Patrick Lencioni, the renowned leadership expert and author of long-time best seller The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, once said, "If someone offered me a single piece of evidence to assess the health of an org, I would want to observe the executive team during a meeting."
I've found an easier way. Ask an employee this question: "How are the meetings at your company?"
I've asked this question hundreds of times over the past decade. 90 percent of the time, I get one of four answers. Each provides instant insight into that company's culture.
Answer 1: Our meetings are awful.
The most common answer is what experts call "the meeting-hell lament." Stories full of meetings that should have been emails, meetings without results, meetings that aren't relevant, and days full of meetings that leave no time to breathe.
Too much time wasted in unproductive meetings-- that's the complaint.
This answer shows that your business isn't paying enough attention to how work gets done. You don't have clear enough standards for how to meet, how decisions get made, or how groups keep each other informed, so they meet.
Not sure what to do next? Call a meeting. Not sure who can make that decision? Call a meeting. Think someone needs to know what you're doing, or you need to know what they're doing? Call a meeting. Worried your team isn't working well? Make them come to another meeting.
Meetings race to fill the gaps in every poorly thought-out business process. This "we don't have a process for this so let's meet" approach rarely notices all the productivity and goodwill trampled along the way.
The meeting-hell lament reveals a culture dominated by reactionary thinking, frustration, and uncertainty. Not ideal.
Answer 2: We've got agendas.
"At our company, it's no agenda, no attenda." It's a confident answer.
An employee who works in a business where they have expectations about how to meet, such as using an agenda, takes satisfaction in knowing that they work for one of the rare organizations conducting itself professionally.
This answer shows that your organization has the basics down, which creates a stable foundation for the work. The meeting-hell lamenters express frustration, anger, and depression, but people who tell me they use an agenda don't show much emotion. They don't feel too much of anything about the way they meet, and with a bit of probing, I find they often don't feel too much about their workplace in general.
The "we have agendas" answer reveals a culture that most people feel fine working in. It's got problems; sure it does! But it's better than most. Not inspiring, but not too bad.
Answer 3: Yes, the rumors are true.
This answer comes from employees at companies with famous meeting practices. Amazon with their no PowerPoint rule. ING Bank with their Way of Working and pervasive stand up meetings.
Employees in these companies know that what they do is special. The organization's leadership did more than talk about culture; they designed regular practices into how every team meets that bring this culture alive.
Then, they share these special meetings with the press, holding them up as examples to impress clients and potential employees.
This answer reveals an organization with a defined cultural center. Is it a healthy culture? It is for the people who enjoy the special way they work. Everyone else? Don't pretend you weren't warned.
Answer 4: Which kind of meeting do you mean?
Jackpot. This is the company I'd want to work for, and the company you should strive to lead. This answer shows that the person you're talking to knows that the question is nonsense.
How do they know? They work on a team that holds purpose-driven, well-designed meetings that get results. They don't think about meetings in general. They automatically think in terms of specific kinds of meetings and how each of those functions. They know the difference between their team's weekly meeting, the quarterly strategy refresh, the client contract review, and the one-on-ones.
These distinctions are obvious to everyone-once you mention them. Here, you don't have to say anything. These employees make the distinctions themselves because they've been trained to do so.
In our research, we've found 16 types of meetings that work well. Each type achieves a distinct set of goals. The most inspiring organizations bake their culture into the design of each meeting as part of their defined business processes.
So there are 16 types of meetings that work, and then there are all the other meetings teams run because they have no process and don't know what else to do.
To spot a healthy culture, ask employees about their meetings. Then, hope they ask you to get more specific. If they do, odds are you've found a winner.