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Stop the ‘Meeting After the Meeting’ - WSJ

Many people are afraid to express dissenting views in formal meetings, so they do it later when the boss isn’t around. Here’s how leaders can change that.

This will no doubt sound familiar to most people. You’re in a meeting with the boss, discussing a difficult topic. Everybody offers their thoughts. Or so it seems. It’s only later when you and a few colleagues talk do you say what you really feel.

The meeting after the meeting—it’s too often only then when people say what they actually believe, not what they think the boss wants to hear. They say what they should have said in the formal meeting, whether it’s to disagree with a proposal, state a novel approach or confront an ethical dilemma.

When making difficult decisions, companies need full participation of the senior leadership team. People must be able to express their views, even if those views are unpopular. But too often critical decisions are made without a robust discussion because employees don’t feel empowered to be honest. This is a recipe for low morale and poor performance. And it almost guarantees the company won’t make the best decisions.

A top executive at a cloud-networking provider says he has observed two different types of meetings after the meeting. The first is when participants text or chat with one another while the meeting is still going on, noting that the person speaking has said something inaccurate, or that they disagree with the direction the team is taking.

The second type takes place in person or on a separate video call. Typically, a group has agreed on a decision, but after the meeting participants privately call it into question or play down its importance with their own teams, dooming it to failure.

So how can bosses minimize the meeting after the meeting, and bring those opinions into the first discussion?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Regularly walk the halls and talk to people, especially trusted confidantes, to become more informed about what team members are really thinking. When you know what some of the controversial issues are, you can ask questions at the formal meeting to draw people out. The cloud-networking executive, for example, says that he gives people cover to speak up by asking questions such as “What is the downside of this initiative?” Or, “How well do you think this proposal aligns with our strategy?”

2. Model the openness and honesty you desire by addressing controversial subjects yourself at formal meetings. For example, a CEO leading a cultural transformation learned that people thought he was leaving the company and feared their hard work on the effort would be in vain. The CEO raised the concern himself at an executive team meeting, and committed to finishing what he started.

3. Publicly thank those who raise unpopular ideas in meetings and don’t dismiss their thinking out of hand, even if you very much disagree with it. Try to understand what’s smart about the idea by asking questions such as: “How will this solve the problem? How will it benefit the company?” Encouraging this kind of discussion often leads to better ideas. When a leader at a healthcare services provider was charged with streamlining offerings at more than 300 medical clinics, some team members strongly advocated for eliminating mental-health services. Others, including the leader, adamantly disagreed. But instead of rejecting the idea outright, the leader agreed to take a closer look at the mental-health offering. In the end, the team decided to keep the offering but uncovered ways to reduce some of the expenses associated with it.

4. Ask team members to avoid participating in meetings after the meeting, and mentor them on how to present dissenting viewpoints at formal meetings in a way that ensures they will be heard. One effective approach for dissenters is to state agreement with the overall goal; point out the unintended consequences of the proposed action (or inaction); and then offer a different solution.

5. Before adopting a project, idea or initiative at a formal meeting, invite all team members to either state their agreement with it or to express right then and there any concerns or objections they may have. Once everyone states agreement, be sure the decision is included in the minutes or a follow-up email.

By following the above steps, leaders can create an environment in which team members won't feel the urge to hold a meeting after the meeting. Better decisions and higher performance will follow.

To read the complete Wall Street Journal article, please click here.


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