What Do Your Meetings Look Like?

Sep 13, 2022 | Culture, Leadership

For those who remember it, the Jerry Springer Show would bring together family members or former friends to create a tinderbox of conflict. Usually – after the disclosure of some bizarre sin committed by one of the people on stage – it would result in fisticuffs and guests throwing chairs at one another. If you were in the studio audience, you would expect a fight of some sort to break out.

The Jerry Springer Show manufactured a cringe-worthy, yet high-energy group dynamic. It was designed to be – to use the modern parlance – a shit show.

But if you went to the Toronto symphony, the mood you would expect would be totally different. You wouldn’t expect a fight to break out, or for the second clarinet player to throw a chair at the first violin.

However, here’s what we find fascinating: when you strip away all of the context and expectations, the core fundamentals of the Jerry Springer show and the Toronto Symphony are very similar. You have a classic stage-and-audience room set-up, a host (or conductor), with a group of people performing, and an audience. We don’t usually deconstruct how contextual environments are created – but we should. Just check out the Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 for another powerful example of group dynamics, and how the sociology of a group can be designed and even curated.

Manufacturing Moods: Different Contexts Require Different Group Dynamics

The Jerry Springer Show and the Toronto Symphony each have their own distinct sociologies. Those contexts are curated and designed based on a manufactured ‘expectations set’ that exists between the people performing, and the audience.

That’s what is so fascinating: the expectations of how a group will act and interact can be shaped. Which means there are important lessons for those of us who are leading – or participating – in any meeting where people come together. And for those like us who help lead, design, or participate in meetings large and small, there are ways to establish more productive environments.

If you are leading a meeting, the tone and expectations you want are established far in advance of when the meeting starts. How clear is the agenda? Has it been established that everyone will be expected to have read any information in advance? And do you tell people that the meeting will start at ‘8:30am sharp‘?

Then, once people come together, as a Chair or meeting leader, your role is to set the tone. And to do so very quickly. Depending on your organization’s or group’s culture, your approach should be to keep things consistent. If people are used to a casual but highly engaged tone, a more negative or assertive approach would be jarring.

But another key factor is the nature of the meeting. Are you hosting an ideation session when people are expected to be creative? Or is it a tough conversation about how to get refocused after bad financial results last quarter?

Be deliberate in the mood you manufacture given the objectives, and how people need to be thinking and – importantly – feeling. Group dynamics are like the weather: they are always changing and never static. But, unlike the weather, group dynamics can be controlled.

Giving people permission to be their best selves

Yet, no matter how carefully a meeting is planned and structured, there is a critical variable that is really hard to control: people.

That can include people who come extra-prepared and add more value than you had ever anticipated. We love when that happens.

But it also includes people who may get in the way of your optimal mood design or have their own personal agenda. You may be familiar with the cast of characters: like the clever introvert who will only talk once they are 100% confident of their idea; the bored, mediocre contributor who wants (and really should) be somewhere else; and the class clown. Each person will always have their own areas of comfort, strengths, and psychoses.

The opportunity is to ensure everyone can be, and is encouraged to be, their best selves. I once heard a really powerful analogy related to this, related to wine making. In the wine world, it is always better to let a merlot grape be the best merlot it can be – and not try to turn it into a cabernet sauvignon. Same is true with people and their contributions – don’t try to make people into someone they aren’t – but do encourage them to be the most positive and effective contributors they can be, based on their inherent strengths.

Thinking through the details and over-designing the agenda

One of our firm’s guiding principles that shapes how we do things is to Create Purposeful Energy, which you can read more about here. But the idea behind that principle is to not leave the mood or design of a meeting up to how people might be feeling in the moment.

Be deliberate. Determine not only what you want to talk about or decide, but how you want people to feel – and how you anticipate different moments to go down. When will there be potential conflict? When will most people get bored? And how do you then anticipate and mitigate those moments to optimize not only the result, but also the experience?

Different contexts require different group dynamics. If the emotional context for a discussion is optimized, we get better ideas and conclusions. Which means thinking things through and sweating the details in advance of the meeting.

Jerry Springer was actually really smart…

At the end of each show, Jerry Springer would address the audience and, based on whatever shenanigans had just transpired, offer wisdom about the human condition. It was like a benediction – when he would reflect upon the absurd scene that had just gone down, and offer thoughtful, intelligent suggestions for the rest of us. So regardless of the nature of whom you are bringing together, inspire them to be their best. And to move forward from the experience as slightly better, more focused, and engaged people than they were before.

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