How Culture Shapes Decision-Making in Meetings

It’s a rare occurrence for employees to leave a meeting and feel it warranted all the time it took. An Economist Intelligence Unit study found that just 12 percent of surveyed executives believed meaningful decisions consistently materialized from their meetings.

That should not be the case. Meetings are collaborations that should produce decisions and actions. When that doesn’t happen, companies start to overlook problems and miss opportunities. So how do we address this? Is tightly scripting a meeting the right antidote to directionlessness?

As a countermeasure to ineffective meetings, one of our co-founders, who specializes in product development, likes to act on or document a decision as soon as it’s agreed upon. Quick, decisive sessions keep employees engaged and help them execute at higher levels.

Agendas are crucial for guiding meetings, but leaders don’t need to become taskmasters who oversee tightly regimented meetings that stifle creativity. Instead, leaders should cultivate decisive cultures that encourage employees to solve problems during meetings and develop clearer action items for afterward. Here are three ways leaders can build the kind of meeting cultures in which employees are empowered to reach decisive outcomes:

1. Be a validator, not the sole decision maker.

During meetings, leaders are bound to field questions from attendees about action items or concerns. Instead of instantly answering their queries, step back, ask their opinions, and listen to their responses.

Most managers instinctively try to solve a problem and move on rather than provide the support or guidance employees need in order to grow. Empower your employees to find solutions on their own, then come in at the end to validate — or question, if necessary — their chosen course of action.

This is how Twitter co-founder and current Square CEO Jack Dorsey describes leadership. In his words, “If I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure.” Dorsey provides his team the industry context and insights it may not be privy to, then allows team members to make the final call on what needs to be done.

Your team members are the ones who will carry out actions and who best understand how that should happen. Serve as the last set of eyes and let them know they’re on the right track.

2. Give collective wisdom a fair chance.

Along the same lines, if you’re the meeting’s senior-most attendee, never be the first in the room to offer your opinion. You hired these people because they have something to offer, so hear them out. They often supply fresh perspectives that are harder for higher-level staff members to see on their own. Additionally, a team that incorporates multiple points of view makes wiser decisions.

You have to find a way to capture people’s thoughts in a way that doesn’t propagate biases. One way is to ask for people to write down their opinions or decisions before they hear from others. That way, when everyone reveals his thoughts, the team can learn from everyone’s unique perspective rather than just propagating the HiPPO — the highest paid person’s opinion.

To be clear, we aren’t recommending that decisions be made via a simple vote. But the key decision makers should always benefit from the collective wisdom of their teams.

3. Celebrate opportunities to improve.

Errors in judgment happen, so let employees know that you celebrate opportunities to learn. If something goes wrong, focus on the postmortem and how you will improve instead of assigning blame. Then, once the improved process is implemented, celebrate it.

When properly dealt with, negative outcomes offer opportunities to improve. This helps develop a culture where people feel free to grow, and that process strengthens the company. If people can’t make decisions and take risks, then they can’t move forward with a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Without any risk-taking, growth happens at a painfully slow rate, or sometimes not at all.

At Google, Chief Evangelist of Brand Marketing Gopi Kallayil has helped instill the mindset that if you don’t fail often, you aren’t trying hard enough. The company considers the failure of products like Buzz, Gears, and Panoramio to be badges of honor because they were critical steps in innovation.

You may have years of unproductive meeting history to rectify, so give your team members the desire — and structure — to translate discussions into actions. Don’t make your employees feel that meetings are giant time sucks. Instead, build a culture that helps them envision work as a place to be heard and to help make things happen.

About the author: Omar Tawakol is the CEO of Voicera (formerly Workfit), a company that helps businesses harness the power of voice. Voicera is the platform behind Eva, an in-meeting voice assistant tool that listens in, takes notes, and provides access to Voicera for follow-up items from your meetings. The platform enables post-meeting review, highlights, and sharing through multiple integrations in your existing collaboration tools.

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