Thursday, May 17, 2012

WSJ offers amateurish advice to avoid meeting killers.

Wall Street Journal contributor Sue Shellenbarger brings up an interesting topic but then fails at providing realistic advice to address the problem.  Caution: Don't follow her advice unless you want your co-workers to think you are either a jerk, a whacko or a clueless dingbat. My word, if you really think putting an Elmo Doll in the middle of the table at a corporate meeting will make you more credible, you will get eaten alive.
Meet the Meeting Killers
When it comes time for a meeting, co-workers can be deadly. Discussions get hijacked. Bad ideas fall like blunt objects. Long-winded colleagues consume all available oxygen, killing good ideas by asphyxiation.
Co-workers wander off topic, send texts, disrupt decision-making or behave in other dysfunctional ways. Even the best leaders can resort to desperate measures to keep the discussion on track: chocolate rewards, Elmo dolls and ice-cold rooms.

OK.  True enough that some people tend to be meeting killers.  The most common type is the person who won't shut the hell up.  If there are ten people in the room, at least one of them is a habitual yapper.  This person loves the sound of their own voice and they specialize in long soliloquies.  When it appears that some in the room aren't following their line of thinking, they simply start over and say the same thing over again with a slightly different twist.   This person needs to be interrupted. Just to let them go on and on is to endorse their long windedness.  I have no problem stopping them via interruption.  They get the point eventually.  They may sulk after that, but that's OK.  They'll come around.  And keep in mind, they may very well have a perfectly good point underneath all the words.  If you recognize that and sum it up in a sentence, you will gain their trust and hopefully they will appreciate how you heard them and simplified the message so well.  So even if they are a pain in the arse, don't automatically reject them.  Learn from them, but teach them as well.  The fewer words it takes to make your point the better.

Then there is the person who always wants to go off topic and extend the scope of the discussion to include solving world hunger.   They too need to be interrupted.  Politely point out that what they are bringing up is beyond the scope of the meeting and it should be brought up in another forum.

There is the side conversation guy.  The is the person who has to have hushed side conversations with those around him. It may or may not be related to the meeting discussion and it may or may not be disruptive to the rest of the people in the room, however it is highly annoying to anyone who might be listening in on the phone if it happens to be a conference call.  "One Meeting!" is the phrase you say to rein them back in.  If you have to tell them a second time, a dirty look is in order.  The 3rd time, just the dirty look.  If all that doesn't work, let it go but don't invite them next time.   Disclaimer: if that person happens to be your boss or reside above you in the organization, just pause the meeting when they are having the sidebar.  No need to cheese off the boss.  

The mad texter or the e-mailer who is taking time to be at your meeting but only so they can pipe up if need be.  I don't have a problem with them if they aren't disrupting the whole meeting, and I see no reason to insist that everyone in the meeting gives you their undivided attention. People are too busy these days to not try to keep up with the other 20 things they are working on.   But if they are tapping like a mad man on their keyboard and disrupting the conversation in the meeting, a request that they not beat the hell out of their keyboard is a good hint.  It might be a clue that your meeting is boring to them.  If you keep their attention, they will most likely stop.  You know you have the e-mailer's attention when they shut the laptop and start contributing.

The smart ass and/or naysayer who tries to disrupt the meeting with sarcastic, negative comments.  For the first couple offenses, smile it off, ignore it and plod on. But if keeps happening, take them head-on.  Explore their comments and ask for feedback from the group about their comments.  They should get the message.  If they are political in nature or otherwise inappropriate for the environment, then a bit of ridicule is in order.

The sleeper is the guy who took the time to come to your meeting but is nodding off and tuning in and out.  I don't recommend stopping the meeting to embarrass them for sleeping, unless of course they start sawing logs. Then wad up a piece of paper and throw it at their head to wake them up.  But leave the quiet sleeper alone.  Some people do their best thinking when they are sleeping.  This person might just wake up with a great idea.

Try to sprinkle the conversation with some light humor here and there.  Not biting sarcastic mean spirited humor, but some polite and clean humor to lighten up the mood.  People who are smiling are more at ease and more likely to offer insights.

Don't set out to create as a group.  Individuals come up with ideas. Individuals create.  Groups can discuss the pros and cons of someones idea and vet proposals, but creating ideas is not a group function.  A roomful of people is no more likely to come up with a good idea than all of those same people working alone are.  In fact, brainstorming as a group is a sure way to take a dumb idea and decide as a group that it is actually a good idea when no one wants to be the first to object to it, especially if it was the boss's idea.   Instead of having a brainstorming meeting, just tell people to bring their own idea(s) on the subject to the meeting for a group discussion.

And maybe the most important idea is to limit the size of the group.  Meetings should be attended by no more than 8 people unless it is for a manager to give his direct-reports an update.  If you have a large crowd  at a meeting but 90% of the conversation is between just a handful of them, then have the meeting with just the handful next time and e-mail the highlights to the others. Don't waste people's time.  If they don't need to be there, let them use their time more productively.

Try to keep meetings within an hour, but if it needs to go longer than that, take a break about once an hour for 5 minutes or so.

Be honest and direct and treat every person there with respect regardless of their rank.  If they were important enough to invite, they are important enough to have a chance to speak up. In fact, it makes good sense to reach out to the younger and less experienced ones to invite them to participate.  Sometimes the best ideas come from the people who know the least about your business.  Their minds are more open to fresh thinking than the grizzled old veteran who already knows it all and has the attitude, "If it was a good idea, I would have already had it!"

Discourage "Death by Powerpoint"  Nothing glazes eyes over like a 40 slide presentation.  10 slides max.

Embrace the Devil's Advocate type.  Better to have your co-worker ask you the difficult to answer obvious question than to have an executive ask you the same thing.  A good devil's advocate is a highly recommended type of person to keep around.  They may drive you nuts with their counter points, but they will help you prepare for the next round much better than a roomful of bobbleheads who agree with everything.

But above all, please leave the gimmicks like the Elmo Doll or the role playing nonsense out.  Credible managers don't need gimmicks to motivate people to behave well.  They lead by example and treat people how they want to be treated.     

No comments:

Post a Comment