What Meetings Tell Us About Organizational Culture

Image Credit: Susan Beaumont

I have done a lot of work related to healthy organizational culture, both as a CEO and consultant, mostly because it’s so darn important for success—and so detrimental when it’s unhealthy or just disregarded. Ironically, despite the centrality of culture to just about any positive outcome, it is one of the most ignored areas of focus by executives. One reason it is frequently ignored is because it is foreign and mysterious to typical leaders—they’ve simply never been led to believe it’s of value nor tutored on how to support it. Secondly, it’s time consuming, complex, and requires a long view commitment. Most executives got to where they are because of their ability to deliver short term “results,” even at the expense of the development of human capital and long term sustainability. Organizations and the people in them suffer as a result. And ultimately, so do the leaders who’ve ignored the role of culture in their own organizations.

Even though there are a number of characteristics we can safely ascribe to healthy culture in typical organizations such as transparency, honesty, care for people, teamwork, accountability, etc., the reality is that what ultimately matters most is the extent to which culture is rational. In other words, do the values, beliefs, and behaviors in organizations support the achievement of stated operational and strategic goals? This is so critical because ultimately, it is organizational culture that determines how people behave over time—not proclaimed values or mission or management directives.

Interestingly, meetings are a great microcosm of organizations that can tell us a whole lot about culture!

Meetings are often the punching bag of water-cooler talk (or whatever the remote working analogue to that is). There is frankly a lot of disdain for meetings, but that is not because meetings are inherently bad or a waste of time. There is disdain because meetings are frequently used for the wrong purposes and often reveal the worst in organizational culture.

Let’s take a look starting with “bad” meetings.

At their core, meetings typically reflect the hierarchy in organizations, because by design, one person controls the participation and time of others. In fact, when folks get double booked, the decision about which meeting to attend rarely has anything to do with which one is more important. To the contrary, it is usually governed by which meeting is led by the person higher up in the org chart! At its worst, organizational culture relative to meetings completely ignores the opportunity cost of making people attend a meeting simply because it was called by someone senior to them, rather than considering the value of what the person might be doing differently at the same time. The more traditional the organization, the more common this dysfunction is and it’s a good lens into whether the culture values autonomy and the ROI on peoples’ time or, to the contrary, values hierarchy and ego.

Another example of bad meetings and dangerous culture can be found in “artificial harmony,” which causes more long-term damage than even unhealthy conflict. At least conflict, even if somewhat driven by hidden agendas, bad faith, or ego, results in challenges to accepted ideas, plans, etc. It generates dialogue that represents differing opinions, objectives, and values, which challenges pre-existing conclusions. And, to be clear, artificial harmony leads to conflict anyway because it is based upon a false commitment to what was “agreed” in the meeting. This happens almost immediately as people find ways to share what they really think in a hallway conversation or text message, etc., sometimes before they’re even back in their office! There is nothing worse than passive acceptance of a plan or strategy that some number of people don’t actually agree with (but didn’t say so), because when that happens, the organization commits resources and focus to a path that key people don’t actually support with their actions, or worse, may sabotage behind the scenes. And on top of that, the organization incurs the opportunity cost for the path not chosen! I personally believe that artificial harmony (and false agreement) result in more failed initiatives than the quality of the initiative itself. Even good ideas need full, shared commitment and effort to succeed.

Bad meetings also tend to be for poor reasons such as reporting mundane information that can be easily shared through other means, addressing trivial or pro-forma issues, confirming things that have already been addressed/decided, stroking the leader’s ego, because it’s on the schedule, or, for the worst purpose of all, which is calling people out publicly. Meeting agendas and behavior can tell us a lot about cultural values.

In contrast, in healthy organizations (and meetings) the desired outcome is not unanimous agreement and certainly not “false” agreement. The desired outcome is thorough due diligence in the decision process, with full participation, contribution, and hopefully disagreement by all involved, about issues of significance. When that happens, there is likely to be much deeper commitment to a better final decision, even by those who would have chosen a different path, because their opinion and input were carefully considered as part of the decision process. Simply being heard often offsets the disappointment of having a viewpoint that did not carry the day. Moreover, the active, even passionate sharing of multiple viewpoints inevitably results in positive modifications of the chosen idea, thus making it better than it would have been without contrasting input. And, of course, such meetings show alignment between healthy cultural values such as respect, collaboration, transparency, safety, and teamwork among others.

Good meetings:

  • invite the right people.
  • ask important questions about things that matter.
  • encourage and validate the contributions of participants.
  • involve robust discussion and even disagreement about those questions.
  • are non-hierarchical (expertise and commitment are more important than where someone is on the org chart).
  • result in allocation of resources, expertise, etc. to support agreed upon activities.
  • result in high-quality decisions that align with espoused organizational values.
  • include follow up for what was discussed/decided

When we see these kinds of interactions and behaviors in meetings, we can have confidence that organizational culture is relatively healthy—and probably more importantly—that the efforts of those involved are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

You can see a good resource for conducting better meetings here.

Footnote

In my CEO roles I have always given my senior managers the autonomy to engage in another activity at the time I’ve called a meeting if they believe the alternative will support more important outcomes. I’ve rarely been taken advantage of and if my meeting is worth attending, people will typically be there. When given the chance to use their own professional judgment, in my experience, the choice to be somewhere else doing something else supporting a more important outcome than would come from attendance in “my” meeting is almost always the right decision. BTW, this is leadership 101. If a senior manager is not capable of making a decision about attending a meeting, she or he is certainly not capable of the senior manager role to begin with.

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