Civil Discourse

Jun 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Periodic meetings are needed in units with four or more workers

In the work that I do with client companies on targeted change and improvement programs, I spend a lot of time with front-line employees and their supervisors. Although management may not understand why its messages aren’t getting through or why employees aren’t forthcoming with suggestions and early warnings about obvious problems, employees complain about the reverse — they’re always the last to know what’s going on and have no forum for discussion.

Cheap talk

Given a pervasive need for both information and contact, it’s always a surprise to find companies that don’t mandate consistent meetings for front-line workers. Unfortunately, many supervisors, and managers, initially object to staff meetings on practical grounds. Their concerns are often valid and must be resolved. The most frequent objections follow:

  • Meetings consume time better spent on work. (Although unproductive meetings waste time, well-run meetings can save time for everyone downstream.)
  • Meetings seem impossible to set up because of multiple shifts and breaks and other schedule conflicts. (All the more reason to bring together people who have to function in concert.)
  • Meetings with lower-level staff either turn into gripe sessions or there’s no communication at all. (This is a function of how the meetings are led. Teach appropriate meeting protocol, and participants will learn to work instead of whine.)

Payoffs

As a general rule, periodic group meetings are necessary where there are four or more workers in a unit, even if it’s no more often than once a month. Staff meetings provide a consistent venue in which to ensure that everyone understands management’s intentions and to foster better day-to-day communication.

The payoffs are various and many. When employees have a regularly scheduled, legitimate forum for their suggestions and issues as well as feedback on group performance and individual recognition, both morale and performance are bound to improve.

Meetings can be designed to become an ongoing source of new input regarding work processes, product development, or customer care policies. They give supervisors a way to find out about emerging problems. Small group meetings are an ideal situation for delivering limited training fixes.

If the group isn’t scheduled to work together every day, unit meetings are particularly helpful to the supervisor. Everyday good performance can be acknowledged instead of going unnoticed. Group meetings are especially beneficial for workers who are isolated because of schedule or location; it’s a time when employees can learn more about one another.

Staff meetings provide an informal setting for ongoing employee development. For example, employees can take on different segments of a meeting. They can take turns presenting information about a specific event, taking minutes, or following up on an issue and reporting on it at the next meeting. This kind of delegation allows the supervisor to observe and coach employee skills in analysis, judgment, decision making, and presentation.

Call to order

How can you take advantage of all this potential? Teach your supervisors meeting management techniques that they can use and pass on to employees. Both groups will benefit.

  • Schedule meetings so everyone in the group can attend. If this is impossible, there’s probably something wrong with the prevailing scheduling practices.
  • Set time and length according to content. Although just being together can be valuable, if participants feel that their time is wasted, they’re less likely to contribute next time. Start and end on time too.
  • Prepare agendas in advance with specific topics and time frames. Agendas may include updates on continuing issues as well as notices of upcoming events.
  • Distribute the agenda and any relevant material, such as minutes from the last meeting, far enough in advance to give everyone time to review them as necessary.
  • The supervisor must set the tone so the meeting isn’t just a hurried series of new instructions or directives, but allows for real give and take.
  • Over time, assign rotating responsibilities to participants for conducting the meeting. Every employee should have a chance to lead a portion of a meeting, take notes and draft minutes, prepare and present information, follow up on open issues, and act as timekeeper.
  • The supervisor must explain meeting ground rules. It doesn’t hurt to repeat them periodically or to put them in writing. Ground rules include basic elements of civility such as:
    1. Only one person has the floor at a time, participants don’t interrupt each other, and side conversations are not acceptable.

    2. Keep within the time slot assigned to the subject. If participants stray from the subject during the time allotted, any member of the group can raise a hand to say they’re off the topic.

    3. No disparagement is allowed. This means that members of the group may not trash or insult each other’s comments, concerns, or personalities.

    4. It’s OK to schedule time for gripes or worries, but they should be limited to topics that affect the group. Personal anecdotes to illustrate the point are fine, but individual problems or complaints should be restricted to personal interactions with supervisors or human resources personnel.

Staff meetings also provide an opportunity for management to observe supervisors in action. Do they react defensively? Can they determine which issues can be handled within the work group? Are they helping their people learn, accomplish, and contribute more?

It would be overwhelming for both management and staff to change suddenly from an environment of no meetings — ever — to one in which every work group meets every week. The skeptics who promised that time would be wasted and little accomplished will have made their case. But you can ease into the process by starting with a single group or by meeting infrequently at first. Keep initial agendas short and factual until everyone gets some practice.

Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates, specializes in planning and implementing customer marketing and service efforts that involve people and phones. She can be reached at 99 West Hawthorne Ave., Suite 200, Valley Stream, NY 11580, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

Follow the Leader

Supervisors who serve as meeting leaders might consider these suggestions for effective meetings:

  • A probing question to open discussion might include what was new, wonderful, or awful this week. Asking “What else could we be doing?” or “Who else should we be hearing from?” will keep the group moving forward.
  • When an employee goes off the topic, try something like: “Sarah, that’s really a new topic. Shall we add it to the list for our next meeting?” If someone is going on too long, rephrase the main point: “Paul, is your main point XYZ?” If it is, “Great, then let’s give Steve a turn.”
  • If you work with a contentious group, try a “pre-meeting calm” at the beginning of all staff meetings. As soon as everyone is together, take three or four minutes for people to think in silence about the purpose of the meeting. The quiet time lets everyone recover from the last angry customer or their tough commute and reminds participants of the need to work together.
  • For simple interruptions, just say, “I’m sorry, Jane, Charlie still has the floor.” But if tempers or comments get out of hand, or if everyone’s speaking at once, even for a good reason, call a time out.
    LK