leader. Nonetheless when a team member does show the courage to speak about something, the leader needs to celebrate that bravery if it is a new team behavior. Furthermore, the concept of vicarious learning means that everyone who sees how it benefits the team when it improves the way the team operates will be far more willing to try it themselves. It can be done incrementally, like an experiment to see the net effect.

My suggestion is that you give it a try. Team members will thank you, respect you, and see you as an authentic leader or team member no matter what your position is on the team.

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