When asked, most managers say they believe to have created an environment where employees feel free to express their ideas and concerns openly. Statements like these are common:
“In our culture, anyone can say anything to anybody.”
“All of my people know I have an open-door policy.”
“My team doesn’t hold back when they tell me what they want.”
“No ideas are bad ideas.”
“After all, our people are our most important asset”.
It is not that most managers are deluded. Indeed, in most organizations, most employees would agree.
It’s only that people underperforming in meetings is not about ‘culture’. Even in the most open corporate culture, most people agree that – compared to how they normally behave and work with each other – ‘in meetings we’re somehow not at our best.’ That is not surprising because the situation in meetings is uniquely challenging.
Sadly, most have come to accept this sorry state as just the way the world is. That is, because, over many years, much has been tried to fix meetings – at substantial expense with little success.
Which means that before presenting yet another solution (fast forward), let’s take a closer look at what exactly needs solving.
As against a conversation, with 5 or more people in the (virtual) room, two things happen:
The risk to one’s hard-earned status increases proportionately to the number of people in the room
The compensatory strategies developed for conversations no longer work
Let’s look at what usually works well but does not work in meetings and why:
With many participants in the (virtual) room, our usually adequate empathetic skills are over taxed. We can no longer fool ourselves that we have an accurate assessment of our (many) opposites’ status or intentions or that we can form a good-enough impression on the fly by picking up verbal and non-verbal cues. We are somehow aware that a lot of what we know of the others in the meeting is hearsay. Worst of all, we feel that they are in the same situation meaning that they will be unsure about who we are and how to read what we say. The possibility that some may be able to handle the situation better than we can is less than reassuring as, being more or less blind ourselves, we are unsure about their intentions. This unfortunately will add to the stress. And so on.
Hierarchy and tribe
With our empathetic radar already flashing a (subconscious) “overload” warning, meetings pull the rug under two more mechanisms we rely on in our attempts to simplify our world, hierarchy and tribe. In a typical meeting, most participants will be confronted with multiple superiors at the same time. Even if they all have an unambiguous place in a ‘chain of command’, we understand that what pleases boss ‘A’ may well displease Boss ‘B’ and, of course, hierarchy in modern matrix organizations is anything but clear cut. We have our place in the line, but we also have a position in multiple project teams or committees. This does not only place us in multiple hierarchies but also in several formal and informal ‘teams’. Suppose that these teams do not all share the same interests or views, how can we appear loyal to all? Worse, when listening to the others, which hat are they wearing just now? Which of their several teams, if any, do they speak for?
With our empathetic radar fogged by overload and both hierarchy and tribe ambivalent, the possibilities for ‘misunderstandings’ abound. At the same time, our ability to clear up such misunderstandings is severely diminished.
As we’re not in a conversation and assuming we are not top dog, once we’ve stopped speaking, it will not be our turn to speak again for quite a while. Unless our contribution is ignored, hearing how it is taken up by others will often make us feel “that’s not what I said (or meant)”. Unfortunately, given the limits on air time and the many ways we can be misunderstood, we can hardly guard against this by effective up-front disclaimers.
Language and cultural codes
All the above is exacerbated if the participants in a meeting do not share the same native language and cultural background. The difficulties of a foreign language are obvious: Speaking and listening are harder, take longer and are more error prone.
Cultural difficulties are subtler and can wreak havoc even among linguistically fluent corporate warriors: Allusions do not work and irony backfires more often than not. When the British say, “This is QUITE good” they tend to mean something very different from when they say, “This is quite GOOD”. They just should not rely on anybody else ‘getting’ it the way they do.
Let’s remember that behavior in meetings is largely instinctive. Let’s also not forget what is at stake subjectively. What is at stake is our place in the (professional) world and, often enough, how we (consequently) see ourselves. Voicing an opinion that is misunderstood or turns out to be wrong - even if only under certain circumstances – can make us look like a fool. Any definite position we express on anything that really matters can be construed as disloyal by this or that boss or, worse, be seen as treason by one of the tribes we belong to.
Big risk for small gain
This gets worse the more we would wish a person to contribute because we respect their judgement and value their expertise. The greater their reputational capital, the more they have to lose, and they know it. Worse still, since a reputation is much harder to build than to destroy, this isn’t a 50:50 thing as in ‘win some, lose some’. Even a relatively small chance of losing kudos will outweigh the opportunity of gaining some.
