Conflict-Driven Meetings

By Lain Ehmann

Although there haven’t been any documented cases of death due to meeting-induced boredom, cases of meeting-related ennui are on the rise. It is impossible to do away with meetings altogether because they are, after all, "the activity at the center of every organization," writes Patrick Lencioni in his book, Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass, 2004). But Lencioni, president of San Francisco-based management consulting firm the Table Group, says it is possible to transform meetings into productive, compelling and fun events. To do so, says Lencioni, meeting leaders must think like movie producers.

What’s at the center of every great movie? Conflict. "It is the essence of drama," explains Lencioni. According to him, "Meetings are boring because they lack drama." It’s not that there isn’t potential for drama; in fact, meetings are hotbeds of possible conflict. The problem is that meeting leaders focus on consensus, avoidance of tension and sticking to the time schedule. "While these may seem like noble pursuits, they lie at the heart of bad meetings," says Lencioni. Here’s how to make conflict work for you:

  • Rework meetings from the ground up. Revamping meetings starts with a new attitude, says Lencioni. Instead of trying to find a technology to help you avoid face-to-face meetings, embrace them. "And stop focusing on agendas and minutes and rules, and accept the fact that bad meetings start with the attitudes and approaches of the people who lead and take part in them," he writes.
  • Start things off with a bang. Hook participants into a meeting the same way a director hooks viewers. Set up the plot from the outset, recommends Lencioni. "Participants need to be jolted a little during the first 10 minutes of a meeting, so they understand and appreciate what’s at stake." Find a way to make your meeting attendees care about the meeting’s topic.
  • Go where the conflict is. Instead of avoiding conflict, mine it. "Avoiding the issues that merit debate and disagreement not only makes the meeting boring, it guarantees that the issues won’t be resolved," writes Lencioni. The meeting leader must seek out and uncover any important issues about which the team members do not agree, and force the issue. "The truth is, the only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist," he continues.
  • Reaffirm the process. When participants first try to broach uncomfortable topics, things can get a little testy. "A leader can minimize the discomfort and maximize the likelihood that the debate will continue by interrupting the participants and reminding them that what they are doing is good."

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