Leadership Barometer 38 Better Meetings

February 17, 2020

What is the biggest waste of time at your place of work? For most professional employees, the answer is, “meetings.”

Each of us has experienced frustration with ineffective meetings. Most of these are face-to-face situations where a bunch of people gather around a conference table with an objective to accomplish something.

Meetings also happen on the phone and online; the venue does not matter. It feels like the “process” is painfully slow, and the progress is difficult to appreciate.

If you have not experienced this, check your pulse; you may be dead.

More productive Meetings

Let me start with a question. What is the most precious commodity in the world? Stop reading and think about this question. I really want you to ponder what is precious. Is it “love,” “money,” faith,” “family,” “freedom,” “health”? Give it some real thought before you read on.

To answer the question, how would you define “precious?” You might equate it with value in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic reward. You might view it in a social or family context.

I believe there are two factors that make something precious: how difficult it is to obtain, and how important it is. It is the old “supply and demand” analysis. If something is in great demand, but is extremely scarce, it will be incredibly precious.

Take diamonds, for example. They are highly prized by human beings (not sure why) and they are extremely difficult to find (because they look like regular rocks in their natural state and there are so few of them.)

For example, there is a story told by Earl Nightingale about a poor farmer in Africa. He was unable to sustain his family because the soil on his farm was too arid. He tried to grow crops for years and tried to irrigate the land, but the soil was too weak.

Finally, he heard of the discovery of diamonds in a mountain region in another area. He sold his farm and moved to the mountains to prospect for diamonds. He never found any and his family perished.

Meanwhile, the person who bought his land for a pittance found an interesting rock that he took home and placed on his mantle. A couple years later, a visiting geologist recognized the kind of rock and asked the farmer if he knew what it was.

To his amazement, it turned out to be the largest diamond ever found in Africa. Further, the property was replete with similar rocks. It turned out to be the richest area for diamonds in the country.

So, the original farmer was literally surrounded by “acres of diamonds,” but did not realize it. He went to seek his fortune elsewhere and perished with his family due to starvation.

Leaders in the workplace are also surrounded by acres of “diamonds,” but we may not realize it. The diamonds are the people in the organization.

If treated right and exposed to the right environment (like polishing) nearly every person will turn into a valuable gem for the organization. The trouble is, most leaders, just like the original farmer, fail to realize the incredible value that surrounds them every day. What a crime.

If you will accept the “supply and demand” argument for what makes things precious, let’s explore what is the one thing in this world that is truly scarce. What is it that we cannot get more of no matter how we try.

Is it love? No, we can get more of that. Is it money? Certainly not. Is it any kind of metal or mineral? No. Is it faith? No, we can increase that by changing our viewpoint. I submit it is time.

Oh sure, we can increase our total time on earth by improving our health risk factors, but I am talking about the time we each have every day. We each get exactly 24 hours every day. Nothing we can do will increase that. No one gets less, and no one gets more.

We all want more time desperately, but none of us can get more of it on a daily basis it. It is fixed. Therefore, by the law of supply and demand, time is the most precious commodity.

What does this have to do with meetings? Well, if you are like most people, one of your top time wasters is meetings. We need to make them more efficient and productive.

If we do this well, we have more time for the other important things in life. In fact, by increasing our effectiveness at meetings, we can actually “manufacture” time for later use. We can “Save time in a bottle,” as Jim Croce put it.

Would that be worth it? Well, that is probably the easiest way to get some more of the most precious commodity for yourself and your team. Let’s examine some of the typical time wasters in meetings and suggest some antidotes. We’ll start with the granddaddy of them all.

Griping

Griping is the most significant time waster in meetings. Think about it. You know the routine. Everyone arrives at the meeting with their head full of issues and problems they are dealing with in their working world.

As the “early birds” are patiently waiting (by the way, having people arrive late is another huge time waster) for the late members, someone says something like, “Can you believe they are increasing our medical deductions again?”

That gets someone else to chime in on how unfair it is, and pretty soon the floodgates are open. Out pours fresh steaming venom onto the table.

