Hiding in Plain Sight – or – I know, Let’s Call a Meeting!

Most people think that meetings are a complete waste of time.  Well, other people’s meetings are – their own meetings are important.  Agendas are uncommon, or too vague when they are written and then not followed.  People are unprepared, distracted by blackberries and laptops, and don’t contribute much of real use to the discussions.  The meeting chair rants, or fumbles or gropes for answers.  People are frustrated, bored, sleeping.   Everyone shows up though, unless they are in some other unimportant meeting.  Sound familiar?

Meetings are one of the main shields in the arsenal to defend against work cowardice.  What is work cowardice?  It is the fear that pervades offices everywhere – what if I make the wrong decision?  What if I say the thing the boss doesn’t like?  What if I don’t know the answer?  What if I am discovered as a fraud?  Managers have additional shields – the higher up you are in the organization the more you have at your disposal, such as micro-managing your staff, asking inane questions to look like the smartest guy in the room (AKA the “stump the chumps game”) or trying to get them to be your own personal mini-me.  There are long-winded, vague speeches filled with platitudes.  Business trips without clear objectives.  Asking for reports and information that won’t be read or don’t really matter. Writing reports filled with information nobody needs. Being in the office long hours, and judging everyone else by how long they spend in the office, but never evaluating what added value they produced.  What is going on here?

HIDING-BEHIND-A-TREE1Back to the meetings.   It strikes me that if the work on your desk is too boring and pointless to continue for another moment, the best way to take a break but still appear busy would be to find a nice warm conference room with comfy chairs and the drone of some meaningless chatter to make you look and feel important. Yes, there’s a price to pay- you’ll probably have to stroke someone else’s ego so they feel important, and you might get assigned yet another useless report to write, but you’ve filled another hour toward your frequent – meeter’s club, so you can stay too late at the office to get to the gym or mow the lawn and you look like a corporate hero. Yea.  Afraid to take accountability for a decision?  Call a meeting.  The more uncomfortable you are, the more people you need.  Chances are good someone you need won’t show or someone will raise a vague enough concern that you can avoid the decision and tag someone else for the delay.  Everyone is so used to pointless meetings that nobody will object.  If they do, it just the usual noise about too many meetings that nobody does anything about.

Need to kill a lot of time?  Schedule a monthly or quarterly review, and get everyone you can find into a room for a day.  This one kills time in several ways – there’s the two days each person spent on the PowerPoint slides, there’s the pre-meeting meeting to be sure each presentation has the right amount of power words and good news, and the actual meeting which is really a waiting room for everyone except the top executive, as the other projects discussed matter not a whit to anyone else’s life.  The executive’s job is to ask some “tough questions” about minor details, but ones he understands while providing no answers to the person who really needs them, who is the presenter.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the questions the executive asked to each person were, “How can I help and support you?  What other help do you need?  What roadblocks can we help you to clear?”  This would be especially great if the presenter was rewarded and not dinged for actually saying what they needed rather than, “Nothing!  I have it all under control,” when that answer is an outright lie.

Once in a while there is a good meeting – you learn something useful (other than yes, John and Jane do have something going on on the side), there is a good debate, a decision is made, we can try something that might work.  It’s enough to ward off total cynicism.  Why can’t it always be like this?  Or even mostly?  Well, Virginia, that will require us to really look at ourselves and be willing to work harder at being better people, not just better workers.

The meetings themselves aren’t the problem.  If people knew the next right thing to do they would only call meetings with a specific purpose, and everyone there would be eager to support that purpose and attain that goal.  So how do you know the next right thing to do?  Whenever possible, use data to support an idea or decision.  Do your homework!  Do you have a business case?  Do you have market research to back your idea?  Do you have a well thought out set of scenarios to weigh options and risks?  Do you have a clear and compelling reason to do whatever you are doing or are requesting, and have you told everyone concerned?  Have you made sure the reason is understood?  “Need to know” information usually means someone is up to no good – create a culture of transparency.  Really, what is the worst thing that could happen if you simply told the truth?  National security is probably not at stake.

If you are the boss, ask yourself why people might be compelled to hide.  Resist the temptation to think it is because they are slackers; you are not a theory X manager, right?  So how can you send a message that it is safe to think, safe to try, even safe to make mistakes?  We can own and fix mistakes and avoid blame, humiliating others or other behavior your kindergarten teacher told you was unacceptable.  This is managerial courage.  Managerial cowardice is yelling and banging on tables like a two year old having a temper tantrum.   Managerial cowardice is hiding in your office and demanding answers instead of asking yourself how you failed to support them.

Consider adding a value scale to each item on your calendar or to- do list.  The value rating indicates how much value does this activity provide in getting me toward my goals?  More importantly, how much value does it add for the other person?  None for either party?  Get rid of it. If it only provides value to one of you, it is still not the right thing to do.   Need to know how that project’s going? Walk over and talk to the people working on it.  Don’t send an email.  If they are really too far away to visit, pick up the phone.   Remember that by simply being the boss you create a fear factor, so you will need to consciously work to counter that.  Fear narrows your thinking, so is the bane of innovative thinking.  Remember that as a manager you don’t add value by being smarter than the designer, you add value by getting that person what they need to succeed.  Managers only succeed when their teams succeed.  Stay out of the bicycle shed and away from trivial changes that simply leave fingerprints rather than value.

Many managers fear that they will be “found out” for not adding real value, but they think that means knowing everything about everything at all times.  That simply isn’t possible.  Be valuable by modeling real leadership and developing the leadership skills of others.  Be valuable by discussing the added value and cost of each action – it may help you get around all those “political” projects you know should have been killed but you aren’t brave enough to say, “I think that’s a bad idea.”  If it’s a bad idea, present the data to show it as a value proposal. Offer a better alternative. And never confuse a long day with a productive one – yours or anyone else’s.  It may be easy to measure but is no more relevant than the worker’s shoe size.  Instead evaluate your own contribution and that of others by how much they helped the team and delivered something valuable.  Then there will be no reason to hide.