When a meeting works right, it’s a beautiful thing. There’s collaboration and decision making, and people leave with the direction and motivation to do the work. However, when a meeting goes wrong, the result is often another meeting—the meeting after the meeting.
Everyone’s been part of the small gathering that happens when the official meeting ends. That’s where people raise concerns, ask tough questions and share their real feelings—not to mention gossip and complain.
Though these meetings may begin as a way to dig deeper, they often end up undermining the efforts of the larger group and lowering morale. But what can leaders do about it?
David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and coauthor of Crucial Accountability, Influencer and Change Anything, says the answer is to get the first meeting right.
Help people feel safe
“Usually the reason there is the meeting after the meeting is because people don’t safe disagreeing or don’t feel comfortable articulating their point of view during the meeting,” Maxfield says.
To create a feeling of safety in the room, he recommends explicitly asking for different points of view. “Simply asking people to play devil’s advocate can make it safe,” he says. This not only gives people permission to raise an opposing view, but allows their comments to be seen as helpful rather than dissenting.
Creating a safe environment also means being mindful of the introverts, who may want more time to process the information before raising their voices in a group setting. “Too often, we surprise people in the meeting. That’s not good for anybody, especially the introverts,” Maxfield says. He recommends giving attendees the agenda a day in advance, especially if they’re expected to share feedback or give opinions during the meeting.
Decide how to decide
Many after-meetings are the result of participants not understanding their role in the decision-making process. “Usually in the back of your mind, you already know who owns the decision,” Maxfield explains. “If you don’t tell people who owns it, they’ll guess. Oftentimes, they’ll assume that they own the decision, that it’s consensus. But that’s pretty rare.”
Leaders should be clear about whether the meeting is to inform the team about a decision that’s already been made, to gather input that may impact an eventual decision, or to make the decision right then and there.
“That way, the post-meeting lobbying doesn’t take the form of ‘Well, they’re not listening to me. I disagreed and they went ahead anyway,’” Maxfield says.
Check for understanding and commitment
Coming to a decision is important, but it’s only the first step of the process. Maxfield says that before you leave the meeting room, leaders need to check for understanding and commitment.
“Once the decision is made, be clear that you want and expect everyone to support it, even if the decision did not go their way. Go around the room, and make sure people understand the decision, because you need to them to be able to advocate for it,” Maxfield says.
Not everyone is going to agree with every decision—and that’s OK. “Typically in meetings, we’re deciding on one tactic or strategy or another. We’re not deciding on the overall purpose of the organization; usually it’s just about the best way to get to the goal.”
As long as the tactical decision doesn’t conflict with the company’s overall mission, it’s OK to ask people to support it, even if they disagree.
Hold each other accountable
The last step is to hold each other accountable to not let the meeting spill over into the after-meeting. “There can’t be backroom lobbying or a meeting after the meeting,” Maxfield warns. “If you allow that, even once, it continues to be the norm.”
That accountability isn’t just the responsibility of the meeting leader. Everyone in the room needs to commit to move forward with the decision.
Though it can be a lot of work to create meetings that encourage collaboration, set clear expectations for decision making, and require commitment and accountability, Maxfield says the results will be worth the effort.
“You get a higher-quality decision because you hear every perspective, rather than having some perspectives being withheld and only talked about later,” he says. “It also produces a higher level of engagement and commitment because people feel safe to share their points of view and they understand that when their point of view doesn’t prevail, it’s not that they’re being disrespected, it’s that the decision takes more issues into account than their own.”