When everyone has finally arrived and the group is immersed in self-pity and derogatory remarks about the cost of medical insurance. If gone unchecked, this can go on for most of the meeting, completely usurping the original agenda.

The antidote to this waste of time rests with the leader. He/she is responsible for keeping the agenda and not letting the meeting lapse into a gripe session. An easy technique is to acknowledge a need for the group to do some venting, but put a “stop loss” on it.

The leader might say, “It looks like there is a lot of energy around the medical deductions. How much time do we want to spend on this subject before we launch into the positive things that must be accomplished in this meeting?”

The group might agree to spend 5 more minutes venting. It is now up to the leader to stop the discussion after the 5 minutes and say, “OK, we all agreed to move on after 5 minutes. Any more gripes about the benefits will be done outside this meeting. Let’s move on to the agenda and make some positive steps toward our vision.”

If people persist in venting, it is up to the leader to shut this down.

Have an agenda

An agenda is very important for any meeting. If it is worth getting everyone together, it is worth a few minutes to set the topics and objectives for the meeting. This can prevent wasting time when the team wants to wander off topic. Again, it is up to the leader to keep the group on task.

Summarize frequently

An often-ignored technique in meetings is the periodic summary of decisions. This can be a real time-saver. After 10 minutes of discussion on the new safety policy, the leader might say, “Let me summarize this discussion. We seem to be agreeing that we will set a new goal of zero lost time accidents for the next quarter. Is everyone on board with this decision?”

If the entire group agrees, then move on to the next topic. Have the notes indicate a decision was made by the group. If this step is omitted, there is no firm commitment to the decision.

People will talk around and about a topic and everyone will have their own opinion of the outcome. You can leave a meeting with wide variations in people’s minds about what actually happened. Summarizing each point as it is made, prevents this problem.

Summarizing also puts a cap on each topic, so the group moves through the agenda efficiently. The role of the leader is to facilitate the process. Done well, this will maximize the benefit of the time spent together.

Handling opposing views

Disagreements can create an incredible waste of time. A point is made, then someone offers a counterpoint. This lapses into a discussion back and forth about the issue. It can, and often does, become acrimonious.

As people “dig in their heels” to defend their position, the argument becomes more intense. Often it gets personal with statements like, “you are always trying to harpoon everything we are trying to do in this team.”

The crime is that, many times the individuals are not that far apart. They are just not listening to each other. I have been in meetings where two individuals spend a lot of time in “violent agreement” with each other, but neither of them realizes it.

Reverse roles

There are two antidotes for this problem. First, get the opposing parties to express the position of the other person in their own words. That will uncover if the argument is a “tempest in a teapot.” It also ensures that each party really understands the opposing viewpoint.

Agree to Disagree

The other technique is the “Rule of Three.” If the point- counterpoint goes on for three iterations, it is unlikely either party is going to “win” the argument. This is the time for the leader to say, “I think you two should agree to disagree on this point. It is evident that neither of you are going to sway the other, so let’s table this discussion or take it outside so we can get back to the agenda.”

Using the Rule of Three can save huge amounts of time in meetings.

Be Punctual

The leader is responsible for starting and ending each meeting on schedule. It is impolite to arrive late for meetings. As a leader, you can stop this behavior simply by not waiting for the lagers.

Make sure there are some important decisions at the start of the meeting. If someone comes in late, do not go back and review what was already done; let the inconsiderate person catch up after the meeting.

I use a technique in my on-ground classes where I go over the hints for the next week’s assignments at the start of the class. Once I had a tardy student turn in the wrong assignment. She came to me and complained that I did not explain the rules well. I told her that the rules were explained at the start of the previous class, but she was not in attendance at that time. She quickly got the message.

The same rules apply in the online environment. If you make a commitment for the start of a meeting at 8 pm, be there at 8 pm. Recognize that there are family or personal emergencies that can make that impossible in rare instances.

The problem is that some people have a tendency to excuse themselves from their obligations on a regular basis. This behavior needs to be extinguished by the team. We need to be sensitive to real emergencies, but intolerant of those who habitually make excuses for holding up others.

