Whether you love meetings or hate them, they aren't going anywhere soon. Because they are such an institution in the business world, most of us are looking for ways to run them better, close them effectively with clarity, or even determine in advance if a meeting is really necessary.
Interestingly, despite our consistent complaints about how many meetings we have, some research has pointed out that we might not be having too many meetings after all. Here we may need to insert an important asterisk to the research.
If you regularly find yourself in the middle of informal meetings in the hallway to discuss, rehash, or even suggest changes to decisions that were already made in another big meeting, you are definitely having too many meetings. And the wrong kind.
These "after the meeting meetings" are very destructive but surprisingly common in many companies.
After-the-fact informal meetings can and do often create a leadership and decision making culture where it is fully acceptable to self-sabotage decisions on which you already had alignment. This frequently creates the need to have another meeting to decide on something you already thought you had decided on.
The result is that passive aggressive approaches to conflict not only become allowed but actually become instrumental driving forces for how disagreement on hard decisions are managed. In other words, they make it OK for the real disagreement to not be voiced in the big decision making meeting but after the fact in the hallways, which undermines or starts to undo what you thought was already done.
That may sound like an unnecessarily harsh view of reality. Unfortunately, though, this pattern is all too common in both big and small companies. Sadly, I've lived it personally, and it frustrates some of your best leaders.
What causes it?
To potentially oversimplify the complexity of our human behavior (which I've been known to do from time to time), it stems from the inability to have the hard conversation, disagree constructively, and create a leadership environment where dissenting points of view are both acceptable and encouraged.
Some of that ownership sits with the leader of the team to create that environment and model the behavior. Some of that ownership also sits with the leadership team members themselves to do the hard thing of disagreeing and engaging in constructive conflict about a big important topic.
How do you fix it?
Here are two things I have done personally as well as seen other leaders do that start to nip this bad tendency in the bud:
1. No decisions made until one dissenting point of view is raised.
I work with the CEO of an entertainment company who lives by this rule and once told me:
"If everyone agrees in the room, we have a problem. I need to search out the dissenting perspective, and I won't let us leave the room until we find one. We may not act on it, but at least we voiced it, which actually allows us to stay aligned on the decision we did make instead of bringing up that dissenting point of view later."
Doing this forces people to raise issues that they may fear will be unpopular or viewed negatively, which curbs the need to say it later and undermine confidence in the decision the team made.
2. Set leadership team ground rules that there are no meetings after the meeting. Then get the team members to sign it like a contract.
Some call them operating norms. Others call them rules of engagement. Some just call them ground rules. Many leadership teams don't come together to figure out what they are, but those that do have a way of self-regulating behaviors.
This is one of those cases. Now team members have "permission" from each other to call out the meeting after the meeting behavior as not being part of how they want to operate.
Signing the document like a contract may feel like overkill to some, but there is a real power in seeing your name in your own writing next to a ground rule you agreed with.
So if you find yourself in too many meetings after meetings, try these. It might make your team work better together. At the very least, it might eliminate those frustrating meetings where you feel like you are re-deciding something that you thought was already a done deal.