For some companies, the idea of holding consistently effective meetings is a pipe dream. Employees view most meetings as a necessary evil, a complete waste of time at best, a torturous exercise in endurance at worst.
But what if the problem centers on what you’re expecting from meetings in the first place?
Paul Axtell consults with a variety of clients — from Fortune 500 companies to universities and government agencies. He is known for his expertise in how to run effective and productive meetings. His new book is Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations.
I recently interviewed Paul to get his advice on how to rethink the business meeting from the ground up. (The transcript below has been edited lightly for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Your book is about how to run better meetings, but it focuses on conversations. Can you elaborate?
Paul Axtell: I think it’s about the three things that pretty much make people really effective in life: perspective, conversation and relationships. Meetings are the one place where all three of those things come into play. I’ve got a particular model that I think from, operate from, train from. Which is, conversation is all you’ve got to have life turn out.
Kruse: What can we do to design a better meeting or a better conversation?
Axtell: Clearly, if there’s just two of us going to coffee, we can simply say, “Hey, let’s get together and make this decision.” That’s probably enough design. In fact, small groups of four or five, design is less important.
Once you get above eight people, or deal with a complex topic, design is more important with respect to making sure that meeting turns out. The simplest design involves asking: How long are we going to spend talking about this? Where do we want to be at the end of that conversation? What are we looking for from the people who are attending and is there a preferred way that we walk through this? Clearly, if you have an hour long conversation, I think there ought to be more thought to how the process is going to unfold. If it’s a quick ten-minute conversation checking in with somebody, I wouldn’t bother with designing it.
Kruse: You focus a lot on candor. Why is candor so important?
Axtell: Basically, that everybody says what they need to say or ask in order to be fully expressed. If you ask people about being part of a high performing team, the number one answer is: “I feel like I was totally expressed. I didn’t leave anything behind unsaid or unasked.” How do you manage a conversation, so that people never leave with anything unsaid?
I saw a recent Google study about high performing teams. They highlighted two things. Number one, there was psychological safety for people to be vulnerable. Number two, there was a broad participation.
If you think about it, this gets at the whole notion of people being fully expressed. If you look at why that doesn’t happen, basically, it’s because meetings are booked back-to-back and there’s more items on the agenda than people can handle. We’ve got this drive pulse to us, rather than this quiet, reflective, social turn-taking. We just need to maybe up the intention for meetings to be the place where we socially connect, since we are no longer spending time away from work socially connecting.
Kruse: You say great managers should lead meetings for three different outcomes. What are they?
Axtell: Being productive is first. If you stop being productive in your meetings or your teams, the whole sense of teams will erode. That holds true on a personal basis too. If you and I stop being productive, your mind will go to a bad place really quickly. On teams, if you stop being productive in meetings, the whole sense of being a part of a group erodes.
Second, though, is people are relying on teams as a place to add value, to get their sense of community and belonging and to add value from an expression point of view. If you don’t pay attention to the quality of experience during the meeting… This is probably saying it too harshly, but you’re using people versus giving them a chance to contribute. You can lead a meeting so that you have attention on the quality of people’s experience.
The third thing is, everywhere in life, part of your well-being is centered on learning something and getting better at something all of the time. When we lead a meeting, we should be getting better at something , so that over the process of time we end up with new capacity and new skills. In one meeting, we might be working on calling on people. On another meeting, we might be trying to nail down specific commitments and time. In another meeting, we might be trying to get broad participation. The intention is: let’s get better as we work through the process of meetings.
Kruse: I like to challenge readers to become 1% better every single day. Is there something you can ask them to do today?
Axtell: I think one thing is to notice who’s not yet in the conversation and, more broadly, in life. Notice who’s on the outside. Who’s not participating? Who’s not speaking?
If you go out to dinner with three couples, it’s likely that one person’s not speaking. Clearly in meetings, there’s likely to be people who are not getting into the conversation. I think that’s one of the most powerful things you can look for, is who’s not yet in the conversation? If you notice they’re not in, you can invite them.
Click here to listen to the full interview with Paul Axtell.