What’s the recipe for a bad meeting? One that has no objective, no structure, no agenda, and no leader. Unfortunately, in such cases, someone or something will inevitably fill that meeting vacuum. While it is possible that the vacuum will be filled in a way that is positive, productive, and energizing, frequently it is not.
This is a scenario that is seen every day in business meetings. But a really good case study can be seen at another gathering around a table: Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s not surprising that no one’s Thanksgiving dinner has a written agenda of topics, speakers, and objectives. At the very least, it doesn’t happen because it has never happened; that’s not yet a holiday habit.
Similarly, Thanksgiving has no tradition of a table captain in most households. There is a sense of equity-through-anarchy where having a leader is bad and not having a leader is good. Business meetings also face this laissez-faire challenge where a group of peers can feel that having a designated leader is overbearing so no one initially steps forward.
Thus, when people gather, the approach largely comes down to serendipity. We hope that the conversation will go well. And yet, we know that not only does it not go well, but it often goes poorly.
Where does it go wrong? There’s a situation where one person talks and talks as if holding court and everyone else is relegated to quietly sculpting mashed potatoes into abstract shapes. There is the one guest who is prone to repeating the same old stories that the group has heard every year. And then there are the heated debates and awkward inquisitions that make everyone swear that they won’t be at that table next year.
At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised that these conversations go awry. It’s very much the same with business meetings. Be it Thanksgiving or a quarterly all-hands update, what can you do to avoid meetings that go off the rails?
Determine Your Objective
It seems obvious, but if you’re going to all the trouble to bring people together, you should know why you’re doing it. Spending even a moment to think about this and clarify it helps to fill a common vacuum in meetings. Dedicating a little bit more time can pay off in spades. Think about using a trick like the Five Whys. It can feel awkward, but if you ask yourself why you’re doing a meeting and then keep asking why to those answers (for a total of five times), you may ultimately get to a really substantial answer that affects the rest of what you do.
To say that you’re getting people together for Thanksgiving because that’s just what you do on this particular day each year isn’t much of an answer. On the other hand, if you’re doing it to foster intergenerational connections within your family, that’s a different approach. If the surface reason that you’re bringing people together for a status update meeting is simply to update the status on some project, there is probably something deeper at play that necessitates a meeting and not just an email.
Have a Leader
Admittedly, anointing yourself the CEO of the Thanksgiving table probably won’t go over well. But that doesn’t mean the event has to be leaderless. There are numerous, subtle ways to lead a meeting without putting on a crown and grabbing a scepter. If it’s your house and you are hosting, people understand that you have some prerogative to impose terms of engagement. After all: your house, your rules. And, if it’s not your house, there may be a good reason why you should have a hand in how things are facilitated. Maybe you are the matriarch or patriarch of the family. Or, by contrast, perhaps you are the youngest and that provides an opportunity to speak up.
Remember, one can lead subtly, benevolently, and with humor and humility. One need not be a dictator. And, remember, you may be doing everyone a favor in taking on this mantle and preventing it from being worn by the loudest, most obnoxious person in the room.
Follow an Agenda
An agenda at Thanksgiving? The idea sounds crazy. But we know that there is already the framework of an unspoken agenda in many households. There may be an opening in the form of a toast, blessing, or welcome on the part of the host. The food is laid out and people explain what their dish is. Then we may do introductions, especially if there are people at the table who are new. At some point, many households are familiar with taking turns sharing the things for which they are thankful. And then there is usually some sort of closing.
Even if you haven’t thought about it as an agenda, once it is spelled out, it’s easier to understand how and where it can be tweaked to improve the conversation. Or where one could add a new section rather than just hoping that serendipity will steer the group clear of catastrophic waters. It might feel awkward to set out conversation topics, but it’s much easier to do so at the beginning than to try to right the ship later.
Impose Some Structure
Putting in some guidelines can help fill the vacuum at a meeting. These structures don’t have to be obvious, awkward, or contrived. We are, for example, already very familiar with the notion of going around the table and sharing something in turn on the prescribed topic of thankfulness. Doing nothing more than repeating that format, you might get two other rounds on two other topics that give everyone at the table an equal chance to be heard and appreciated while also steering the conversation towards topics everyone wants to discuss and away from those that they don ‘t. You could also add a good natured rule that anyone who starts clinking a glass gets to change the topic. Or, you could simply ask people to have a quick conversation with the person next to them or to purposefully arrange the table so that West Coast cousins are intermingled with the East Coast clan, for example. You could even hand out little conversation prompt cards. Will everyone use them? Maybe not, but it’s still a way of positively and proactively filling the vacuum rather than leaving it to chance that the group will arrive at a good place on its own.