Are meetings places where minutes are kept and hours squandered

MEETINGS can sometimes be a waste of time. To use a quote, meetings can be occasions where “minutes are kept and hours squandered.”

At the heart of the problem is our tendency to keep quiet and compliant during the meeting and then voice our objections to the whole world after the meeting. I have observed this in many Malaysian organisations and in my mind this is counter-productive and potentially destructive.

And why don’t we speak up? Perhaps we are scared of the consequences of voicing ideas and opinions that may be different. This fear may not be without grounds. There are organisations where speaking your mind ends up with the “offending staff” placed in cold storage indefinitely. This leads to a culture of “silence” and unthinking “compliance”. For that reason many meetings lose their meaning and are a waste of time.

What is the purpose of meetings anyway?

In essence it is to draw on our collective wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and experience. The basic rationale is that many minds are better than one. This makes sense and should work in practice, but only if the meeting is run in a manner that promotes the genuine exchange of ideas.

Many meetings are reduced to announcements. The boss speaks, the rest listen, nod their heads attentively, provide verbal affirmations and praise, and in the end no real knowledge has been exchanged. Disagreement does not equate anarchy.

Before I continue, let me be clear on one point: businesses are not democracies. That is why a business cannot be equated to a country. They are run in different ways based on very different principles.

In a business, there are clear decision-making hierarchies that exist. In every taskforce, committee, department, strategic business unit or subsidiary, there is a clear sense of who has the authority to make the final decision.

I am fine with this concept. As an employee, I am willing to accept that my boss has the final call. Sometimes I may agree, sometime I may not; but in the end, as long as I choose to work for this company, I need to respect and subject myself to the authority of my boss. If this principle is not adhered to, the organisation cannot function effectively.

Now having said that, it is also my role to provide my boss with all the possible information I can to help him/her make an educated decision. The boss relies on his/her team to define the options, collect the data, provide the market intelligence, and point out the potential threats and weaknesses.

Our job is not to agree and affirm and tell them what they want to hear. This would be negligence. Our job is to help them make well-weighed decisions by giving them all the intelligence possible. Accurate decisions are based on accurate information.

This includes giving them my opinion, even when my opinion differs from their own. This is not circumventing their authority, as long as my disagreement is voiced in the proper way and at the proper time. Disagreements and differing opinions should be voiced in private, within the inner circle, during internal meetings; they should not be voiced in public.

Personally, I have always held to the principle that internal meetings are the time for us to voice ideas, objections and opinions, but after a decision has been made, as employees of the organisation, it is our role to support the corporate line.

Within the circle, honesty. Outside the circle, unity.

It seems to me that this is the way intelligent organisations are run.

It is realising that a culture of truth and honesty does not necessarily need to be incompatible with a culture of order and unity. It is a delicate balance, no doubt, but one that can be achieved.

How do we construct such a culture?

It starts from the top.

First, we need bosses who are secure and confident enough to allow their staff to contribute ideas and opinions freely. They must instil a culture that encourages truth and accuracy. The bosses should reflect an approach that goes, “I want you to tell me the truth about what is going on in our business. Don’t be afraid to tell me bad news. Don’t just tell me what is good. I need to know the threats and weaknesses as well. If not, I am driving blind.”

Many psychologists believe that insecurity breeds a culture of deception and delusion. When the staff perceive their bosses to be very defensive and aggressive when they receive bad news, and dismissive when they hear differing opinions, the staff will shape their behaviour accordingly to survive in that environment.

Human beings are creatures of necessity, and if it is necessary to hide the truth to remain in the good graces of the boss, they will do it. In the end of course, this type of organisations will become uncompetitive because they are un-intelligent organisations.

Perhaps the basic psychology underlying defensive behaviour is the tendency to take any criticism personally. When team members point out weaknesses in the organisations or systems, many leaders unfortunately take this as a personal criticism of their leadership.

The truth is, no organisation is perfect. Every organisation has flaws, weak spots and areas to develop. Therefore, a leader should take ideas and critiques in his/her stride and consider this part of intelligence gathering rather than a personal inquest.

At the same time, employees need to accept that bosses can’t change everything overnight. Not all problems have easy, immediate solutions, even though from our perspective it may sometimes seem that way. I need to accept that at my level, I don’t see all the variables. From my vantage point, I cannot see all the pieces of the chessboard. I need to trust that my boss has a larger strategy in mind.

Like an officer serving in the army, my job is report all the intelligence I can gather to my general, and from time to time I may even propose ideas, but knowing in the end that my general sets the overall strategy which I must execute to the best of my ability.

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