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3 Strategies to Change your Workplace Culture by Changing Your Meetings

Originally published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers

 

Meetings are an organization’s cultural backbone. How you run your meetings says more than you might think about how your organization functions. The bottom line is that meetings are an effective barometer for gauging how well your organization is doing in terms of productivity, innovation, and teamwork. If you dream of an engaged organization where people show up with their full creativity and potential and really share responsibility, meetings are an easy, low-risk place to grow this dream.

Most people find meetings stressful or boring and drag themselves to them. Hence, there is ample evidence to suggest people are ready for something new. When organizations are able to correct bad habits that stymie creativity, meetings become an ideal leverage point for transforming entrenched habits and beliefs in your culture.

Here are three simple meeting steps that invite everyone at the meeting to show up differently and collaboratively. With them, we tap into our collective agency and creativity. It’s a practice, which means you won’t get there by talking about it; you need to do it, reflect on how it went, and do it again. That’s how we change habits. We cannot expect it to be perfect on the first attempt.

 

1. Identify purpose and time

Ensure that your group agrees on the purpose and time of the meeting, because people have different assumptions, and this can create confusion and frustration. For example, a 60-minute meeting that focuses on clarifying the next steps of a project will be different from a 90-minute meeting that aims to find ways to improve relationships with the project partners. If you find yourself in a meeting where purpose and time are unclear, you can let the organizers know what your assumption is.

 

2. Co-create the agenda wisely on the spot

No single person can really know all that should be addressed at a meeting, nor should one person have to hold that on their own. Redistributing the responsibility of setting agenda items can be done by emphasizing the importance of initiative. The principle goes: “If there is something you see that is important to address, then write it on the agenda yourself and facilitate your agenda point.”

Identify to the group how much of the collective time and attention you want for your agenda item. Using the four agenda categories below shapes what will happen at each point and can boost intentional consciousness among the group:

  • Announcements (when you just want people to listen to you);
  • Feedback (when you want to listen to others);
  • Co-creation (when you want to work with your colleagues on something);
  • Proposals + decisions (when you want a collective decision on something).

Here’s an example of what a co-created agenda might look like (Bonus tip: Using a web-based collaborative tool, such as Google Docs or Asana, can make editable, live agendas a breeze to co-create):

 

Purpose of the meeting: the next steps for our project (60 min total)

Category Person Topic
Information/announcements Hana

Ed

Schedule update

Partner relations

Feedback/consult Paul

Marina

Results from interviews

Presenting our new service

Co-create / work together Hafid Ideas for next consultation activity
Proposal / decision making Maria Hire students?

 

Remember there is no rule that everyone needs to be in conversation all the time. You can be creative in how you run your agenda point. You can invite people to think silently for a minute before a go around or to position themselves in the room to express where they stand on a question. It’s up to you.

 

3. Run the meeting with roles

As an organization, make it a priority to designate meeting roles. Agree on who will be the meeting host, the time holder, and the note taker. It’s also critical to rotate these roles regularly if you want to develop participatory leadership. Setting an expectation around this flexibility can help streamline how roles are assigned. For example, there can be the expectation that everyone has a go at a role before anyone does it a second time or that roles rotate alphabetically by last name.

The meeting host uses the natural connections between points and the group energy to establish the order of the points. The time host supports the facilitator of each point to keep to the time they attributed to themselves, with kindness and care. The notetaker documents the essential items: points of clarity, proposals that take form, decisions made, etc.

 

Building a horizontal culture

These three strategies, used together, are geared toward a collaborative and conscious way of working. Running meetings consciously builds a horizontal workplace culture because team members feel empowered, heard, and valued for their specific contributions and reach larger, collective goals.

A group takes on shared responsibility for what is addressed, how it is addressed, and the time management. Meetings become enlivening, democratic, co-creative spaces. This is the opposite of conventional meeting culture, which revolves around one or two people.

It is not a free for all. It’s the opposite, in fact. Clear structuring elements allow self-organization to take place efficiently.

 

Building team trust

Really, though, this is all about learning to trust again. Trust your colleagues to care about things and put them on the agenda, trust people to be able to share the time, and trust that the right things for today are addressed. It’s truly liberating.

