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How to Avoid the “Meeting After the Meeting”

How to Avoid the “Meeting After the Meeting”

THE most common team-related challenge that I hear about from my clients is “people don’t speak up.” One client called this “false harmony,” and identified it as one of the top reasons that his team was struggling to meet its goals.

You know how it works. When people disagree with what you’re saying, they don’t speak up.

When there’s conflict between team members or departments or site locations, people don’t speak up.

When there’s a problem with the work, or the timeline, or the budget….you got it, people don’t speak up.

Instead, there’s the “meeting after the meeting.” Over lunch, during breaks, or in the privacy of their own offices, people will say, “can you believe what he said?” or “that idea will never work,” or “what are those idiots doing over there?”

There are lots of reasons why this common dynamic happens – lack of trust, fear of negative consequences, and a lack of skill in directly communicating tough messages are a just a few. Whatever the reasons, though, the fact that it happens at all is a huge drag on team performance. When team members (including the leader) aren’t able to skillfully share what they’re really thinking, a whole host of negative consequences result:

  • nobody gets honest feedback about their ideas or their performance
  • bad decisions get made because crucial information is missing
  • meetings go in circles because people express themselves indirectly
  • conflict doesn’t get resolved
  • there’s no follow through on decisions because commitment wasn’t there in the first place
  • the team isn’t focused on the most important work (but nobody is saying so)

Clearly, people not speaking up is a problem – for teams, for leaders, and for organizational results.

So, what can you do about it? How do you avoid the “meeting after the meeting” syndrome? If you lead (or belong to) a team and believe people aren’t speaking up, here are some suggestions for action steps.

Action Steps: Avoiding the “Meeting After the Meeting”

  1.  Check in with people one-on-one. If you’re having a hard time getting information about what people are thinking during a meeting, having individual conversations in more relaxed circumstances may yield more feedback. Make it your goal during these conversations to listen deeply and really understand people’s perspectives, not to share your own.
  2. Set aside meetings just for hearing what people think. When time is pressing and there are decisions to be made and tasks to be done, it can be harder to switch gears into listening and inquiry. Calling a meeting with the sole purpose of hearing what people have to say about a critical topic can create the space for honest conversation.
  3. Ask people why they don’t speak up. If you get honest feedback from people outside of meetings, ask them what keeps them from sharing the same information in a meeting. Listen especially for patterns of team interaction and any behaviors of yours that contribute to people’s unwillingness to speak up.
  4. Reflect on your response when people DO speak up. Leaders sometimes unknowingly contribute to the lack of honest dialogue. You may be reacting with impatience, or too quickly dismissing someone’s contribution. If you’re sending signals that you don’t want to hear what people have to say, you can bet that they won’t tell you. And they’ll believe your signals much more than they’ll believe your words.
  5. Get help. Seeing the patterns within your own team that keep people from speaking up is really difficult because, by definition, you’re part of the pattern. Getting help from a skilled coach or mentor can be a great way to begin to put issues on the table and open up space for honest conversation.

What has been your experience with “meetings after the meeting?” What has worked well to break the pattern? Let me know in the comments below!


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