columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I manage a department of 20 people, who are divided into smaller teams of two to three people each. Each small team is in charge of exactly the same tasks but for a different geographical area. Some of the challenges they face on a daily basis are part of bigger issues that concern the wider team, so communication between them is really essential.

I try my best to recruit people who are team players and enjoy sharing information and like to see the bigger picture. I also have monthly meetings with the whole department where each team explains what they are working on, problems they have if they need some help, etc. My hope was that this would invite open discussion, and information and ideas would flow between them.

But during these meetings, no discussions arise. Each team presents their part, everyone nods, the next team presents their part, everyone nods, and you get the picture. I have also tried organizing workshops and discussing this in smaller teams, but nothing seems to work. Do you have suggestions for how to get a large team of people to openly discuss ideas, challenge one other, and all-in-all get a better synergy among themselves?

Green responds:

I'd bet money that your team hates those meetings. Meetings that consist mainly for or solely of round-robin information delivery are incredibly boring. I know that's exactly what you're trying to avoid and what you're asking how to fix -- but the structure itself (go around the room and share what's happening) is probably what's producing the results you're seeing. It's just not a great structure if you're trying to stimulate real discussion.

So I'd throw that format out entirely. Instead, pick one or two challenges that one of the teams is experiencing, send a short write-up of those challenges to everyone at least a few days in advance (even better, have someone on that team write it up), and ask everyone to think about it and come prepared with thoughts to discuss. Then make that the meeting, with you facilitating to ensure that everyone gets airtime and asking questions designed to draw out discussion. For example: "Jane, I know you dealt with something similar last year -- can you talk about how you handled this on the X project?" or "Fergus, you're sometimes skeptical of this approach -- what's your take on it in this context?" and so forth.

That will force discussion ... as you will be quite literally forcing it by the way you've structured the time.

That said, you'll want to pay close attention to how helpful this ends up being. It's possible that what you're looking for -- a structured discussion of ideas and challenges -- just might not work for this group. If you do this a few times and it doesn't feel helpful, don't keep forcing it.

If that happens, I'd look at methods other than meetings to make sure people are communicating. For example, as the manager, you're well-positioned to spot times when people should be sharing information or collaborating, and then ask them to do that ("you should consult with Bob, because he's had great success with this kind of thing" or whatever). Also, throw the problem out to your team and ask for their help in solving it -- they'll almost certainly have perspectives and ideas that you haven't thought of.

And through it all, keep your eye on the problem you're trying to solve. Sometimes managers want this kind of discussion because it feels like the right thing to do but can't quite articulate anything specific that it will solve. If that's the case and your team is getting good results, you might not need to worry about this much at all.

But if you can point to specific issues that are arising because of the lack of this, that might point you to a much more targeted solution. For example, if the problem is that the Pacific Northwest team isn't updating other regions on changes that will impact them, maybe you don't need a group meeting to solve that; maybe you need regular one-on-ones between the leads on those two teams, or an email to the other regions, or something else entirely. Don't get stuck thinking a 20-person meeting is the best or only way to get communication going; often it's the least effective way to do it.

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