MAKING MEETINGS WORK
The Times of India, Bombay – Monday July 25, 1994

Meetings are held for various purposes and can be of different types. Objectives can include the sharing of information among a group of people, the solving of problems or difficulties, decision making or strategy planning for example.

While the venue of a meeting may be something that one takes for granted there are certain physical and environmental factors involved that facilitate the meeting process. The venue, to start with, should be a comfortable one, with the seating configuration such that face-to-face communication between all participants is facilitated to the greatest extent possible.

The acoustics at the venue should be appropriate (no one appreciates being told that he or she has not been heard just after making a vital point), the lighting adequate and the heating or cooling regulated to the right level (a direct draft from the air-conditioner after all is uncomfortable, and certainly not conducive at all to either listening or to participation).

The agenda and all relevant papers must be circulated well in time, so that adequate time is allowed for preparation. Preparation is after all a very major part of a successful meeting. The agenda should preferably have main and sub points. Inviting the right people is another aspect.

Starting and finishing as per schedule is also important. While sticking to the agenda, questions must be encouraged - while the talkers are held in line and the timid encouraged. Most vital is the action element together with details of where the responsibility for the required action lies. "Who does what by when?" sums this up, and this should be agreed upon and duly recorded.

For the leader, keeping track of all these points means not only that the progress of the meeting in question runs smooth and close to course but also enables him or her to evaluate the meeting in terms of its relevance and the results that the meeting has help achieved.

The dynamics : The dynamics of a business meeting relate to the underlying relationships that exists between the persons involved. Thus for instance, in a board of directors meeting, the relationship between the Chairman and the Managing Director would determine their respective attitudes towards each other's suggestions. A relationship of a father and a son would result in one type of attitude and consequently one type of reaction to one's suggestions by the other. Thus an adversarial relationship that results between an MD and Chairman, when the MD is waiting in the wings for the chair, or between the father and son where the son is impatient to take over the business, may well result in the same kind of dynamics, despite the widely varying corporate situations these dynamics are part of.

Similarly when other members of the board have conflicting relationships, for instance if one member is seeking to upstage the MD and impress the chairman, there would be a constant move on the member's part to undermine the MD. Internal relationships, for instance, between the finance director and the marketing director, which are not very pleasant at either the personal or professional level, could surface at meetings in the form of excessive aggressiveness and fault-finding.

Personal dynamics are therefore a vital element in the dynamics of business meetings. Positive dynamics lead to good rapport and quick understanding at meetings, but excessively close relationships could result in sheer ganging-up.

The underlying relationships that affect group dynamics in a meeting evolve as a result of several factors: each one's individual cultural background, upbringing, education and value system, for example. For instance, gender biases often result in negative behaviour, or in the case of a meeting of the cross-national kind, pre-conceived notions of the value systems of a particular nationality could result in prejudice that is then carried over to views on the professional calibre of persons of this nationality, even spilling over into the decision making process, therefore influencing the outcome of the meeting in question.

Thus it is important for each individual in meeting to be conscious of these possibilities in an attempt to be more objective, and it is as important on the part of the meeting's conductor to be aware of these potential pitfalls and handle them appropriately.

The underlying relationship between two individuals at a meeting and the resulting dynamics are again influenced by the presence of other members in the group. One's relationship with another individual may take a certain form in one-to-one encounters, changing rather drastically in a group situation, as it is now influenced by one's relationships with other members of the group. The multiplicity involved, and the various permutations and combinations that result on the level of underlying relationships between various members of a group therefore tremendously affect the dynamics of meetings.

There are specific areas of disturbance or conflict that also must be paid attention to in the process of meetings.

Gender biases, are referred to above are one, and this area also sometimes presents a problem of an altogether different kind. Men in an effort to impress women about their knowledge or their decision-making ability, may approach a meeting where both sexes are represented quite differently from usual. "Old v/s Young" is another possible area of discord, where both the hand of experience and the injection of fresh ideas must be given their due. A similar problem tends to arise between professionals who are technically qualified and those in general management, each pooh-poohing the other's capabilities or between those who have risen from the ranks and have no sound education or professional qualifications versus those who do.

Hidden agendas are yet another area that have to be considered in the conducting of a successful meeting as are digressions and deviations from the issues at hand. These must be handled politely but firmly by the conductor of the meeting, drawing reference perhaps to the agenda.

Hijacking of meetings by overly aggressive participants, or sabotage through excessively negative reactions need more firm methods of control.

Another major consideration is participation. Setting the scene for good levels of participation in fact, starts well before the meeting itself, at the time when the meeting is arranged, and its objectives decided upon.

To get the most out of a meeting, an atmosphere of informality goes a long way, open-ended questions also help, as does encouraging people to ask their own questions and put forward their individual opinions.

In the course of the meeting itself, it is important that all members of the group involved are encouraged to participate in the meeting, in order to make best use of each participant's in the meeting, in order to make best use of each participant's information, knowledge and creativity, and therefore ensure the best contribution levels possible.

It must be remembered that many people have a fear of groups, which often makes it difficult for them to speak up in such situations. Such persons should be particularly encouraged to talk at meetings as drawing out their ideas or the information they have may be of great value.

It is important to provide equal opportunity to all for participation. What happens in the meeting process is that while issues are being discussed and opinions exchanged, the creation of a team is taking place. Even in the case of meetings of the less democratic kind, the grounds of some kind of team work are being laid.

The process of sharing of information helps to know more about the task or the job at hand and enables the participants carry out requirements in better fashion.

Since discussions are usually held in a meeting, commitment from the group also develops in the process to issues discussed and decisions made. Thus even persons who are not the originators of ideas or decisions become committed to them through the process of participation, and the feeling of involvement thus generated. One happy outcome: the need for future supervision and follow-up is reduced, since commitment is the first step in ensuring effective implementation.

Most people have ideas of their own on each issue, and tend to believe that these are the best on the subject. This results in difficulty in listening to the ideas of others and a lack of openness to varying views. Receptivity and patience are therefore very important. Not only does the improved listening that results help people open up to what others are saying, it also encourages others to speak, thus making for richer interaction all around. And receptivity does not merely mean giving others a change to be heard out, it means giving others a chance to think as well, so that after asking a question, one waits for a while, allowing for thought to precede response.

This brings us to the role of the leader, the conductor of the meeting. While there is no call for whoever is fulfilling this role to impose his or her authority and status on the others at a meeting, the leader must act as the conductor of an orchestra, who moderates the contribution of various participants while effectively enhancing their contributions.

 

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