03 February 2005

RIGHT WAY OF CONDUCTING MEETINGS

RIGHT WAY OF CONDUCTING MEETINGS

Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon

Psychologist, Specialist in Management Science and Author of Award Winning Management Books

Countless number of meetings is held in organisations. Daily, weekly or monthly meetings of the members of the staff are convened by the heads of the departments for various purposes. People think that any one who is holding the positions of senior managers or departmental/section heads can conduct meetings successfully without special knowledge of the right methods of conducting meetings, the knowledge of which contributed by Behavioural Sciences.

It is because of the casual way of conducting the meetings, most of the meetings are not productive and employees lack faith in them. Meetings are sometimes perceived as strategies to postpone an action on an issue. There is a general feeling shared by people that the meetings are time wasters. It robs off one’s time, which could otherwise be spent on productive work. If one were to calculate the direct and indirect costs incurred by the organisation, in terms of the salary paid to the employees for the time, they spent on meetings and over heads, the figure will be staggering. This is in addition to the ill effects of poorly conducted meetings on the motivation and morale of employees.

Before examining the dynamics of staff meetings, let us see, what some of the senior scientists working in one of the largest and premier organisations to say about meetings. The following are their typical reactions.

“The staff/Group meetings called to discuss scientific and technical aspects have been rewarding. Research council meetings are rewarding to the extent that we come to know the various aspects of research being carried out and progress made but, the input and contribution from the members to enlarge the horizon of thinking and work are rather disappointing”.

“Meetings are definitely useful, however decisions taken will have to be implemented”.

“Intra-institutional meetings could achieve more if digression is minimized, if not eliminated and decisions are arrived on the basis of discussions at the meeting and not before”.

“They have both positive and negative aspects.

Positive Aspects – They serve to consolidate ideas on the part of the participants. Some times, advantageous group can crystallize on decisions.

Negative Aspect – no full justice can be done to the programme being discussed. Many times, discussion wander to unconnected matters and trivialities, wasting time. They are mostly conducted as rituals. Much importance is not attached (rightly) to the remarks, or recommendations are not carried out”.

“I have mixed feelings about the said meetings. I get the impression that we often tend to over-discuss the issues. Related to this impression is my concern (and some times pain) about the long durations of time spent on discussions. If we can only speedily implement decisions arrived at the meetings and see to it that the programme chalked out (whatever) are actually executed, our meetings, despite their being too frequent and of large numbers of kinds, will not be in vain”.

“I sincerely feel that meetings of people with varied background and experience, if planned, arranged and taken seriously will be the most effective way of taking reasonable and practical decisions on various matters concerning own institute. Unfortunately, the present day reality is that even convening a meeting is becoming very difficult due to various reasons. Most of the meetings are arranged in a hurry. There are little interactions from most of the participants and follow up is practically nil. The most important is that we do not have a mechanism to monitor and enforce decisions taken collectively from time to time. Under the fa├žade of democratic working, the most elementary principle of accountability is being side lined and I feel that this has to be rectified, if we are to achieve anything through meetings”.

“Meetings take longer time and therefore concerned matters should be discussed preferably in a group having 4-5 members who are directly concerned with the discussion”.

“Staff/Group/Research Council meetings are useful most of the time. For:

I. Positive feelings:
1. “It gives an opportunity to evaluate one’s performance, provided one has scientific attitude. It also provides chance for others to evaluate one’s work”.

II. Negative feeling
“Many a time, such meetings fail to achieve the goal of evaluating the work for the following reasons:
i) Lack of focus on the identified problem, leading to rambling courses of collective thinking.
ii) Lack of scientific temperament in sorting out personal prejudice from scientific critical evaluation”.

1) “Due to lack of time, many important issues receive insufficient attention. A very thorough discussion problem-wise is necessary”.

2) “A lot of careful preparation should precede presentation. A two page document should be prepared, for final decision making, explaining clearly the concepts. Attempts should be made to quantify the proposal and it should have passed through policy (overall) considerations already and its feasibility should be established by well known criteria”.
3) “Basic work deserves special consideration and should be discussed in separate session altogether. The technological research (basically developmental) needs more scrutiny and relevance and consolidation at the institute level”.

“ I find that (1) the meetings consisting of scientists in the age group of 30-40 (but chaired by a slightly elderly scientist, endowed with gifts of patience and listening capacity, as also brief, yet meaningful interaction) are extremely business like and are characterized by productive exchange of view points, interspersed with scientific and technological data (2) younger scientists carefully chosen(here tremendous responsibility rests with managements to abjure personal likes and dislikes) enables to get best out of the scientists”.