These are only a few of the rules to make better use of time in meetings. Most of these are common sense ideas, but they are often forgotten in the normal work environment. The best way to make sure you are not wasting time is to remember how incredibly valuable it is, and act that way.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Body Language 63 Fist in the Air

January 17, 2020

The gesture of putting one’s fist in the air is a very common one, but it can cause misunderstandings if you do not couple it with corroborating signals.

Part of the confusion is that the different meanings are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. For example, the fist-in-the-air gesture at a football game would normally be a way to cheer on your team to victory, while if there were protesters outside the stadium, that same gesture could signify rebellion, hatred, or anger.

In order to ascribe the correct meaning to the fist-in-the-air gesture, you must factor in the context in which it is given and most importantly the facial expressions that accompany it.

When this gesture is seen in public, it is normally part of a group activity where many people are giving the same signal. It is possible to observe the gesture on the part of just one person, but that is rare.

In this brief article, I will describe several applications where the fist in the air might be observed along with the most likely message being sent.

A cheer of support

A fist in the air can be a supportive gesture among team members similar to a high five. It means we are all together, and we are united in a common cause. We support each other and cheer each other on with the gesture.

For example, you might see a sales team at their convention use this gesture when it is announced that the team met the aggressive sales goal for the year. Everyone would enjoy the year-end bonus as a result of reaching the challenging goal.

Appreciation

You can witness the fist in the air gesture among adoring fans at a rock concert. You will see many people in the audience highly animated jumping up and down with their fists in the air as they sing along to the lyrics.

Defiance

You can also see the fist in the air at political or social rallies. The connotation here is still that we are united in a purpose, but in this case it is often a negative form of protest.

In the Workplace

Workers can display their anger over a new policy being introduced by having many people in a meeting start showing their fists in the air.

At times like this, the leader who is conducting the meeting needs to see the anger building up and make a preventive statement before the gesture is taken up by most of the workers and it becomes like a mob scene.

For example, the leader might see one person starting to put his fist in the air and say something like:

“I know this is not going to be a popular move, but I wanted to share the information with you candidly as early as possible, because you have a right to be informed of the action. You also have the right to understand the reason this action was unavoidable. I will explain some ways we can get through this difficult time together.”

Warning

A fist in the air done by an individual may be a warning to keep physical or emotional distance. The idea here is to tell the other person to back off or face a possible sock in the jaw. The gesture may be accompanied by a shaking of the fist as the wicked witch did in “The Wizard of Oz.” As she shook her fist she cackled, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

In a work setting, you can avoid this kind of acrimony by having acceptable behaviors identified in advance. If the whole team has agreed to treat each other respectfully, then the threats or warnings will be fewer.

Hate

When the gesture is coupled by a stiff arm, it is more serious and an indication of extreme prejudice against a person, group, or ideal. Another dead give away for this attitude is the facial expression. If the person looks angry, then chances are he is expressing some form of hatred.

The news showed an example of that at a White Supremacists Hate Rally at University of Virginia in 2017. Many of the marchers had their fist in the air as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

I once witnessed a large group of union workers with their fists in the air to express frustration and lack of trust with the management group. This public display of extreme disapproval was a major setback for the organization. It took months of effort to rebuild the respect of these workers.

The lesson here is to intervene with corrective measures before the frustration boils up to the point where people are shaking their fists in the air. Once people start using this gesture, it is a long and expensive road back to stability.

There are numerous examples of organizations that have pushed workers too far experience the push back of rebellion. The antidote is to build and maintain a culture of trust so that people feel heard and appreciated all along. That way the resentment never builds up to the boiling point.

Resolve or unyielding

When coupled with a clenched jaw and slight scowl, the fist in the air signifies an unyielding posture to what is going on. I am reminded me of the lyrics to a song, “I Won’t Back Down,” by the late Tom Petty:

I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down.

You can see that there is a wide spectrum of possible meanings to a fist in the air gesture. You must be alert to the circumstances and the facial expressions to pick out an accurate meaning.

If you sense frustration building up, take special care to mitigate the damage before people start shaking their fists or you will be in for a long recovery. If you have managed to build trust by reducing the fear in your organization, you are less likely to need to take remedial actions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”