by: Annie McKee
Yes, we all hate meetings. Yes, they are usually a waste of time. And yes, they’re here to stay. So it’s your responsibility as a leader to make them better. This doesn’t mean just make them shorter, more efficient, more organized. People need to enjoy them and, dare I say it, have fun.
Happiness matters a lot at work — how could it not, when many of us spend most of our waking hours there. The alternatives — chronic frustration, discontent, and outright hatred of our jobs — are simply not acceptable. Negative feelings interfere with creativity and innovation, not to mention collaboration. And let’s face it — meetings are, for the most part, still where lots of collaboration, creativity, and innovation happen. If meetings aren’t working, then chances are we’re not able to do what we need to do.
So how do we fix meetings so they are more enjoyable and produce more positive feelings? Sure, invite the right people, create better agendas, and be better prepared. Those are baseline fixes. But if you really want to improve how people work together at meetings, you’ll need to rely on—and maybe develop—a couple of key emotional intelligence competencies: empathy and emotional self-management.
Why empathy? Empathy is a competency that allows you to read people. Who is supporting whom? Who is pissed off and who is coasting? Where is the resistance? This isn’t as easy as it seems. Sometimes, the smartest resisters often look like supporters, but they’re not supportive at all. They’re smart, sneaky idea-killers.
Carefully reading people will also help you understand the major, and often hidden conflicts in the group. Hint: These conflicts probably have nothing to do with the topics or decisions being made at the meeting. It is far more likely to be linked to very human dynamics like who is allowed to influence whom: headquarters vs. the field; expats vs. local nationals; and power dynamics between men and women, and among people of various races.
Empathy lets you “see” and manage these power dynamics. Many of us would like to think that these dynamics — and office politics, in general — are beneath us, unimportant, or just for those Machiavellian folks we all dislike. Realistically, though, power is hugely important in groups because it is the real currency in most organizations. And it plays out in meetings. Learning to read how the flow of power is moving and shifting can help you lead the meeting — and everything else.
You and Your Team
Keep in mind that employing empathy will help you understand how people are responding to you. As a leader you are, possibly, the most powerful person at the meeting. Some people, the dependent types, will defer at every turn. That feels good, for a minute. Carry on that way and you’re likely to create a dependent group — or one that is polarized between those who will do anything you want and those who will not.
This is where emotional self-management comes in, for a couple of reasons. First, take the dependent folks in your meetings. Again, it can feel really good to have people admire you and agree with your every word. In fact, this can be a huge relief in our conflict-ridden organizations. But if you don’t manage your response, you will make group dynamics worse, as I mentioned above. You will also look like a fool. Others are reading the group, too, and they will rightly read that you like it when people go along with you. They will see that you are falling prey to your own ego or those who want to please or manipulate you.
Second, strong emotions set the tone for the entire group. We take our cue from one another about how to feel about what’s going on around us. Are we in danger? Is there cause for celebration? Should we be fed up and cynical or hopeful and committed? Here’s why this matters in meetings: If you, as a leader, manage your more positive emotions, such as hope and enthusiasm, others will “mirror” these feelings and the general tone of the group will be marked by optimism and a sense of “we’re in this together, and we can do it.” And, there is a strong neurological link between feelings and cognition. We think more clearly and more creatively when our feelings are largely positive, and when we are appropriately challenged.
The other side of the coin is obvious. Your negative emotions are also contagious, and they are almost always destructive if unchecked and unmanaged. Express anger, contempt, or disrespect and you will definitely push people into fight mode — individually and collectively. Express disdain, and you’ll alienate people far beyond the end of the meeting. And it doesn’t matter who you feel this way about. All it takes if for people to see it and they will catch it — and worry that next time your target will be them.
This is not to say that all positive emotions are good all the time or that you should never express negative emotions. The point is that the leader’s emotions are highly infectious. Know this and manage your feelings accordingly to create the kind of environment where people can work together to make decisions and get things done.
It may go without saying, but you can’t do any of this with your phone on. As Dan Goleman shares in his book Focus, we are not nearly as good at multitasking as we think we are. Actually we stink at it. So turn it off and pay attention to the people you are with today.
In the end, it’s your job to make sure people leave your meeting feeling pretty good about what’s happened, their contributions, and you as the leader. Empathy allows you to read what’s going on, and self-management helps you move the group to a mood that supports getting things done — and happiness.
About the Author
Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of thePennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.
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