Can We Start with Civility in Business Meetings?

We ended 2017 with a Leadership Report entitled, “Bringing Civility Back,” because at the start of 2017, I naively wrote that I hoped political and news media pettiness could subside.

No way! To the contrary, politicians have turned flat-out ugly and many in the news media seem to thrive on the Game of ‘Gotcha,” preferring to be the news rather than report the news.

Roberta Applegate, my first and best J-school professor, must be rolling in her grave given the huge gap between what she taught and what so-called journalism is today.

So, let’s start 2018 with another nod to civility.

Harvard Business Review published an early January article entitled, How to Have a Good Debate in a Meeting: Tips for Generating Productive Friction. It was written by Morten T. Hansen, a University of California at Berkeley professor and member of the Apple University faculty.

I found it instructive and so I’m passing highlights of it on to Leadership Report readers in hopes that some of the professor’s suggestions will be adopted in the interest of civility.

Here are the excerpts:

The modern workplace is awash in meetings, many of which are terrible. As a result, people mostly hate going to meetings. The problem is this: The whole point of meetings is to have discussions that you can’t have any other way. And yet most meetings are devoid of real debate.

To improve the meetings you run, and save the meetings you’re invited to, focus on making the discussion more robust.

When teams have a good fight during meetings, team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, and scrutinize assumptions. Every participant can speak up without fear of retribution. So how do you lead a good fight in meetings? Here are six practical tips:

Start by asking a question, not uttering your opinion. Why? First, it frames the problem to be debated. If the problem is too general, the discussion will go all over the place; if it’s too narrow, that will limit the options. So spend time thinking about the best question. And make sure it isn’t leading, meaning it doesn’t bias the answers. Second, it signals that you want real debate, not just a charade of one. Third, it invites people with different ideas to speak up.

Help quiet people speak up (and don’t let the talkers dominate). Even with good questions, many people refrain from speaking up.
To draw them in, try to “warm call” them ahead of the meeting, as one top performer in my study did: “Sometimes I’ll talk to folks in advance of a meeting, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have this meeting. I know you have a particular viewpoint, and I think it’s very important that it gets heard, so I’d like to make sure you share it with the group.’” Then lend your support (“Thank you for that important input”).

Make it safe for people to take risks — don’t let the sharks rule. Create an atmosphere of psychological safety, or as Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls it, a “climate in which people feel free to express work-relevant thoughts and feelings.” To create such a climate, lead by example (“Let me just throw out a risky idea…”); support those who try (“I really appreciate you suggesting…”); and sanction those who ridicule others (“I don’t want that kind of language here…”).

Take the contrarian view. When I was teaching the American Express turnaround case at HBS, Harvey Golub, then the company’s CEO, came to class. He explained that he would often take the contrarian view: If the meeting was about raising the price for a service, he would show up and ask whether they should lower the price. It forced people to have really solid arguments for their views. You can also ask a colleague to play devil’s advocate, where you ask them, for the sake of argument, to take the opposing view. But make sure to get the opposing view on the table.

Cultivate transparent advocates (and get rid of the hard sellers). You want people to propose ideas and be passionate about them, but you also want them to be totally honest about the potential negatives. The problem is that there’s a human tendency to shift from being a transparent advocate (to becoming a used car salesperson. People are led astray by confirmation bias, where they pay attention to data that confirms their idea, and they escalate commitments by continuing to advocate for their plans even in the face of negative information. You can combat this tendency by forcing people to show the negative: “When you present in the meeting tomorrow, I want to see a slide with the five biggest risks, and we will spend lots of time discussing them, so be prepared.” Or you can ask for a pre-mortem: “Assuming your idea will fail, what would be the key reasons for the failure?”

The purpose of a meeting is to have a debate that will result in a great decision.

Key Takeaway: Civility, practiced in team meetings, might just trend out into the larger world.  What can it hurt to try?

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