Once you get the hang of this in meetings, you’ll find it spilling over into other areas of work. You’ll be stepping forward for what you care about while trusting others to step forward with what they see and care about. You’ll be more apt to give space to your colleagues to self-organize. You’ll be able to tap into the diversity that surrounds you better. All of this brings life back into the workplace and puts flexibility and flow into the cultural backbone. In fact, reconnecting with our capacity to trust each other is part of our collective journey to reconnect with our humanity. Organizations desperately need this now, and so does the world.

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Horizontal Science: How to build inclusive, participatory practices into research and teaching

North of Montreal, nestled amidst the rocky, forested outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, a group of ecosystem scientists are conducting a series of non-traditional pilot studies. This time, their experiments focus on improving workplace ecology, practicing how to work together in more fulfilling, inclusive, productive ways.

The Laurentians Biology Research Station, a leading-edge field research facility affiliated with the Université de Montréal, conducts teaching and research in ecology, ecosystem science, sustainability, climate change, and conservation. Long recognizing the urgency of applying high-quality research to environmental problems, Roxane Maranger, station director and professor of aquatic ecosystem science, saw the need for a more inclusive, generative work culture among her team members. 

To address this challenge, Maranger and Nicolas Fortin St-Gelais, a postdoctoral researcher at the University Montreal participated in a training by Samantha Slade, founder of Percolab and author of Going Horizontal. The training posed the following questions: How do we accelerate the transition to more participatory leadership? How can we invite in more humanity without losing productivity?  What if we really got at the root of the issue of engagement? 

Roxane Maranger, PhD and Nicolas Fortin St- Gelais, PhD of Université de Montréal’s Laurentians Biology Research Station Photo credit: Samantha Slade

Participants had the chance to practice new ways of working together across seven distinct areas of practice found in any organization: autonomy, purpose, meetings, transparency, decision making, learning & development, and relationships.

What shifted?

For Maranger, the training offered new perspectives on what was possible in science and scientific stakeholder engagement. Lab meetings offered a place to try out meetings that are co-managed in a lower-risk environment, where an agile agenda emerged on the spot and brief initial check-ins could help diversify participation at meetings. “As the meeting started, we checked in by inviting people to talk about how they read scientific papers,” she said. “By starting with a shared practice everyone does a bit differently, everyone could then contribute. It immediately increased participation in the meeting.”

The team then moved on to check in around something more controversial, and increase comfort in discussing such issues. “We discussed our own gender biases when it comes to science,” Maranger said. “And people had already learned to contribute in this way, so we are seeing group norms begin to shift.”

From there, Maranger says they practiced depersonalizing feedback into their efforts to improve the quality of draft articles for scientific publication. Through the Going Horizontal workshops, they learned the importance of letting purpose be the leader over ego. “We focused on the idea feedback serves to improve the quality of the scientific article,” she said. “You may have put heart and soul into producing it, but you are not your article. We could see how our deeply rooted fear of ‘hurt feelings’ gets in the way of surfacing our collective wisdom.” By naming this as a core principle, Maranger said the group could then practice new feedback skills: “It is helping us shift toward more effectively communicating our best ideas.”

Tips from Maranger and Fortin St- Gelais for going horizontal in your workplace

Introducing new practices? Start in a low-risk environment.

Remind yourself that meaningful changes take practice and time. It may not be “just right” the first time, and that is normal.

Take on one new practice at a time. Make your lessons explicit, and share credit.

Think about “everyday” routines that might exclude people from participating. How could small shifts improve the quality of interactions and relationships in your workplace?

Come back to purpose. By making clear, explicit connections to the “Why” of how things are done, it becomes easier for teams to commit to changing “How.”

It is not easy for a group to get beyond “politeness” as a collective culture. “Feedback can and should be actionable, specific, and kind,” says Slade. Over the past decade, Slade has co-designed and tested the practices with clients, building on participatory methods shared through the International Art of Hosting community. “So many of the interactions and beliefs we take for granted get in the way,” says Slade. “It turns out these are learnable skills. We must be far more specific about how to change interactions to build more generative working relationships. Then we change culture.”

In the longer term, the lab plans to bring in more participatory, generative methods of decision making. They recognize that shifting to a more horizontal culture can take time and will create feelings of discomfort. “Culture shift can get sticky,” Maranger said. “But given the degree of impact we have seen for our team, our students, and our communities, it is worth the effort. Together, we stand to gain a lot.”

 

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