Want to bring joy to the workplace?

Want to bring joy to the workplace?  Want to improve the level of employee engagement and retention?  Want to improve the quality of workplace communication? 

What would be the benefits to your organisation if employee turnover could be reduced?

What would be the benefits if every employee was creatively focussed on the shared purpose?

What would be the benefits to morale if organisational communication was multi-directional?

What if your employees looked forward to meetings as a vehicle for mutual respect and fun?

What if you could address each of these while getting a 230% ROI?

The problem

In Australia, employee turnover averages between 30 to 40%.  And the cost of replacing a skilled employee is up to 12 months’ salary.

So, it would make perfect sense for every employer to be tuned in to employee satisfaction and retention.  This is often not the case.  In fact, what employees want from their workplace and what management thinks they want are rarely the same.

A pivot point for a person’s satisfaction in the workplace is often the conversations they have with others.  It is during those conversations that a person is inclined to feel validated or not.  It is during those conversations that a person knows whether they are the right fit for the organisation or not.  It is during those conversations that a person’s creative contribution receives permission to fly or is quietly crushed.

Standard meeting processes are unconsciously adversarial by design.  Discussion allows unconscious and detrimental social influences to come into play.

The shortcomings of discussion have been neatly captured by Jonathan Swift, in 1738:

“an impatience to interrupt each other, and the uneasiness of being interrupted ourselves; flooding listeners with self-indulgent talk; overemphasizing the importance of being witty; using jargon to show off; and the custom of pushing women aside during serious discourse.” 

A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversations.


Employers want focussed, dedicated, productive and happy employees.  This is what employers pay for, yet the conditions that employers create can unconsciously suppress what they seek.  Employees will happily offer their hands, heart and head, though not merely because they are paid.  Wages and salary will buy compliance; something more is needed for people to freely offer wholehearted commitment.   And that ‘something more’ is employee engagement.

The solution

‘Cooperative Conversations’ are a structured framework for productive organisational meetings.  But they are much more than that.  ‘Cooperative Conversations’ operationalise a philosophy – a philosophy of empowerment and engagement.  Every ‘Co-operative Conversation’ is also a team-building exercise, an innovation incubator, and a bridge between organisational layers and/or functional/geographic divisions.  They build confidence within individuals, respect between individuals, and wisdom across individuals and groups with the organisation.  They build morale, strengthen employee engagement, showcase talent in a non-competitive environment, liberate ideas and generate commitment.  Cooperative Conversations are efficient (meetings take half the time), full of fun and yet decisive, with the power to unconsciously change a culture.

And, as a bonus, Cooperative Conversations bring joy to the workplace. 

Over the next few months, I’d like to share with you a range of tools to recalibrate a culture through the ways in which we conduct our internal dialogue.

The investment

Central to ‘Cooperative Conversations’ is the principle that people do not talk to each other.  Rather individuals talk to the topic in the presence (real or digital) of others.  And all participants, through refraining from agreement or disagreement with the ideas of others, leave themselves open to be disrupted or surprised, or prompted to a new perspective.

The conversation is now more likely to be a dance of ideas rather than a contest of personalities.

At a more macro-level, the regular repetition of these new communication tools across the whole organisation will, over time, change the culture to one that is joyful, participative, innovative, productive and efficient.  As Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) point out in their top selling publication, The Spirit Level -Why Equality is Better for Everyone, societies that have greater equality outperform those that don’t on almost every economic and social measure.  And organisations that combine participative democracy with distributed ownership can have double the productivity and profitability to those that don’t.

2014 study by PriceWaterhouse Coopers showed there were financial benefits for those employers who invested in creating mentally healthy workplaces.  Every dollar invested in positive programs returned $2.30 in benefits such as reduced absenteeism (ABC News, 160318).

As the old adage says: Insanity is doing what we have always done while expecting a different outcome.  So, here’s the rub, if we want a better outcome, management will need to change its behaviour.  And the beauty is that the changes I recommend are effective, simple and inexpensive.

