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Management How private meetings can be detrimental to workplace communication

Could your organization’s senior managers meet in the cafeteria? Why not?

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It’s time for The Meeting.

Almost all of us are familiar with the moment of the day or week when the top team gathers in private. We may see them, one after the other, streaming into the board room near our desk or just watch our own boss leave the department for another area of the building, an intense look on his or her face.

From the outside, the meeting seems exciting and important. From the inside, of course, it may seem wearying or even boring.

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C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series as well as a professor of medieval and Renaissance English, argued that the desire to join the inner ring is a stronger drive than the craving for sex. For those watching The Meeting from the outside, it can be a regular reminder of exclusion from power, even of impotence.

Inclusion is important for employees to feel committed and engaged at work. There is a social aspect – whether we are invited by colleagues to their Friday lunch – that I focused on last week. But there is also a power element that I’d like to address now.

Communications can be a salve, seeking suggestions before decisions are made and sharing those choices and the rationale afterward. Most managers, unfortunately, are so eager to grapple with the next big thing they can fumble this all-important sharing. Indeed, even on big issues, such as conveying strategic transformation – Harvard University management professor emeritus John Kotter, in his classic 1996 book Leading Change, suggests managers undercommunicate by a factor of 10. The quick announcement and accompanying information, even before this era of attention distraction, was one-tenth the communication needed.

The Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism, in which I am a student and instructor of Taoist Tai Chi, opened up its directors’ meetings at our annual conclave at the organization’s retreat centre near Orangeville, Ont., with intriguing improvements for inclusion. The directors usually tried to find a quiet, private place for their meetings at meal times during the workshop, but a few years ago moved instead to two tables in the middle of a noisy lobby outside the central dining hall. It seemed to defy logic, and when word surfaced they would need a microphone, it was presumed it was so they could hear each other during the hubbub.

But their meetings became open to all, a gathering spot, as people pulled up chairs and listened to discussion of initiatives and challenges the organization faces around the globe. It’s still the directors and their invited guests for various topics who do the talking and make decisions. But thanks to that microphone anyone can listen and learn (even latecomers who end up around the lobby’s corner, out of visual distance) – feeling more included in the organization’s journey – and share with others when they return to teach their classes.

Could your organization’s senior managers meet in the cafeteria? Why not? It seems silly but that’s only because secrecy and privacy is the norm. City councils usually meet in public – it’s required by law in many provinces – but they keep certain issues, such as negotiations, legal matters and staffing for in-camera sessions. So should any organization’s leaders – some issues are highly sensitive if not volatile when first considered. But much of what our organizational leaders discuss could be done before staff if they opened up their minds as well as their sessions. As for the fear of leaks to competitors or the media, it’s probably just that – fear rather than reality. Seeing the organizational leaders divided on issues would be illuminating, not threatening. And yes, the people who pull up a chair might otherwise be beavering away at their desk, but the break from their tasks and increased understanding would be some compensation.

Employee ownership is another form of power inclusion. I looked at 10 Canadian companies that had employee ownership for a 2002 book co-written with Queen’s University Professor Carol Beatty and found a variety of ways in which employees were included. Usually it involved representatives on the board of directors although in one case a director elected on a platform of change was invited to also sit on the operations committee where his concerns would more appropriately be addressed. Great West Brewery was unionized, with one employee attending the weekly owners’ meetings and chairing the union sessions, carrying business cards with both the business and union logos. Many of those companies turned to employee ownership after hitting bad times and found a measure of at least short-term stability. Employee ownership seemed of value, not a deterrent, to their competitiveness.

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After all, these days many consultants preach the importance of employees acting like owners, so why not have them as owners, or hold meetings in front of them, or try other ways to include rather exclude, without endangering organizational leadership?

Cannonballs

  • Analyze the reason for each misfire hire in your organization, says HR consultant Tim Sackett. Don’t just moan; analyze so you can improve your hirings in future.
  • You can also improve your retention with stay interviews. Consultant Dick Finnegan recommends questions such as: When you travel to work every day, what things do you look forward to? What are you learning here? Why do you stay here? When was the last time you thought about leaving the team and what prompted it?
  • Many policies are written because somebody didn’t want to solve a problem, says blogger Ron Edmondson.

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