Meetings that make people happy: Myth or magic?

Want to hold more engaging meetings? You'll need to establish trust. Start by answering seven questions about yourself.
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Collaborative agenda setting

People tend to focus on the technical elements of meeting prep: setting the objective(s), making the agenda, choosing a place and duration, selecting stakeholders, articulating a timeline, and so on. But if you want people to come to a meeting ready to fully engage, building trust is mission-critical, too. If you need people to engage in your meetings, then you're likely expecting people to come ready to share their creativity, problem-solving, and innovation ideas.

All these things require taking risks—and risks force people to be vulnerable. Trust is therefore fundamental to getting anyone to engage meaningfully in meetings. But trust is not unilateral. If you think people either "trust you or they don't," you're missing important opportunities to help people feel free to bring everything they have to engage in your meetings.

Let's look at seven questions open leaders can ask themselves as they get ready to gauge and build trust levels in advance of their meetings. The extent to which you're able to do this can make or break constructive engagement in meetings.

1. Are you for real?

Engagement begins with people's need for confidence. First and foremost, they're going to want to know that the meeting they are walking into will be exactly what you told them they'd be walking into. They want to be able to rely on and accept the accuracy of your stated reason for the meeting, its objectives, etc., at face value, knowing that you are not intentionally attempting to deceive or trap anyone, nor are you withholding crucial information from them.

When people can trust your authenticity and they know you've shared exactly what they're getting into, they can prepare themselves accordingly. Blindsided people may be reticent to participate at the same depth.

2. Are you safe?

Few things are more daunting than the fear of walking into an ambush. When people wonder if their input will cause someone to be thrown under the bus—or worse, when people fear that problem-solving or brainstorming sessions will turn into a dogpile or blame-fest—you can bet that the only people who will be excited to engage are the people who enjoy being abusive, calling it "collaboration." Contrary to what some in the open source community seem to believe, intentional use of caustic, demeaning expressions for "feedback" will not produce the highest quality outputs.

What the team will end up with instead is an unwritten rule that the most oppressive voices always win; other brilliant ideas will be stifled when the people who have them do not feel personally safe to share them. With the exception of people who enjoy the cathartic rush of harsh exchanges, openness to genuine feedback occurs when people do not fear that they will be personally attacked or publicly humiliated in the process. For the strongest possible engagement in meetings, set clear group expectations that balance candor and transparency with enforced communication and behavioral norms that promote confidence rather than intimidation.

When people can trust you to model and reinforce threat-reducing behaviors during collaboration and idea sharing, you make room for a true meritocracy of ideas to emerge.

3. Are you consistent?

One of the greatest gifts a leader or decision-maker can give to stakeholders is a clear sense of consistency. Consistency enables people to obtain some level of clarity regarding the range of possibilities for any given meeting—and it helps them plan accordingly.

When people can trust your words and actions to have clear, reliable patterns, they can gain a clearer sense of their role in the engagement process.

Even if people are not fond of your predictable behavior, they can learn to navigate their own responsibilities around what they know you will say or do. As an added bonus, in your absence your consistent behavior will still enable them to engage in making decisions about which they can confidently predict your general thoughts and responses.

When people can trust your words and actions to have clear, reliable patterns, they can gain a clearer sense of their role in the engagement process.

4. Can they depend on you?

Somewhat related to consistency is your reputation for being a person of your word. I have facilitated countless decision-making meetings in organizations that began with the question, "Is this going to be another one of those meetings where we do all the hard work and come up with a workable solution, and then the powers that be are going to just do whatever they want anyway?" Past failures to follow through can destroy people's motivation to attempt to engage again. If a history of undependable follow-through and unkept commitments exists (whether or not you were at the heart of them), acknowledge the failure to the people in advance and discuss with them the measures you will take to keep the current commitments related to this new meeting.

When people can trust your word to follow through on commitments related to their investment in the meeting, they can often give the process another chance, even if others failed to follow through in the past.

5. Do you know your stuff?

Having the skill and expertise to conduct the meeting and discuss responsibilities isn't enough. You need to know your people. A meeting in which the leader is unfamiliar with the group's history, trigger words, social cues, behavioral norms, and shared values will make it very difficult to make sure you (and others!) are engaging in alignment with cultural expectations. Perceived incompetence by the person leading a meeting can be an immediate engagement-killer.

When people can trust that you know what you are doing, they can relax and focus on their own responsibilities in the meeting.

If you are new to the group, before the meeting (or as an opening session), let the people help you catch up with discovery discussions (individually or in small groups), and ask them for help in understanding the shared story, values, history, norms, etc. in addition to any nuanced skills or knowledge you'll need to grasp to facilitate effective discussions.

When people can trust that you know what you are doing, they can relax and focus on their own responsibilities in the meeting.

6. Does the buck stop with you?

With complex or wide-scale projects, it's easy for things to fall through the cracks. People you work with are likely heavy hitters who already want to do a good job—but someone has to assume ultimate responsibility for the success of the entire team. I'm not talking about ultimate "fault" or "blame" in case something goes wrong (we want solutions, not human targets). I'm talking about ownership. Someone needs to assume personal responsibility to help set up the task/project/team for success, and own any initiative that needs to be assumed if it begins to flounder. If you assume ownership, you embrace the responsibility to engage with the stakeholders holistically and proactively. Your words and actions will hold you and everyone else to the highest possible standards.

When people can trust that you assume personal responsibility and ownership of helping them succeed, the mental and emotional energy they'd commit to self-protection "just in case you drop the ball" can be redirected to bolstering their own contributions.

7. Do people believe that your intent is to help?

This is the linchpin of trust.

People can handle a lot of things—inconsistent or erratic behaviors, stupid verbal responses, lack of follow-through, even lack of knowledge or ownership—if they can sense that you are really trying to do right by them. It is worth the time to connect with people beyond what you need from them, to take a genuine interest in who they are as people and what's going on in their lives. Beyond being good interpersonal protocol, it's good business.

When people are inclined to believe what you say and do is intended to help and not harm them, they will be more likely to interpret and respond to your failings to have the best possible motives, which often means they'll engage with you to help work through the kinks even if they are frustrated or even angry with your behavior.

Bottom line? Trust is where engagement begins, in meetings and in life. Understanding the multiple dimensions of trust gives us the opportunity to have conversations that can help us build it up wherever it is lacking—before we need it in the meeting.

For example, when we allow someone to tell us, "I trust that you mean well, but I do not yet trust your competence in this skill," or "I trust your expertise and I know you intend to do what you say, but I find that your optimism about what can be done in an hour exceeds reality, so despite your good heart, I cannot currently trust your dependability," we have a chance to pinpoint what areas we need to foster their trust. Responding to statements like these with questions like, "What do you need from me in order to grow in your trust of me in this area?" and then following up to track your progress can also add to others' perception of your intent to do them good.

Stay with it! Over time, both trust—and with it, engagement—will grow.

This article is part of the Open Organization Leaders Manual project.

sorry, Jo's mug shot is shy today.
MaryJo Burchard (Concord Leader) helps leaders in business, public sector, education, and nonprofits to develop open behaviors and interactions to measurably raise the bar of humane, Open engagement in the workplace. MaryJo has a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University and conducts training and internal organizational development consulting for executives and managers.

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