So little wonder that the experts routinely shut up or become wishy-washy. They feel the difficulty of adequately qualifying what they say. They feel it most acutely as they do have a professional reputation to lose. Even where there is nothing as grand as a professional reputation at stake, many people choose silence as they find it hard to think of anything that isn’t
(A) totally vacuous AND
(B) palatable to their bosses AND
(C) in line with the group(s) that aspire to their loyalty.
The pleasing the silent and the ugly
Others seek safety in willful ambiguity thereby adding to the mess. Yet others go into display mode and start playing to the gallery rather than bothering about facts or results: After all, if it is all about status and social why not focus on winning approval? Yet again others react to the perceived weakness of others by compulsive aggression – everything comes second to scoring personal victories. Again, these different responses to the situation are mostly instinctive or subconscious. They have in common that they stand in the way of achieving results. They are complemented by attempts to resolve the ambiguities which turn out to be just as problematic.
Without being aware of it, most people in meetings do not take the failure of their empathetic radar lightly or without a fight. Unless resignation has already set in, they will do their best to read the cues they have to assess where the others stand and how they will or already have reacted to what we or others will say or have said. Most importantly, they will look for indicators of confidence or dissimulation to help them interpret what others mean by what they are saying. This is all they or we can do, as, in a typical meeting, we are not at liberty to ask questions as we would in a regular conversation. It will simply not be our turn to speak next. Moreover, in a meeting, “I don’t understand, could you please explain?” or, “What exactly do you mean by … ?” could come across as a challenge rather than a question. Better not ask.
Good grief, Miller, again.
This extra reliance on interpreting body language, tonality or other non-verbal signals not only diverts our attention from what is actually being said, it is also stressful and unlikely to work. Our social radar fogs up because it is overwhelmed – not for lack of effort. That is why many orators and actors focus on one or two people in their audience and take them as a proxy for that audience. Moreover, as we have found above, in a meeting, people do not act as they usually do. It comes as no surprise that while we may think that we are making that extra sense-making effort what we actually do is to filter information based on personal – if necessary instant – prejudice. This sad attempt of dealing with ambivalence is often overlooked as the issues of non-disclosure catch the limelight. Unfortunately, overlooking will not make this problem go away as it is destructive in at least two ways:
At the level of behavior, as we have seen above, non-disclosure or play-acting to please are defensive mechanisms against losing one’s status and feeling of self-worth. Negative prejudice will reinforce that behavior directly. Perhaps more surprisingly, positive prejudice i.e. taking someone’s word as fact does so, too. Positive prejudice highlights the value of a good reputation. Anyone with such a reputation has a lot to lose by offering anything that is not bullet proof.
Second, at the level of content, prejudice wastes another person’s valiant effort of speaking to the point. A fact, idea, proposition or assessment is on the table only to be ignored or subconsciously misrepresented. This teaches that open disclosure will not be met with an equally open mind. So why bother?
The Trouble with Online
Is there a solution that deals effectively with the dynamics that prevent people from being at their best in meetings? Something that is affordable in all meetings – online and face-to-face – and does not wear off or is blunted by use?
Fortunately, in our technical age, there is.
Or is there? Telephone and web conferences make many meetings feasible in the first place and save travel time and expenses. Unfortunately, they deny the non-verbal feedback that is available in the meeting room and thereby exacerbate the challenges to participants. The necessity of speaking strictly in sequence makes it even harder to get a word in. Everything is even slower. Listen to the drone or brew a cup of coffee? Bet on the coffee.
Being powerless to do much about it, many leaders of such conferences choose to ignore this routine disengagement. Did anybody notice that Jones didn’t say anything? Unfortunately, this make believe cannot extend to the results.
What about video?
Video conferencing is an attempt to restore both discipline and non-verbal communication to what people were used to when meeting face-to-face. Good systems give some illusion of meeting in person without having to travel but that is as far as it goes. At best, we have the illusion of being back in the meeting room. At worst, many faces staring back from the screen are intimidating and just drive home the fact that we have no chance of ‘reading’ many persons simultaneously. And despite most web conferences inspiring a certain nostalgia for the meeting room, we should remember that that is a troubled place to return to.
Proper Digitalization changes and ‘fixes’ the situation
The failure of web and video conferencing vendors to even address the issues that prevent online meetings from fulfilling their potential, does not mean that nothing can be done. Technology can, of course, provide effective remedies against the weaknesses of conventional meetings and web conferences. It can change the situation instead of attempting to change the people. It can provide digital tools that finally render paper markers, cards and sticky points obsolete. But whatever else it may provide, the most powerful tool digitalization offers is on-demand anonymity.
