Several moons ago, I was asked to participate in a meeting.
Nothing new there. After all, a report by Atlassian suggests employees attend 62 meetings per month. In the US alone that works out to roughly 11 million meetings being held every single day. Some days it feels as though I’m attending most of those 11 million. Worse, however, is the fact meetings are very unproductive costing organizations an incredible $37 billion annually due to various factors.
The meeting I was invited to was the kick-off to a project to consolidate several redundant processes into something that was more effective. The idea came from a couple of my peers, not from a senior leader. It sounded like a good plan to me. I’m all for things being more efficient. It was great to see the idea surface from a bottoms up approach, too.
But what happened next is all too familiar in today’s workplace. Meetings are an important part of being collaborative, however, getting to the actual meeting (and the point at which the collaboration ought to occur) can at times become rather cumbersome. The meeting itself can be quite useless as well.
The meeting I had been invited to was dealing with “sensitive matters”, so the organizers decided a “pre-planning meeting” was needed to first establish the agenda. Not so shocking, in hindsight, because a Clarizen/Harris poll conducted in 2015 found 4.6 hours was used each week by employees to prepare for meetings.
A small sub-group was asked to participate in this pre-planning meeting, including me. The organizers felt compelled to invite several senior leaders (Read: our bosses) to the “sensitive matters meeting” so apparently we had to get our stories straight first. That 60-minute meeting did not result in the desired outcome, so another pre-planning meeting was set to finalize the agenda. In total, 120 minutes were used to create the agenda for the actual “sensitive matters meeting” with the larger team that was to include several high ranking senior leaders. This was ironical to me given the meeting we were trying to set up in the first place was tasked with reducing various redundant efficiencies, and here we were being inefficient. But I digress.
The “sensitive matters meeting” was now (thankfully) set, and we were ready to proceed.
There were more attendees required in the “sensitive matters meeting” than the “pre-planning meeting” so those responsible to actually set the meeting date and timeslot starting playing calendar roulette. A small army of executive assistants was required. I suspect the CIO might have been called in to unblock the entire Outlook calendar system, too. I felt there may be a greater chance at booking a table at The French Laundry in Napa Valley than getting this meeting scheduled.
Needless to say, it took a few days to find a mutually acceptable meeting time. It was finally set, six weeks out. Scientists sorted out the issues on Apollo 13 in a shorter timeframe.
From there, this critical but “sensitive matters meeting” was moved four different times due to various conflicts. (Read: more important issues popped up from the senior leaders that ultimately trumped the original meeting time.) There was even another meeting request for the “pre-planning meeting” people to meet, to reconfirm that the original agenda still made sense. I began to lose my mind. I did not attend it. Never mind Apollo 13, the city of Rome was built faster. Twice over.
When the “sensitive matters meeting” finally did transpire, there were twelve attendees as part of the team. How many actually showed up? Ten. Two senior leaders excused themselves at the last minute due to “more important matters” and other excuses. Sigh. To add salt to the meeting wound, one individual arrived ten minutes late and of course one had to leave early. Sigh, again.
So, of course, another meeting had to be set to ensure the leaders who were absent could properly be brought up to speed, and their feedback included. The organizers could never land on one common date, so two more meetings were created to accommodate their schedules. In summary, the one hour meeting to discuss more efficient ways of operating became an example of what happens in many organizations today.
While I still bear emotional scars from this story—and have since eaten at The French Laundry—when I was reflecting upon it recently, it got me thinking about meeting etiquette, the behaviour of collaboration and everyone’s favourite, organizational culture and leadership.
Put simply, it’s all related. That is, meeting schedules, cancellations, attendance requirements and related mishaps have a lot to do with your organization’s culture, its hierarchy, leadership styles and/or a lack of being collaborative. In fact, your meeting culture could be a leading cause of disengagement.
In this particular example of mine, it was deemed critical that the various senior leaders had to be in attendance at the “sensitive matters meeting.” In hindsight, their “necessary participation” was simply code for a distrusting culture. The senior leaders did not need to be present. But the meeting organizers felt compelled to invite them. The meeting could not possibly be held unless the senior leaders were in the room. The organizers felt they had to be invited. A dose of fear might as well have been sprinkled on the element of distrust.
The feeling from the meeting organizers that the senior leaders had to be invited is an after effect of a very hierarchical and closed culture. When a team believes individuals above them on the organizational chart food chain have to be part of a discussion, it is not only unhealthy, it can impede work from actually being accomplished. If the issue, action or opportunity is something that a group of professionals outside the senior leadership can handle, why are they not being entrusted to sort out the matter? Of course senior leaders do have to attend certain meetings, but if employees are not encouraged to use their own judgment and intellect, how can that benefit the organization and its customers in the long run?
This is precisely what happened in my example. It took far too long to get the ball rolling on the action to improve the organization’s performance, for fear that “senior leaders” might not trust the team for making some recommendations, let alone decisions. Of course the quest to actually get the meeting established and the nonsense within the meeting itself was appalling. These factors can also impact engagement while impeding the delivery of service or execution of results.
What if a working group was established—minus the senior leaders—where they drove the actions and reported on their progress over time? What if the ideas and activities of the team were surfaced asynchronously through a wiki, blog or other enterprise social tool? Those senior leaders could choose a time convenient to them to provide feedback to the team versus having to be present in a face-to-face setting to deliver their thoughts. (Meetings that they do not have the time to attend anyway, as is evident from their behaviour in my example.)
When an organization’s culture is one where senior leaders must be present at every meeting, not only is it an example of hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy, it is ultimately slowing down the growth and evolution of the organization itself. It is likely harming the development of team members, too.
Becoming open to such a scenario is a healthier way of operating, and ultimately it can not only improve employee engagement, it can help the organization cook up new ideas outside of the senior leadership team.
As Stephen Covey once wrote, “An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”
Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY and is Chief Envisioner at TELUS Transformation Office. His next book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, releases May 10, 2016.