Objectives of the Staff Meetings
Generally, staff meetings are arranged to plan, review, monitor or report progress on work; consult employees on organisational issues, involve employees in making decisions for better prospects of implementation; share with employees organisational information and utilize collective knowledge, skills and experience to examine problems from different angles in solving them innovatively. A staff meeting may serve one or more of the above goals. Because, a meeting can serve such multiple goals, there is always the possibility of expectations of the members (employees) coming in conflict with those who conduct the meetings. For instance, the participants may feel that the success of the meeting is the Chairman’s responsibility and hence, they may play a casual role in the meeting. They may not give prior thought to the agenda items and prepare before coming to the meetings. Even during the meeting they may not show seriousness in their participation. They may take the meeting in a lighter vein, and socialize or they may remain as silent members. They may not think deeply and contribute to the discussions thus their participation may be superficial. No serious exchange of thoughts and views may take place.

Another type of conflict that might occur is on the degree of influence, the participants can exert in making decisions on issues discussed in the meeting. For instance, the top-management may convene a staff meeting to consult with the employees on issues before formulating a policy, the decision on which the management might consider as its prerogative. The employees, on the other hand, may want to influence decisions and formulate a policy jointly. Consequently, they may lose their interest in the meeting when they find that the chairman is not accommodating their views and ideas.

Thus, in order to set proper tone of the meetings, the chairman should make its clear to the members right in the beginning, the extent to which they can influence the decisions on issues brought in for discussion in the meeting. It is still better to develop a prior mutual understanding between the top management and the employees regarding the authority shared by different levels in making decisions on different organisational issues. Such consensus enable the members to develop realistic expectations regarding their authority and in turn, makes staff meetings organizationally productive and satisfying to the members. Many times, the particular chairman and even the top management do not possess such clarity in understanding and they have to make special efforts towards it.

What are Staff meetings for?
Staff meeting are participatory forums used for communication and group influence, with a view to improve accountability and work commitment of people. Through well run meetings, the chairman can help the members to meet their socio-psychological needs such as belonging, involvement and acceptance. In the hands of management, meetings are powerful tools for motivating and getting the best out of the staff.

Thus, the departmental heads, who conduct the meetings, should be aware of these possible advantages of the meetings and should strive to realize them. They should not consider staff meetings simply as a convenient forum to meet large number of people in one place and they should not take it, as yet another occasion to ‘show off’ their status and power or create ‘yes men’ or show pearls of their wisdom.

Regularity of Staff Meetings and the Agenda
It is advisable to hold regular meetings of the staff committee, with special effort to generate sufficient items of ‘agenda’ for consideration. Of course, there is no point in holding meetings every month without having much to discuss. The seriousness of the meetings or the value attached by employees to the meetings gets lost, without sufficient matter for deliberations.

In the case of work planning and review meeting, agenda items can be suggested by the employees, in addition to those selected by top management. Agenda is the programme of business. It should be circulated among the members sufficiently in advance. The purpose of circulating the agenda in advance is to give member to go through the items in advance and do whatever preparation is necessary, before attending, enabling them to offer helpful comments during the meeting. The members can also know what is going to be discussed and thus, they have something to look for and thus get motivated to attend the meeting.

Making advance preparation and taking staff meetings seriously should be inculcated as a habit and norm among all employees. This could be achieved by the chief executive by personal example. If he takes the meetings seriously, others are likely to follow the suit. Again, there is, perhaps, nothing wrong in warning those employees, who take meetings casually. If the chairman himself fumbles on the agenda he is setting a bad example for others to follow. This happens when the chairman is ‘position conscious’, poses to be ‘busy’, lacks conference/leadership skills and ‘faith’ in the democratic principles underling in meetings.

A meeting is a dynamic situation of inter-personal interactions aimed towards achieving certain common goals. In the meetings, there is need to attend to two kinds of behaviours, viz., task-related behaviour and behaviour-related to group maintenance (or maintenance of interpersonal relations). Task-related factors are those helpful for achieving the goals of the meeting. Some examples of task-related behaviours are keeping one’s attention focused on the problems/issues in hand, rather than digressing or going off the track; speaking by listening to each other rather than ‘talking to one self; building on each other’s ideas, doing penetrative thinking and analysis of the people, actively and enthusiastically participating in discussions, seeking and offering ideas; enriching discussions, summarising etc.

