Bringing Back The Value Of Meetings

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.” Clifford Nass, Professor – Stanford University

Imagine you and I are having a conversation – let’s say in your living room – and you’re talking about something that is really important to you. So important, in fact, that you spent several hours preparing to have this talk with me; so crucial for me to hear what you have to say that you’ve asked me to take an hour out of my life and join you in the conversation.

Now imagine – really imagine – that I am reading and sending text messages on my phone the entire time you’re talking; or maybe I’m reading emails from work. How would you feel about that? Would it be rude? Would you be offended? Would you say something? Regardless if you did, I’m sure our relationship wouldn’t be better off for it.

Yet this same behavior has become almost commonplace in today’s business meeting. The larger the group, the more likely it is to happen. The longer the meeting, the more likely it is to happen. Take 20 people and sit them down in a room for 2 hours and each person will, at some point, either check email on their phone or simply open their laptop and start working.

Under the guise of workaholic taskmasters, what the people who do this are really saying is “This really doesn’t matter to me. If it did, I would be paying attention and thinking about how I can add value to the discussion.”

When we dismiss the value of being present, fail to focus on the conversation, stop engaging people in meetings, and pass on the opportunity for discussion, debate, collaboration and consensus building, everyone loses.

I once worked with a CEO who took the reigns at a failing company soon after the CEO was fired. After a few weeks on the job, he started to unashamedly telling people they could leave (meaning “leave”) if they were caught working on their phones or laptops. It took very little time for most of his executive team to get the hint and start using the same practice with their own meetings. Six months later the CEO made it official and sent a memo requiring A) all meetings be laptop free and B) any phone use must be related to the meeting discussion (such as looking up information or emailing relevant questions to non-attendees).

As an outsider who worked closely with the teams during both tenures and saw the changes from a neutral position, I believe five benefits came of this:

  1. People no longer accepted and came to meetings that they didn’t need to attend.
  2. People worked more productively at their desks knowing it was the only time to get work done.
  3. People who did attend meetings felt more respect and better about their relationships with coworkers.
  4. Meetings were more productive; people were engaged, added value to the discussion, and *GASP* decisions were made.
  5. Post-meeting confusion and questions about the meeting’s discussions/takeaways were noticeably reduced.

The truth is we’re not mentally designed to do two non-related, complex tasks at once…at least not well. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves—and he says there’s evidence it may be killing our concentration and creativity too. From the interview, Nass states:

“We have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”

You can see and listen to his interview on NPR here.

So if you’re looking to take the next step and join the “Focused Revolution”, here are some suggestions for writing up your own team/corporate rules:

  • Rule #1: No laptop, tablet or cell phone usage unless it is related to the meeting (such as viewing a PPT or emailing a meeting-related question to a non-attendee).
  • Rule #2 Emergency situation notifications are to be sent via email, with URGENT in the subject line, and those emails can only be answered after excusing oneself from the meeting.
  • Rule #3 While subject lines can be reviewed, no emails are to be opened and no emails are to be sent unless they are flagged as emergencies or relevant to the meeting.
  • Rule #4 Phones are set to vibrate for both calls and text messages. Voice mail cannot be checked, calls cannot be made, and text messages cannot be checked or answered.
  • Rule #5 Notify attendees if an important call is expected. If it comes in, leave the room without distracting others to take the call.

Whether you employ these rules as a team or as an entire company, once they are in place and being followed, meetings will improve. They will return to being a collaborative, informative and strategic tool for developing ideas, setting teams on paths, and delivering decisions for driving towards business success.

Being The Boss Means Overriding The Desire To Criticize

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. - Brendan Witcher

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. – Brendan Witcher

There is a hard truth in the world that most leaders struggle with: it is easier for us to recognize good behavior than bad behavior. For many of us, it’s because our emotions tied directly to each are completely unbalanced. When we see good behavior or experience a positive moment, our emotions flow like water from a faucet. By comparison, when we witness bad behavior or experience a negative moment, it’s like the Mississippi River is trying force it’s way through our brains and come shooting out of our mouths. Here is a good example that everyone can relate to:

Think of your car. Today, your car will probably get you from Point A to Point B (and maybe to C, D, E, etc) and then back to Point A again without a problem. You’ll go about your day without thinking much about your car or the modern mechanical miracle that it is. At each stop, will you thank your car? Will you feel happiness towards your car? Probably not.

But let’s say, during that important trip from Point A to point B, that your car suddenly stops working.  You’re not out of gas and there’s no logical explanation for it to break down. It just stops. Now you can’t get to Point B (or C or D or E) or even back to Point A today. Plus, you know that your entire day will be spent getting your car towed, working with a mechanic, and finding a way to get to all the “Points” in your life for who-knows-how-long. Now how do you feel about your car? Do you yell at it? Do you curse it? Do you pound on the steering wheel or kick the tire in anger? Enough said.

This is a good metaphor for how we react to most situations and, more importantly, other people in both our work and personal lives. Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that this is the natural state; to react boldly and swiftly to a negative and passively (if at all) to a positive.

Leaders work consciously to balance their reactions; to raise their level of expression in positive situations as well as suppress some level of expression in negative situations. 