An example of the behavioural changes we might make to bring joy to the workplace

In last week’s blog (HR Daily Community, 260318), we described the eight stakeholders that might be considered as participants in any meeting where we are seeking wise decisions and broad commitment without resistance.

Today’s blog focuses on the physical configuration of a meeting and the number of participants.

Next week’s blog describes meetings as a social contract – how to draft it and how to honour it.

How many people can a meeting productively accommodate?  What is the best physical format?

The client has a chain of 40 service centres.  Each month, the managers of those centres attended a monthly meeting.  The forty managers sat in a large u-shaped configuration with the business owners seated at the head of the open U.  The client owners’ complaint: ‘All of the managers are passive.  They won’t say anything.

People’s experience of meetings informs us that some meetings work better than others.  There are many reasons why this is the case and this series of blogs attempts to unpack them.  Two factors that are particularly important, and they are related, are (a) the number of participants, and (b) the physical setting.

Reflect on an informal social occasion such as a party, BBQ, or informal chit-chat after a church service.  How many people do we normally see in a cluster?  Rarely do we see more than six, and generally less.

We also know that the greater the diversity in a group, the richer will be the conversation.  Yet, on the downside, the larger the group, the greater the possibility that (a) some voices may not be heard, and (b) that side conversations will occur.

So, what is the ideal number for a conversation or meeting group?  My recommendation is for the group to be as large as possible (to provide diversity) and as small as possible (to provide intimacy and participation).  Experience tells me that five or six is an ideal number, a size akin to sharing a meal with friends.

So what happens if there are more than six people choosing to attend the meeting?  The answer lies in accommodating participants in multiple table groups, each of five or six people.

[At this point, I anticipate the reader’s ‘push-back’.  Yes, this may well be different to current practice.  It all depends on whether the goal is compliance or commitment.  If we want the latter, then behavioural change may well be necessary.  And I also recognise that what I’m suggesting here may make no sense without all of the other supporting recommendations to be covered in future blogs.  One piece of a jig-saw puzzle rarely makes any sense.  We need all of the pieces together to create a comprehensive picture.]

What about the physical geography for the meeting?  Up until the turn of the century, formal meeting spaces were commonly rectangular and designed with either theatre-style seating or with a large rectangular table with a senior person seated at the head of the table.

These two formats work if the intent of the meeting is for the powerful to ‘tell’ those with less power.  However, if participation and engagement is beneficial, then other formats work better.

My preference is for meeting participants to work at small circular tables, thus eliminating any ‘power’ position.  Avoid those larger circular banquet tables commonly used at weddings and business breakfasts.  Conversation across these tables is impossible.

If small circular tables are unavailable, then rectangular tables work, three people per side.  If there are multiple tables, arrange them like a fan, or like the petals on half a daisy, so the long axis faces the rostrum or screen.  People are seated at the sides of these tables, looking down the long axis.

In a rectangular room, presentation facilities are normally at the narrow end of the room.  Where possible, consider rotating that orientation 90 degrees, so the screen and rostrum is in the middle of the long axis.  Here the fan-like half-daisy table configuration works particularly well.

Where the number of tables is greater than will be comfortably accommodated in this fan configuration, then place a second array of tables behind the first array, with the tables in the second array offset so they look between the tables in the first array.

Returning to the clients and their monthly meeting of 40 managers, the secret to invigorating the meetings was to change the physical setting.  Managers now sit at table-groups of six.  The owners each sit at different tables with their managers.  At each natural break, everyone moves to a new small group.  Periodically, a conversation summary or recommendation within table groups is shared across table groups.  The transformation in energy, engagement, idea-sharing and commitment has been remarkable.

© Ian Plowman

April 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 blockages and raise their levels of engagement, creativity and innovation.

See: www.cooperativeconversations.com.au, Linked-In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ian-plowman-meetings/

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