I just finished reading a recent HBR piece that tells a story about a manager who holds a meeting of 20 contributors and outlines a big initiative. When the manager asks for feedback around potential issues, the contributors do not voice many important concerns. Meeting adjourned. But later, several contributors approach the manager with big “uh ohs” about the plan. The manager feels like that ship has sailed and is frustrated. How does any manager get their people to voice concerns in that meeting instead of after (or not at all)?
While the two authors of the piece offer some good ideas for ways to generate more participation in meetings, I think their initial conclusion is potentially misguided.
The initial conclusion and advice is to establish the ground rule that “Silence Denotes Agreement” (kind of like the old wedding convention of the officiant telling the assembled crowd that if there any objections to the union “speak now or forever hold your peace.”) Then the rest of the article explains some pretty good ways to overcome the understandable reasons why people are reluctant to share their objections in meetings. Having said that, here’s a couple of points that the article my be missing:
1. In 2016, is a meeting of 20 people the best way to both outline a big initiative AND expect that all of the good feedback and/or valid concerns be voiced during that same meeting? I’d like to believe that the scenario proposed was overly simple for brevity’s sake. But in my experience, many leaders expect too much from meetings, have them too often as a way to build consensus or come to clarity, and get frustrated when these meetings aren’t effective. Meetings can’t (and shouldn’t) do too much at a time and they are a notoriously suboptimal place to build consensus or come to clarity.
2. Similarly, if the leader in this scenario is looking for a broad discussion of the issues around the new initiative, then he/she should have been soliciting feedback from the 20 contributors well ahead of time and already know much of their feedback and objections before getting them in all in a room together. Furthermore, after laying all of this feedback on the table during the meeting and discussing it, the leader would be better off saying something like, “I know this is a lot to digest, let me know if you have any more questions or concerns in the next week and then I’ll let you know how we will address them.”
3. Finally, the core problem that we are trying to solve here is how to reduce passive-resistance in your team. However, pushing them to follow a “silence = agreement” rule doesn’t necessarily help people who struggle in this area. The modern corporation teaches leaders how to appear outwardly cooperative quite well, and I have coached executives who have been told by their bosses to “push back harder in meetings, or I don’t want to hear about it later” and what they get is not more push back, but less feedback of any kind. With those folks, often you need to have the individual or the team work on the idea of not just working around conflict, but through the conflict for really productive conversations. Every group and every team is different, so the path to just how to handle that conflict is best co-created within that group.
It’s a good article with good advice. However, don’t necessarily swallow the advice all in one bite. You might find that you institute a new rule for your meetings that creates a new version of the same problem.