On-demand anonymity and the ability to get involved
MeetingSphere provides anonymity whenever it is required to side step the threats to the participants’ status and self-worth. It renders the unwanted coping strategies of participants unnecessary and sparks positive dynamics. MeetingSphere does this by enabling participants to submit their contributions in writing and by simply not tagging contributions with the name of the contributor. This simple step liberates participants from the burden of self-consciousness and associated threats when contributing an idea, fact, insight, question or opinion. Unlike speaking, writing can occur in parallel. There is no need to wait for a list of speakers to conclude whatever they may have to say. Submission of an idea frees the contributing participant’s mind. They can now follow the exchange of ideas or share their next thought. It also enables other participants to build on her thoughts immediately. Such reactions – be they comments, questions or new thoughts going off at a tangent – will be based on the merit of the contribution, not on positive or negative prejudice regarding the contributor. Compared to talking, all this is very fast and gets participants truly involved. (more on involvement)
The effect is liberating at all levels and teams often find their new level of performance exhilarating: Bosses and experts can contribute without fear of prejudicing the outcome or losing clout. Anyone can challenge ideas or (supposed) facts without challenging the originator’s position in the hierarchy or status as an expert or loyalty to the group. Suddenly, most people can say something interesting.
People are 'naturals' at anonymity
At the same time and perhaps surprisingly, cheap shots targeting individuals subside as they simply do not work outside the usual social dance. This opportunity for politicking is denied. Anonymity allows groups to forget about social whenever it is more important to focus on the matter at hand. Fortunately, technically enforced anonymity is available on demand. Technically enabled anonymity becomes even more powerful over time as trust in the new communication paradigm becomes complete and automatic.
Just as instinctively as participants will “get” the signal of assured anonymity as “this is now about the subject at hand and what you really think about it”, they will – for good or bad – return to their conventional behavior once anonymity has been turned off again. Albeit with one big difference: The facts and opinions are now on the table as are counter arguments and questions some of which may still wait for an answer. These ideas, facts, arguments and open questions can now be dealt with. Even better, if we have made reasonable use of the tools, we’ll even know what to accept as fact and what to focus on.
Tagging contributions by 'team'
To help with verification and sense making, MeetingSphere workspaces provide for tagging contributions with the name of a ‘team’ while safeguarding personal anonymity. Such tags can be helpful by indicating whether a contribution was made by a research engineer or a marketing person. What MeetingSphere cannot deliver at the same time as anonymity is that old source of credibility that is personal reputation or standing. This is where the ability to create evidence becomes a requirement.
The Need for Verification
Above, we have explored the reasons why people are likely to keep quiet, grow vacuous or even dress up the truth if we insist on their underwriting contributions with their identity. We have learnt that anonymity is an effective way to unlock disclosure and to enable participants to build on, reject or question disclosed facts without personal prejudice. This provides a wealth of information we otherwise would not have. However, it does not eliminate the need for verification, because, though anonymity does away with many reasons for bending the truth it, sadly, does not do away with all. We are well advised not to believe everything that is posted anonymously.
Fortunately, there are effective ways of verification, some new, some very traditional. Let’s begin with the traditional.
Check with soneone you trust
“On-demand” anonymity is just that. It can be switched on and off. Once anonymity has done its job of flushing out facts, ideas or questions and enabled participants to ‘listen’ and comment without personal prejudice we can return to more traditional ways of communication. We simply ask our most trusted source “Julie, what do you make of this? Can we make our decision on this basis?” or whatever you want her opinion on. This can be in the meeting or after, ideally in a true conversation with no more than 3 participants where Julie can be candid, and answers can be followed up with further questions. For such a conversation, Julie need not even have attended the meeting. The automatic verbatim report will put all the information generated in the meeting before her. Of course, Julie will not be the expert on everything and will hesitate to pass judgment on the factuality of events she has not observed. Also, we will not want to waste her time on verifying everything.
Verify directly with the group
Fortunately, MeetingSphere offers an alternative way of verification: rating by the group. The Rating workspace allows for the quick assessment of many items on one or several criteria such as “Is the case”, “Importance” or “Urgency” or “Effectiveness”. A simple rating instruction such as “Rate items by importance. Remember that things which are not true cannot be important” identifies within minutes what the participants believe to be fact AND important. If rating is ‘by team’, analysis of the results will show instantly where, say, Marketing and Sales agree and where they have a different view. This allows decision makers to progress to interesting questions such as “Why do Sales and Marketing disagree on this point? Does it matter? If so, how can we find out what is ‘right’ using anonymity as a tool for finding out, if it matters and if appropriate.