Are Your Team Meetings Too Polite?

It may sound counterintuitive, but harmonious team meetings can often be a sign of a team that is not operating at its full potential.  That's not to say that everyone should be shouting or that every issue should be debating passionately, but if everyone is in agreement or silent, chances are you're not getting the results you could be getting.  Team members should be pushing each other to think and work harder, not by being harsh or overly competitive, but by asking good questions and providing thoughtful input even on areas where they do not personally have expertise.  This may sound far-fetched, and it's not something that happens overnight.  However, there are several concrete things you can do to foster more constructive conflict and help your team to interact with each other more effectively.

Ditch the round-robin status updates.

Here's the thing: your employees don't need to know every single thing that's going on with every other member of the team, and they also don't need to give laundry lists of their recent activities to show that they've been busy.  However, they do need to be aware of the ways in which their work intersects with each other’s, and they need to have the opportunity to weigh in on significant decisions and thorny problems.  You can set this up by having each person lead the discussion for a specified period of time (5-10 minutes, for example) in which they will share any significant progress made since the last meeting and their current focus and/or biggest challenge.  The other team members then ask questions of the discussion leader, for their own learning or to help the discussion leader. 

Keep the discussion focused on questions and facts.

A key difference between constructive conflict and destructive conflict is the content of the debate: is it about the issues or about the people involved?  One way to keep the discussion on track is to make sure that everyone is focusing on facts and backing up what they say.  Ideally, everyone should be using more questions than statements, but it's particularly important for you as the manager.  Some of the questions you can ask to keep the discussion fact-based:

  • Do we have any data on that?
  • How has this been done in the past?
  • What approaches have you considered?
  • What are some of the underlying assumptions here?
  • What's the best-case scenario?  
  • What's the worst-case scenario?
  • What are the potential risks?
  • What's the case for the alternative (or second-best) option?
  • What information or action could help resolve the problem?

The last question is particularly helpful at separating people from issues.  If two team members seem to feel strongly about opposing points of view, get them to make their best case for the opposite viewpoint.  It might not change their mind, but it will help to surface assumptions and ideas that might otherwise get lost because they've dug their heels in and have stopped listening.

Don't allow team members to keep themselves "above the fray."

In order for healthy debate to flourish, there needs to be a safe environment for people to say what they're really thinking.  This means you need to be diligent about calling out (possibly privately, although not always) any team members who are not participating in an authentic way. Behaviors to discourage:

  • Eye rolling or other dismissive body language
  • Sarcasm that is directed at other people
  • Criticism of people's personality or character rather than behavior (this applies even if it's about someone not in the room)
  • Doing other things during the discussion, like checking e-mail
  • Not contributing to the discussion

In this last case, you may want to speak with the person privately first, as there may be some underlying team dynamics that are contributing to that person not feeling comfortable speaking up. 

Share the credit, and encourage employees to do the same.

It's important to reward the behavior you wish to see repeated, and in this case, the behavior is anything that contributed to a positive team result.  In addition to acknowledging the success of the person who led the efforts or did the work, it can be helpful to point out team members whose contributions led to the results.  Consider pointing out how considering alternatives ultimately led to a better outcome, such as when a team debate helped to surface critical assumptions that would need to be tested first or risks that would need to be mitigated.  Encourage employees to mention their colleagues' contributions when they share significant progress they've made.

Be the change you wish to see.

Your employees will learn most from your example.  In all of your interactions with them, make an effort to use questions rather than statements, and focus on facts rather than people.  Be open to other perspectives and ideas, and be transparent about why you've chosen to go in a particular direction.  

By creating an environment in which employees are expected to challenge each other in supportive ways, you'll not only achieve better team results but also build your employees' critical thinking skills.  Over time, you'll also build a cohesive team structure that will be invaluable during the inevitable crunch times.  Best of all, it takes some of the pressure off of you to have all the answers yourself. 

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