April 21, 2019

Make Meetings More Human, Please!

Renée Smith

We spend a lot of time meeting, without really meeting.

That is, we spend a lot of time assembled together with colleagues in a formal room without really knowing those with whom we are gathered.

We don’t know who they are, what they care about, what they’ve experienced, what they value, what their talents are. We don’t know what they’ve just come from or what they are carrying. We don’t know if they are distracted or worried. But never mind all that. It’s time to be a professional and get to work.

This approach is common in the United States, and in many Western cultures, though I’ve also experienced and suspect this to be different in many non-Western cultures.

But here in the US, we assemble and we get to work.

We feel compelled to get to work.

We are afraid not to get to work.

Often someone, if not most everyone, in the meeting makes sure that we get to work. No matter our background or cultural values, we have all been assimilated into this way of doing business. Don’t distract with anything personal. Don’t waste time. Focus on the purpose of the meeting. Get to action. Show your value and remember, action is valued most. We’ve all learned to adhere to these rules.

With a strong time orientation, with a drive to get things done, we dive in. We stick to the agenda. We don’t waste time on chit chat. We stay focused. We don’t venture questions outside our scope without fear of rebuke. We have to get this work done and get to the next meeting.

If some new idea comes up as part of the discussion, some deviation from what was expected, then we schedule another meeting. After all, we have deadlines to meet, mounting pressure of our competition or our constituent’s expectations, and So. Much. To. Do.

As I describe this you may be thinking, “Well of course this is what we do. Otherwise we’d get nothing done. What else would we do?”

But this is not the only way to run a meeting nor to work, and it is not even the most functional. Not for the short term nor the long term. Not in a way that will sustain a culture where people want to stay and work and where we are not losing people to burnout and suffering the high costs of turnover and replacement.

It is not functional because we human beings don’t want to be treated like gears in a machine.

Instead, according to my research interviews and lots of feedback from my talks, workshops and blogs, most people want three things:

1.       We want our leaders to care about us as human beings.

2.       We want our teams to care for each other.

3.       We want to have support if we face a personal crisis.

When our leaders and teams make sure these things happen, we are able to get to work. We deliver on our commitments. We improve and innovate. We go the extra 10 miles. We become the rare 15% who are engaged rather than the 85% according to Gallup in 2017 who are not.

We can adopt many practices to help us be more human at work, but in the next few posts I am going to focus on humanizing meetings. For better or worse, meetings are the building blocks of our organizational lives. And actually, meetings can be incredible opportunities for creating human-centered cultures and effective workplaces rather than dehumanizing experiences.

So next post, we will start by looking at one simple meeting practice that can help humanize meetings: The Check In.

Meanwhile, how do you make meetings more human?