Note that I did not state a complete reversal. Leaders don’t constantly play the cheerleader while ignoring that the team needs a swift kick in the pants. Here are some simple steps that can be taken towards that balance of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism:

  1. Be fully connected to what is going on: Actively look for the positive things happening around you (as well as the negative things that you might normally glaze over).
  2. Acknowledge good behavior immediately: Don’t wait for reviews or send it later in an email; do it now and do it publicly if appropriate.
  3. Pause before calling out bad behavior: Take the opposite route and plan to address bad behavior later that day and in private (note: never wait too long to address bad behavior)

Following these three steps with some consistency will get you most of the way towards this balanced leadership approach. By doing so, you’ll start to realize and recognize how far off your natural state is from this balanced state. If you find yourself having a lot of chances to praise that you wouldn’t have seen before (or pausing a lot more than you thought you would), you know you have some work to do. But stick with it, and you’ll find that mastering this skill is one of the greatest tools for elevating yourself as a leader and having success in working with others.

Leadership Means Letting Others Learn From Adversity

struggling

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for extraordinary destiny… – C.S. Lewis

It is our natural instinct to want to help others. We see someone struggling and our first reaction is to do what we can to resolve their issue. We empathize, internalize their struggle, and make it our own. This happens with our friends, family, spouses, kids, employees, co-workers and even strangers.

Normally, stepping up and inserting ourselves into a situation to help someone else is a welcomed action. A bit of hesitation maybe on the other person’s part that they may be troubling you, but in most cases the helping hand is a relief. The issue gets resolved together and everyone is happy.

A good thing…right? Not always.

When someone has an opportunity to learn from a difficult situation, you are hurting more than helping when you resolve the issue for them.

It’s a thin line that determines when you should jump in and stay out, but there are some steps you can take to help you stop and think before moving in with all your wisdom and resolution skills. I call it PADDing a situation:

  1. Pause: Giving it a moment, relaxing, and thinking about the situation is usually a good first move. Consider what this person can learn from the situation. If someone is trying to figure out an Excel function or how to craft a difficult email to a co-worker, allow them the chance to connect their own neurons and have the experience logged into their memory. If someone is trying to push their car off to the side of the road because they ran out of gas, the lessons probably been learned and giving them some assistance would be appropriate.
  2. Ask: This is what many people ask when they see someone faced with a challenge: “Do you need some help?” Wrong question. Here is the question you should be asking: “What are you working on?” This question 1) keeps you out of the situation, 2) helps you assess the other person’s level of frustration, and 3) let’s you know if you can even be helpful in the first place . It also gives them permission to inform you, dismiss you and/or ask you for help, which you still should not do until you…
  3. Discuss: Talk it through. Don’t solve it for them – guide them to the answer. Let them know what you did the last time you faced a similar situation (or what first step you would take). In the examples above, you might say “The last time I needed that, I found the answer using the Excel help function.” or “Whenever I have to write those kinds of emails, I usually ask myself two questions: ‘What am I trying to really say?’ and ‘What is the other person probably feeling?'” Once you have given pause, asked the right question, and given them a nudge (vs. a shove), then you have to…
  4. Determine: Now it’s time for you to ask yourself some questions. Is this out of this person’s abilities to accomplish? Is the answer too complex? Is the person completely off in the wrong direction in looking for an answer? Most importantly, ask yourself if the lesson learned is important. Be really critical of yourself as you ask these questions. By solving a problem for someone, you risk robbing them of an opportunity, making them feel incompetent or stupid, and possibly embarrassing them. Move in only if you feel like “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze” for the other person.

I say this a lot, but as a leader it’s your job to take ownership of a situation and do what’s best for the other person. Thinking the other person is going to get mad at you for not helping is not a reason to interfere. You have to give other person the chance to stretch their limits, to see that they are capable of doing more than even they believe they can. When they figure it out, give them praise and acknowledge their accomplishment. Most people will appreciate what you’ve done for them when you let them grow…even if they don’t express it. People can overcome most problems when are given the time and encouragement to have confidence in themselves.

Follow Timeless Truths: Iacocca’s 9 C’s of Leadership

Management is nothing more than motivating other people. - Lee Iacocca

Management is nothing more than motivating other people. – Lee Iacocca

One of my favorite leadership reads is Lee Iacocca’s  Where Have all the Leaders Gone. The title makes him sounds like a cranky old man shouting “Kids these days…they don’t know anything” from the rooftops. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much. Mr. Iacocca doesn’t pull punches. He tells it like it is from an era when you didn’t beat around the bush and worry about hurting someone’s feelings despite the fact that it might be exactly what they need.

There’s a lot to this book, but a core lesson is his 9 C’s of Leadership. Like any good writer, he tries to make the concept easily digestible. To that end, I’ve been able to remember a few without consulting the text, but I like to open it up every year or so and ask myself if I’m exhibiting these behaviors on a regular basis:

#1 Curiosity: Listen to people outside the “Yes, sir” crowd. Avoid sycophants (one of my favorite words). Read voraciously.

#2 Creative: Leadership is all about managing change. Go out on a limb and always check to see if your thinking too inside a box.

#3 Communicate: Talk to everybody, even your enemies. Engagement with others is how we stay informed and learn.

#4 Character: Have the guts to do the right thing. Without character, the rest won’t amount to much.

#5 Courage: Taking a position and showing integrity even when you know it will cost you.

#6 Conviction: Fire in your belly. Believing in your core that what you’re doing is right. Think Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos.

#7 Charisma: The ability to inspire through trust, rather than fear or anger.

#8 Competent: Know what you’re doing and, more importantly, surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.

#9 Common sense: Your ability to reason and think critically (especially when overly concerned or excited).

The final point: The biggest C is crisis. Leadership is forged in times of crisis. The test of a leader is rarely found in times of prosperity. These qualities are needed to be a great leader, but they are critical to remain a great leader when times turn tough.

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