How well did you lead your last meeting? Did participants accept your guidance and leadership? Did you manage to get new and fresh ideas on the table? Have a frank and honest conversation? Get everyone engaged? And did participants align to your purpose and direction as a meeting leader?
Ah… leadership in meetings! It’s a vast theme. Most of us can identify great leadership but being able to pinpoint where the greatness comes from is usually a bit mysterious and gets lost in hollow answers and empty words. Basically, people don’t know what makes leadership great. So it’s time to get a bit more understanding on where leadership in meetings comes from.
What is leadership in meetings, anyways?
When I ask participants what leadership in meetings is, most of the answers are visible behaviour traits. They name traits like interrupting discussions, cutting off tangential issues, pushing through a decision usually after a debate that felt too long. All of these are visible behaviours a meeting leader showed to influence the process of the meeting.
I would sum up leadership in meetings as one’s ability to surf group dynamics in such a way that the group makes meaningful progress in a motivating way.
1. Making meaningful progress…
Making progress in a meeting is a no-brainer. It’s the whole point of calling the meeting in the first place. Yet it’s depressing to see the amount of time people spend in meetings (recent research is not easy to find but some numbers can be found here and here). Most of our meetings are lacking a clear sense of progress.
Coincidently having a clear sense of progress turns out to be the single most important motivator for employees. This is what Amabile and Kramer discovered in their important research. So making sure that you make meaningful progress is at the core of your meeting leadership.
2. …in a motivating way
This brings us to the process of the meeting. Leadership in meetings is definitely also about holding a motivating meeting. Where ensuring meaningful progress is the primary reason to call a meeting, doing so in a motivating way is about unleashing the cooperative energy that’s inherently simmering within each of the participants. Think of it from the other way round: who would want to attend a boring meeting? Or a meeting in which the group gets stuck? Boring or getting stuck hinders making meaningful process.
Yet, on a daily basis we force people to attend boring meetings. Why? For me this links to the deep anxiety of leaders that inherently comes with unleashing cooperative forces. Never having learned how to surf the dynamics of the group, meeting leaders are scared of loosing control of the group, of being overwhelmed by all the ideas and emotions that might pop up. Giving room to the group is like opening Pandora’s box. Even though you might know all the participants, you move into unchartered territory when they’re all in one room. And often, that triggers strong control mechanisms from the meeting leader.
So, time to open Pandora’s box and talk about group dynamics.
Pandora’s box: the paradoxes of group life
Groups always have to deal with paradoxes. No escape there! To be more accurate: each and every individual member of the group is facing several paradoxes. And because of these paradoxes, group dynamics can change suddenly and rapidly. For the better, but often for the worse…
1. A paradox is a vicious circle
As a refresher: a paradox is a seemingly self-contradicting or absurd statement, and yet explicable of expressing a truth. A rule like ‘ignore all rules’ is a paradoxical statement because if you would apply it you would need to ignore the rule you apply. It’s a vicious circle, because following the rule implies breaking the rule you’re following.
Another example (applicable to meetings) is Jevons paradox, explaining the phenomenon by which efficiency tends to increase (and not decrease) the use of the resource that is used more efficiently. Jevson saw it happening with coal: the more efficient the process the more it increased its demand. But it also works with a resource as time. Just look at how emailing has become a nuisance. Emailing allowed us to communicate more efficiently, yet we face overloaded inboxes. The same applies to meetings: the more efficient your meetings, the more meetings you have and thus the more time you spend in meetings.
2. And they punctuate group life
Paradoxes punctuate our group life and thus our meetings. A lot of the energy of our group life is devoted to the self-contradictions and the vicious circularity ruled by paradoxes. We want to make progress together, but we’re mostly busy with the group dynamics.
Smith and Berg have identified three basic paradoxes, which I’ll briefly review:
- The first one every participant encounters is the paradox of belonging. The moment you enter a meeting room you ask yourself: ‘do I belong to this group?’ and the only way to find out is to participate in the group, in the meeting.
- The second one is the paradox of engaging. Once the meeting has started you’re faced with the question: ‘how much am I going to engage?’ And again, the only way to answer this question is by engaging yourself. To give an example: (lack of) trust is often seen as problem within meetings. But the paradoxical point is: you’ll have to give trust first in order to receive it.
- The third one is the paradox of speaking. This one is about influence: ‘what can I do to make a difference on the direction the group takes?’ The paradox here is that speaking as well as not speaking, both influence the direction of the group. And does speaking out threaten the stability of the group? Again, only one paradoxical way to find out: by speaking out.
So there we are: paradoxes abound in group life. And because of their contradiction and vicious circularity, participants spend a lot of energy trying to solve the paradoxes, which by their nature is impossible.
Surfing group dynamics
As a meeting leader, controlling these paradoxes is again, paradoxically impossible. The more control you exert, the more the group will resist your control (if you’re lucky they do it overtly, which is a sign of engagement, otherwise they’ll do it in silence…)
Again we find a paradox on our way… If you label undesirable behaviour as resistance, well… resistance you will get. So instead of talking about resistance, I prefer talking about tensions. Tensions arise because of the paradoxes. And as paradoxes are everywhere, there always will be tensions in a meeting. These tensions are like waves on a sea. Always there! On a calm day just causing a ripple, on a rough day rocking the hell out of everyone. And you as a meeting leader, with the group, you surf these paradoxical waves to get as far and as safe as possible towards the goal.
Is there one good and unique way to surf group dynamics? No! Surfing has an individual quality to it. And with the end in mind, it’s all about making meaningful progress in a motivating way. We’re back to square one: the definition I gave earlier on. But now ready to share some insights about ways to surf those group dynamics.
I’ll share three insights on how to surf group dynamics.
1. It all happens in the here and now
Regardless of the goal you and the team have been setting, group dynamics always happen in the here and now. The wave you’re currently surfing is the one needing your full attention. Be present on that wave! As a meeting leader, once the goal is set (usually before and at the start of a meeting), you may let off the goal. Remember that people are most motivated by a clear sense of progress, meaning that participants will help you achieve the goal. As long as you help them when the waves become high and unpredictable.
2. Make choices on how to surf the waves
You make the choices on how to ride the wave. Do you pay attention to the needs of that one individual or will you keep focus on the needs of the whole group? Are you going to speed up the pace or slow it down? Will you focus on the results or will you ask attention for the process? These are a couple of questions that will help you make choices on riding the wave. They should be at the back of your mind at all times.
3. Don’t take it personally. Never.
You’re in the here and now, you make deliberate choices on how to surf the wave and then… a pushback from a participant. And the pushback is directly targeted at you; an attack on how you lead the meeting or worse, on you as a person. And suddenly you don’t know anymore… most leaders either jump into a fight or they freeze and become indecisive. Both reactions, though perfectly understandable, will eventually make matters worse because you took it personally. Yes, the pushback was supposed to be personal, but it’s your choice to take it personally. Leading meetings is never about you! So instead, take yourself out of the equation and view it as an opinion from one of the participants (which strictly speaking it is) and convey his message back to the group.
This brings me to my concluding words, a quote from the ancient Roman leader Marcus Aurelius, who said in his meditations:
‘You have power of your mind – not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.’
Leading meetings is surfing group dynamics in such a way the group makes meaningful progress. As we saw it’s a paradoxical exercise. So leading groups is never easy, nor straightforward. Skills help, but also find your strength in front of a group. With that, you’ll surf the paradoxical waves towards the goal. And you’ll even be able to do it in a motivating way.