Are you violating a social contract? Do your meetings match what people expect?

Are you violating a social contract?  Do your meetings match what people expect? 

Have you ever attended a meeting that, for any reason, left you annoyed, angry, disappointed?

Unconsciously, each participant in your meetings has signed up to a ‘social contract’.  Evidence for this is most obvious when the ‘social contract’ is violated.

The reason this negative emotion arose for you is probably because something occurred that you thought was inappropriate.  And you can probably name a handful of meeting behaviours that will trigger this negative emotion for you.  Each of these negative meeting behaviours represent a violation of your implicit ‘social contract’, a set of expectations that you bring to a meeting.

And each participant at the meeting has their own implicit ‘social contract’.  Further, it may not be identical to yours, though some overlap is highly likely.  And because these ‘social contracts’ are implicit – i.e. not shared - no one knows what they contain.

Far better that the ‘social contract’, which is set up between the entity that called the meeting and those who attend, is made explicit.

The social contract is created by a meeting agenda.  Unfortunately, an agenda is commonly deficient in that it fails to adequately specify and shape participant expectations.

An effective agenda (or social contract) has three elements that are both necessary and sufficient for a successful meeting to occur.  Those elements are: (i) the intended content of our meeting conversation, (ii) the intended timing of the meeting and its respective elements, and (iii) the desired behaviours within our meeting – our ground-rules.

The social contract, like any contract, involves an ‘offer’ and an ‘acceptance’.  The ‘offer’ occurs when the agenda is circulated.  The ‘acceptance’ occurs when participants turn up, armed with a promised set of expectations as to what will occur, when it will occur, and how it will occur.  This social contract is then honoured (or not) by the participant experience of the meeting matching (or not) what was promised.

To make absolutely sure that the ‘social contract’ is shared and understood, the meeting’s first agenda item addresses this specifically, by asking and then responding to three opening questions:

  1. What are we here for? The answer to that question is spelt out by the agenda which has been circulated in advance.  This ‘purpose’ should be devoid of ambiguity, with each agenda item clearly indicating (i) who will drive the conversation pertaining to it, (ii) what is the desired outcome for each topic, and (iii) what is expected of every participant in relation to each topic.
  2. How long have we got? The answer to that question is also made specific on the agenda.  Timings include meeting starting time, meeting finishing time, and the specific time allocated to each agenda item.
  3. How will we work together? This question has two answers.  The first, made clear as a notation against each agenda item, relates to what is expected of participants in dealing with that item.  This notation permits participants to do the required pre-meeting preparation.  The second is a set of ground-rules on participant general behaviour and issued as an appendix to the agenda.

These three questions confirm the shared social contract leaving participants in no doubt as to what is about to occur in your meeting.

A facilitator, conducting a strategy development workshop for a corporate client, commenced the workshop by addressing these three questions.  Two people immediately stood up and walked out.  They had intended to be at the sales meeting which was being held next door.

By opening the workshop with the three focusing questions, only two minutes of the visitors’ time was misspent.  Without the focusing questions to begin, considerably more time might have been wasted as the two people sat there in confusion.

By following these ‘Co-operative Conversation’ protocols our meetings now take half the time they formerly took.  Further, they are twice the fun, generate considerably more wisdom and produce better informed decisions that have a higher level of commitment.  Over time, they recalibrate a culture, bringing joy to the workplace.

Our next blog will explore the issue of ‘groundrules’ – those behaviours that will ensure a productive, efficient and enjoyable meeting..

© Ian Plowman

February 2018

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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