Some of the examples of interpersonal behaviours are listening to each other’s ideas with attention ,showing interest and empathy rather than causing interruption, allowing all members to speak rather than one or more members holding the floor too long; recognition of each other’s contributions; building on each other’s sense of importance (self esteem) rather than trying to belittle; reacting to other’s ideas based on logic and reasoning rather than based on personal bias, prejudice and rivalry and so on. It can be seen that some of the interpersonal behaviours stated above are healthy and positive and hence, contribute to productivity of the meetings and member satisfaction, while others are unhealthy and negative and hence, they undermine productivity of the meetings and the member’s satisfaction.

The chairman should attend not only to task - related behaviours, but also to behaviour of inter-personal relations which promote harmony in interpersonal relationships. He should encourage the positive behaviours and discourage negative ones.

Similarly, he should encourage the members to encourage the positive behaviours and discourage negative ones displayed by their colleagues. In other words, the atmosphere created should make the members feel this responsibility.

The Role of the Chairman
The chairman should be of friendly nature and a good mixer. He should not see himself a person there to direct and control group activities. The feeling that he is there to control the group may give him some ‘ego satisfaction’, but, hinders group productivity and member satisfaction’. He should feel that he is there as a guide, catalyst, motivator and synthesizer (or co-ordinator) of group efforts. He should feel that he is a man who provides the right kind of atmosphere for the meeting, in which creative and social instincts of the members find full expression.

He should play the role of ‘controller’ of the group activities and that of ‘information giver’, (their role of expert) only when the situation demands. He should do it on the strength of his wide knowledge, vision and breadth of understanding and as person who is not emotionally involved in arguing out his case. When he tries to argue out his case, he fails to appreciate richness of ideas, contributed by other members. Thus, he should not be a person with rigid notions and having a ‘one track mind’. He should be attentive to what others say. He should not show any idiosyncrasies and mannerisms while in the meeting such as learning on the table, toying with gem clips etc, which divert the concentration of the members. These do not inspire confidence among the members.

He should speak clearly and softly as one would hold a normal and friendly conversion. For making judgement, he should seek for facts, information and logic rather than go by personal notions and pre-dispositions. He should have a good knowledge of the problems under discussion and should be quick and clear in understanding the diverse ideas expressed by the members (the so called ability for comprehension)

The chairman should encourage the members to attentively listen to and build on each other’s ideas, analyze the problems, express ideas that differ from others freely and frankly, participate actively throughout the meeting, contribute new ideas and new lines of thinking and approaches to the problems and show mutually helpful attitudes.
He should also discourage tactfully the display of negative behaviours by the members such as monopolizing the discussions, obstructing the progress of the meetings by frequent interruptions , going off the track, reacting to ideas of others and attacking each other, motivated by personal bias, rivalry and conflict.

The members should also be trained to develop assuming responsibility for encouraging positive and discouraging negative behaviours among themselves. In other words, the group as a whole should be made responsible for the conduct and productive behaviour of its members, by using a ‘group - centered’ leadership by the chairman. The group as a whole should be encouraged to gain some control over the behavior of individual members.

The chairman should not exert ‘too tight’ control over the meeting. He should not make his intentions clear or monopolise conversation and fail to encourage discussions. He should not communicate matters without allowing the members to express their views on them. Similarly he should not decide and announce his decision on matters, on the other hand decide either in consultation or jointly with the members.

He should see that the participation is widely distributed in the group. Few members should not do talking all the time. He should encourage every member to speak. No member, who wants to speak should be deprived of his chance. Similarly, the discussions should not be prematurely closed and no idea from any member should be rejected without giving a fair hearing and thorough examination.

Chairman of the meeting, who is generally a senior member should not throw his weight of authority around. Some times, his style of conducting the meetings may make the members feel that he does not tolerate other’s views and ideas and that he expects them to support his ideas as a mark of personal loyalty. Accordingly, some members may echo his word, others may withdraw and be silent and yet others may remain resentful overtly or covertly. When more members echo his words, he may go away with the false notion that he and the members have similar views and that the meeting went off well.

For the meeting to be productive, the chairman should create an atmosphere of equality in the group. He should make every member feel that he is important as any other member, including the chairman. No status hierarchy or pecking order should be allowed to develop. He should build up confidence and courage of the members for giving social support and appreciating their views and ideas. He should see that no one belittle another. He should on the other hand, encourage a climate of openness, care and mutual trust.

