Ground-rules for meetings: Why they matter; how to create them, and how to best use them.
Last week's blog talked about setting and honouring the 'social contract' for meetings. Today, we will talk about what is commonly the missing third of that 'social contract', namely the behaviour of those attending. Some of those behaviours are detrimental.
At the mention of meetings, people often roll their eyes. Why? Because many people find that meetings are a waste of time and that the behaviour of people in them is cause for annoyance.
So why do many people not like meetings? Imagine a meeting that you recently attended, one where your negative emotions were triggered. Can you recall a person there whose behaviour was difficult? Can you visual their face?
For most people, the answers are ‘yes’ to both these questions. And yet to the logical follow-up question, the answer is ‘No!’
And that follow-up question is: ‘Who pictured themselves?’
The irony is that it is quite possible that I am the person that someone else found difficult. Yet, I would probably not describe myself as a ‘difficult person’, rather I’m a person of strong convictions, or I am a person who believes they have a right to speak their mind.
It is not people in meetings that are difficult, though it is sometimes their behaviours. I come to the meeting unconsciously expecting certain behaviours. Yet when my implicit expectations of behaviour are violated, I feel annoyed.
Image you are diving your car to work this morning when you are pulled over by a police officer. The officer says: ‘Excuse me sir/madam; do you just realise your just violated the Tuesday rule. That will cost you $350. You have no idea what the Tuesday rule is and the police officer refuses to tell you. How do you feel?
Now imagine a similar scenario, except this time your crime is driving at 50kmph through a 40kmph school speed zone. The fine is $350. Now, how do you feel? And how does the second scenario differ from the first?
The difference in your feelings between these two scenarios is a function of your knowing the rule you violated or not knowing it. So, if we want to have better meetings, we need a pre-agreed base of ground-rules by which we will operate.
Question: What is the difference between a draught and a breeze, in terms of air-movement? People generally agree that a breeze is more pleasant and welcome than a draught. Or, put another way, a breeze is what we get when we open the window. A draught is what we get when some other blighter opens a window. So, if we want a set of meeting ground rules that are acceptable to all participants, it is beneficial if those participants had a hand in drafting them.
When we drive our car on public roads there is an implicit social contract between all road users. We expect certain behaviours from each other. In our meetings, we need a similar set of shared ground rules, a similar social contract.
Setting up a meeting involves creating this social contract between the convenor and the invitees. The social contact involves (a) purpose – generally spelt out in the agenda, (b) timing – not only meeting starting and finishing times, but also the expected duration of each agenda item, and (c) ground-rules on how we will work together.
Ownership of the ground-rules is greatest when participants create them. Here is but one way of doing this. Invite participants, at the beginning of a meeting, to list those behaviour that have proven difficult in other meetings.
Next, pool all of these ideas and rank them according to how much that characteristic is detrimental to positive enjoyable meetings. Then pool all the rankings, resulting in a collective overview of the behaviours we discourage.
Pick the top 10. Then beside each undesirable characteristic, create its opposite, a desired behaviour that would enhance our meetings.
Then publish this list as our new set of meeting ground-rules. Since we collectively created it, participants are more likely to respect and honour these ground-rules, our new and desired meeting behaviours.
Provide a digital and/or hard-copy of these ground-rules as an appendix to every agenda. They represent a critical third of the social contract and become its code of conduct. (It is this third that is missing from almost every meeting agenda, leading inevitably to frustration.)
© Ian Plowman
Author: Ian Plowman is a consultant, facilitator and social researcher with over 30 years experience as an organisational psychologist. He works with individuals, organizations, industries, communities and government agencies. He holds a Doctorate in Management, an Advanced Master’s Degree in Business Administration, a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and an Honours Degree in Clinical Psychology. Ian helps clients to develop skills and awareness to remove communication blockages and raise their levels of creativity and innovation, thereby bringing joy to the workplace.
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