Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My problem is the type of meetings my boss runs. There are few dynamics, the same items appear on the minutes, people give a 30 second report on these items, no one appears to look at the minutes from weekend to weekend, and no members of the management team challenge each other.
All members feel that the meetings as they are are a waste of time. Some make excuses for missing them, but as I am responsible for scheduling the meetings and issuing the minutes, that option is not available to me.
I do want to approach my boss about it–how can I do this without hurting his feelings and still achieve my objectives?
Wasting Time in Meetings
Dear Wasting Time,
Let’s start with what you know you don’t want to do–just to be sure. Here’s what you don’t want to say (even though it’s steeped in the truth): “I wonder if we could talk about our meetings. I’ve had a chance to be part of them for a while and I think I know (drum roll please) why everyone despises them and does his or her best to get out of them–even if it means having to have a root canal just to get an excuse.”
Obviously, a shot across the bow isn’t a particularly good opening position. Others have tried the less direct approach, clinging to indirect comments and humor. For instance, “Everyone who holds a good meeting please stand up. Not so fast Mr. Jones.”
The challenge is, how do you give feedback to someone who hasn’t asked for it? Twenty-five years ago when I took my first class in organizational behavior from the esteemed Bill Dyer–guru of group process–I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. He explained that when people found out that he was one of the world’s experts on group process, they’d ask: “Hey, you sat in our meeting, how did we do?” He learned through sad experience that they didn’t really want to know. He would tactfully point out an area that could use some improvement and the person asking for feedback would then thank and resent him. “It’s because we hadn’t contracted up front,” he explained. “Never give feedback unless you’ve contracted for it, up front.”
Plus, who likes constructive criticism anyway? I completely agree with Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
Which brings us to our challenge. You want to advise someone who hasn’t asked for it, you’re going to be pointing out problems, and the information could easily feel like a cheap shot.
Rule #1 – Start with mutual purpose. If you can find a way to let your boss know that your goal is to make him more effective, who can fight with that? So contract up front by asking if you could talk about ways to improve the meetings, ways to make them more effective. Point out that you think everyone needs to take more responsibility, and that you have an idea or two on how to do that.
Rule #2 – Focus on the meeting, not on your boss. Okay, it’s your boss’s meeting, but not really. Everyone has responsibilities. Everyone needs to do what it takes to make the meetings more effective. For instance, say people take assignments, but they report back with unfulfilled commitments and a weak story and then figure they’re off the hook. That’s simply unacceptable. If someone drones on or holds a side conversation or skips agenda items, it’s everyone’s responsibility to say something. Everyone’s in the meeting. The person at the head of the table isn’t the only one who can say something. Meeting improvements belong to everyone.
This is true in real time as well. When you’re in a meeting and you see something that’s making it less effective, follow these three simple steps: (1) Point out what has you concerned. “Jim, I thought we had decided on the vacation schedule, but I see that you keep wanting to return to it.” (2) Point out what you would like to see happen instead. “I was hoping that we had resolved that issue already.” (3) To avoid being too pushy, check with the group. “Does that make sense or should we return to the schedule?” The goal here is to go public with the problem without pointing fingers or coming off as a know-it-all.
So start by sharing your feelings that the meetings are not as effective as they could be–talk about the meeting in general and an overall area or two that could be improved.
Rule #3 – Offer alternative behaviors. Saying what isn’t working is only half the job. Once you’ve pointed out the problem, offer a potential solution. Be tentative. “Maybe if we had each person report on the assignment, and then if they haven’t completed it we can talk about it as a group. When we run into a problem, we seem comfortable reporting back without having completed the assignment or having notified anyone in advance. Is this how we want to work?”
Rule #4 – Only pick one thing that your boss himself might work on. After you’ve earned the right to talk about your boss by addressing the meeting in general, you can you offer him your opinion on what he might do. When you bring up the issue, do it in a spirit of jointly brainstorming problems and solutions. This helps feedback come across as one of many good ideas instead of a personal affront.
Rule #5 – Approach the discussion with one thought in mind. Your boss is a reasonable, rational, and decent person. An idea here and there could go a long way. You’re going to jointly brainstorm. How could this possibly be threatening?
Good luck, and may all of your meetings be better than a root canal.