The chairman should not always insist that the members should talk logically and only to the point and suppress feelings and emotions. When persons speak with strong feelings, their interest in the subject grows.
He should summarise the discussions, periodically to keep the focus of the group on the objectives and make visible to all members the steady progress of the meeting.

He should keep the overall attention of the group focused on the business of the meetings, while at the same time, not sticking too rigidly to the agenda. sufficient scope should be given for the members for through exploration and analysis of the problems and to look at them from different angles .

While allowing scope for discussions, the chairman should also check the long winded talkers, constrain interrupters and those who go off the track and thus, maintain control over time. He should ensure that the meeting moves with normal speed and cover all the items on the agenda equally well, without having hurry through any of them.

Nothing is as a bad as the meeting, in which the group has to hurry through some items and which is to be closed prematurely. In such case, the members may lack sense of progress, and accomplishment which are some of the human needs that crave for expression. Thus, the chairman has to keep a delicate balance between allowing members participation and emotional involvement, on the one hand and control over time on the other.

The chairman can use the following methods to retain control over time. First, he should check digressions tactfully, Second, the members should be trained to put across their ideas precisely and pointedly. The chairman himself should speak to the point. When the members find the chairman himself appreciating the value of their time, they automatically plan the most economic use of their time. Third, the chairman can also encourage the group to check the digression of members, which is more effective. Fourth, Digressions can be minimized by reminding the members periodically about the agenda and by summarizing the discussions to each other and building on each other’s ideas rather than allowing them to go off the track. Active listening to each other’s idea save time, by avoiding repetitions and misunderstandings followed by clarifications. Confusion and misunderstanding also hinder member participation, enthusiasm and contribution. In addition, active listening to other’s ideas and views is a good habit and make the persons listened to feel that they are accepted and important and to develop favourable dispositions towards others.

The chairman should enthuse or activate the group in their deliberations throughout the meeting, by himself being an active listener and participant. He should check the aggressive members from dominating conversation and particularly encourage shy and silent members. Then, there are other members who are disinterested, He should convert their apathy into concern and involvement through positive motivation. In short, the chairman should develop what is called ‘Creative tension’. He should watch the development of creative tension and release it, before it wares out the members thus keeping it always at the optimum levels. He can use the ‘technique of questioning’ to provoke thinking by members.

The chairman should discourage the tendency of members to form groups and take sides. When members form groups with in groups, they support or oppose each other’s ideas based on their likes and dislikes rather than on facts. This is called hidden agenda. He should see that the focus of attention of members is on problems and issues on hand and not on exchange of personal remarks against each other. Sometimes, the encounters assume such serious proportions. This can happen when the chairman starts to lose control over the meetings. If the chairman himself is open and objective in conducting the meeting and if he is watchful of such behaviour, the members may refrain from such acts. Many a time, the chairman who is pre-occupied with the agenda or who lacks skills in human relations may not notice such disruptive member behaviours and may not be able to nip them in the bud. He may be taken back when the meeting derails.

It is a fact that if employees show a general lack of mutual confidence and trust and openness in their day to day work relationships, they are likely to display same behaviour in the meetings and that they cannot be expected to be matured members. In fact, the behaviour of the employees during the meetings give a reliable clue to the quality of interpersonal behaviour or human relationships existing in an organisation. Hence, meetings are used as starting points in bringing about proper interpersonal climate in the organisation as an O.D. (organisation development) strategy.
People look for knowledge about the consequences of their actions. This is called the ‘desire for knowledge of results’ (or the desire for feed back). It is one of the most powerful needs which crave for expression and fulfillment.. This feedback enables the persons to know that that his actions are purposeful or have some direction, the experience of which enthuse them for action.
In the context of staff meetings, this need is expressed as the desire on the part of members for knowledge of the outcome of the meetings and particularly about their participation. They receive such information through two sources. Viz., 1) directly from the task (also called task or Intrinsic feedback) and 2) Feedback from others. In the context of the meetings, the members receive direct feed back, when they find their contributions in the meetings are welcome and accepted.
They receive feed back from other sources when
- their doubts are clarified
- the discussions throw sufficient light on the issues raised by them
- their ideas are listened to, appreciated and, given due weightage by chairman and members and utilized in making decisions.
- The decisions taken are clear cut, in the sense of specifying clearly what they are and who should do what.
- The progress of implementation of decisions taken in meeting is reviewed in subsequent meetings.

Thus, the chairman should review the progress of the previous meetings. This is called the follow-up action. The employees can be made more accountable of their actions, if the task implementation is enforced in the setting of the meetings.
In contrast to the tight control described earlier, some chairman who lacks conference skills may keep a ‘loose control’ over the meetings, which again, is equally unproductive. Under this style, the chairman does not hold the attention of the members focused on the objectives of the meetings, and facilitate the progress of the meetings towards the goals. The meeting is loosely structured and it is allowed to drift without any specific focus. Members hardly listen to each other and get into long and wasteful discussions and controversies. Arguments go round and round. No attempt is made to see each other’s points and a no consolidation of thoughts and ideas takes place. Lengthy discussions take place without reaching any conclusions. The thoughts and ideas expressed may be superficial and may not be creative. Members may encounter with each other on personal grounds, rather than on the merit of the case. Such meetings do more harm than good, both for the organisations and for the individual.
Thus, it is clear that a chairman should not attempt either ‘too tight’ or too loose control over the meeting.. On the other hand he should exercise only moderate control. Infact, he should move with this medium range towards either side, depending upon the educational background and maturity of the members and the type of meetings, whether it is consultative, participative, brain storming (creative problem solving) etc. Apart from exerting control, he should also encourage all members to behave in ways necessary for the success of the meetings.

The Role of Participants
The participants have as much responsibility as the chairman for the success of the meeting. In other words, ‘chairmanship’ and the positions of participants complement each other. Just like a chairman should ask himself as to how he can became an effective chairman, the members should ask themselves as to how they can become effective participants. An effective chairman is equally an effective participant, although an effective participant need possess some additional leadership skills to become effective chairman. Both the chairman and the members stand to gain from well run meetings. As well attended meeting are lasting source of satisfaction, whereas poor meetings make the people disinterested in meetings. To identify the proper roles, the participants will have to play in taking meetings to success and these roles can be learned. The following are some of the examples of attitudes and behaviour of effective participants.
1. They should feel that it is equally their responsibility to work for the success of the meetings.
2. Instead of showing lack of interest and concern and apathetic attitude towards the meetings (thinking nothing worth while comes out of it), they should be actively interested and emotionally involved in meetings and should develop faith in the value of the meeting. They should realize that the value of the meetings is what they make out of it. They should take the meetings seriously. Advance preparation, listening attentively, making use of each other’s ideas, participating actively and putting all their efforts in the meetings are required.
3. Each member should help to create an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and support to every other member. Members should build up each other’s self-importance or worth or self esteem, and should not belittle any one.
4. No member should monopolise the discussions or hold the floor too long preventing other members, particularly less aggressive ones to speak, on the other hand, he should give opportunity to every member to participate and contribute. Acts of encouraging the members to contribute are as valuable as expression of new ideas or solution of a problem.
5. He should listen attentively to others and build on other’s ideas based on merit rather than ignoring them.
6. He should learn to express ideas and views which are different from those expressed by others, tactfully, i.e., without offending them and accept ideas from others without being defensive. Targeting criticism towards the problems and issues under discussions, rather than towards the persons, help giving and receive criticisms.
7. While expressing differences or entering into controversies caution should be exercised not to press differences too hard and ignore points of agreements. In other words, one should not let lose competitive spirit at the cost of accommodative spirit. Competition helps to break the issues to finer elements but ultimately it is the consensus that should prevail.
8. Each member should help in starting and ending the meeting with normal speed and coverage, by setting his mind on the goals. Taking into consideration the size of the group, and the nature of the meetings, he should think how much participation is feasible and prepare for the right kind and degree of participation. He should learn to put across his ideas and views clearly logically and directly. He should plan and organize his thoughts, ideas and mode of expression (language).
9. He should avoid covering the ground already covered by others, by repeating their statements. At the same time, he should keep continuity of the discussions, by linking his ideas with those expressed by others. In other words, he would make his statements in proper context and enable progress in discussions.
10. He should keep track of the progress of the discussions, with out missing links. He is able to do this, only if he keeps an open mind in the meetings, his mind relaxed (not getting worked up emotionally), and developing clarity in understanding.
11. Each member should keep a check over his negative emotions. It is a natural temptation to find fault with others and get offended by other’s remarks, unless one guards against it. He should allow the free play of his creative instincts and encourage the same among his fellow participants.

Thus, the participants have many and varied roles and responsibilities in making staff meetings a success.
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