the meeting after the meeting

The meeting after the meeting sometimes has more impact that the meeting itself. In many organizations, that’s where people share their real opinions and where the real decisions are made. A team might agree around the conference table, but then express doubts in the “safer” environment of the hallway or coffee shop.

It’s a passive aggressive way to squash ideas, because the champion of the idea isn’t there to defend it. It can also be pretty toxic to an office culture.

I’ve been working on a cartoon book idea about overcoming idea killers, and this meeting dynamic is one of the leading offenders. It’s even more sinister that the Devil’s Advocate, because it’s invisible.

An organization is strongest when people feel comfortable challenging each other in the open. Ideas are made stronger by the diversity of hands that touch them. Here’s the best rule of thumb I’ve heard on leading through differences of opinion: “Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways to foster a culture that keeps the “voice” in the meeting.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

This meeting dynamic inspired one of my earliest cartoons, back in February 2003. It’s still one of my favorites.

  1. Anthony says

    I agree that any ideas/opinions that challenge the proposed idea should be put forward during a meeting like this, but I think the ‘meeting after the meeting’ is more common in organisations where the leader has made their mind up before discussing with the team.

  2. Christoph Trappe says

    So how do you stop the meetings after meetings? Everyone has to take ownership, I think. When you are pulled into one of these discussions try to politely to bring it back to the team.

  3. Igor Mironyuk says

    That’s pretty awesome, Tom:) The problem with even very open and encouraging meetings is that you can not take let’s say 5 ideas, sum it up altogether, divide them by 5 and have an average perfect meeting result. You have to choose. And here is the devil’s rule, which by the way ruined lots of opportunities: the idea to be chosen out of 5 belongs to a person who is ethier closest to a head of the board, or has highest grade among meeting participants.

  4. Mary L. Cole (@euonymous) says

    Oh, dear. There is much to what you say. Looking at your earlier cartoon (“A day in the life…”) I see you already know what I was going to suggest. Millions of years ago at Digital Equipment Corporation I learned never to call a meeting without knowing the outcome. That means pre-selling or at least pre-consulting with the stakeholders. Then the trick for a product manager is to air differences and get public buy-in at the meeting from everyone who will implement the “decision”. Then send out weekly reports on progress toward the goal with follow up meetings having those folks report publicly on their progress. If anybody wants to kill an idea, their lack of cooperation and excuses are questioned by the whole program team. The time for people who disagree to raise their issues is early. If disagreements are not raised, you have to wonder a bit whether people felt comfortable pointing out problems during the decision meeting. There may be a rotten apple trying to poison the waters during or afterwards, but good management, in my experience, is all about keeping things transparent. (Or, of course, having complete control and operating under an umbrella of silence and secrecy! Either way can work.)

  5. Jen Nelson says

    Awesome work (again) Tom.

    The quote “Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote” is one I’ve used a lot over the years.

    When running ideation sessions, I’ve often had sponsors of the event want to resist the “tradition” of having participants “vote” on output (ya know, the usual fair where the cross-functional team that assembled votes by placing dots or stickies). I think they’ve feared being beholden to what the group gives the most votes to. But what I tell them — and am totally transparent about with the participants as well, is that it isn’t truly a vote (in the “winner gets a green light” sense), but rather an another expression of their point of view that will be taken into consideration. In other words, everyone has a voice in both creating new ideas AND which they believe is best in light of the end goal. But the owner(s) of the plan there after really have the only vote on what moves forward.

  6. PG Bartlett says

    My old boss used to refer to the “meeting after the meeting” as a “pocket veto.” He knew how damaging a pocket veto could be, so approvals were never tacit. He would go around the table and ask every person to comment on the decision.

    Of course, that didn’t keep the politics out of it – it just drove any dissent further under ground.

  7. Karl Sakas says

    I recently came across a book called “How to Run Better Business Meetings.” One of the first chapters is called, “Is This Meeting Necessary?”

    The author asks, “Why are you having the meeting? Unless you can identify a clear purpose — a net gain from the expenditure of time — don’t call it.”

    Is this a new book? No, it’s from 1972!

    We’ve known this for a long time… yet human nature gets in the way. Part of the challenge is that managers rarely have training on how to be a good manager. In thousands of conference rooms at this very moment, people are reinventing the wheel.

    People can change, if they want to change and they know some options… and if they’re willing to risk social capital to change their organization. That’s the hard part.

  8. Teri Saylor says

    Your day-in-the-life cartoon is a perfect example of a strategic planning exercise I was a part of last year. Every single one of those “meetings” actually happened. And I admit, having lunch was a great incentive to participate.

  9. Diana says

    While I do not agree with the process of getting stakeholders to approve everything prior to the meeting, that often happens in cultures where the 30 minute meeting rules. If you do not give people enough time to process and be heard, that processing and debate time will often happen after the meeting. I love meetings where the main stakeholder is organized enough to provide pre-read materials so that everyone can come to the meeting prepared with an opinion. I have found that this cuts down on post-meeting debate almost entirely, even when a 30 minute meeting is scheduled.

  10. Jann Mirchandani says

    Clearly, this strikes a nerve! We’ve all been there and seen this in action.

    The question, which I don’t see an answer to…nor have one to offer really…is creating a culture where these discussions are held in the open. Where the dissenting opinion is given respect.

    One of the things I always try to encourage in the organizations I’ve been a part of is instilling the idea of asking the questions; kicking them around and seeing what shakes loose. Even if we ultimately decide that we aren’t changing anything, the question has been asked and the decision is based on considered debate rather than “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.

  11. Judy Bernstein says

    Similar to ‘everyone has a voice, not everyone has a vote’ is the creative problem solving concept of ‘problem owner’. Personally, I find problem owner more conducive to collaboration because it establishes the necessity of each participant’s role (voice) rather than subtly demeaning those voices with not enough status to vote. I can imagine an overt emphasis of my ‘voteless voice’ encouraging me to want to grab a little post-meeting sabotage status. But if my role as resource/ expert/ contributor is respected as separate and essential from that of problem owner, then the decision maker’s decision becomes a reflection of my having played my role successfully – and post-meeting, I’ve no axe to grind because I’ve suffered no slight.

  12. Bill Carlson says

    Actually just one example of all the “behind the back” sort of communication which takes place everywhere. It’s unfortunate based on the obvious time-wasting — acting supportive and then doubling back to politic to the contrary.

    But the less-obvious impact is on enthusiasm — time spent managing (living with, surviving!) this sort of nonsense demotivates people, leads to “why bother?”

    And organizations pay the penalty in what I call “unrealized potential” — could have done more, should have been more successful, but can’t measure that vs. actual results and therefore the gap isn’t recognized and therefore it isn’t addressed.

    I think that in general, it’s a leadership issue. Not just having strong role models at the top but encouraging the right mentality across the organization and in particular, needing managers at all levels to acknowledge the reality of this dynamic and do what they can to deal with it positively. Which takes training, mentoring and managers who have been exposed to an all-too-rare truly-good leader.

  13. Lisa says

    Gone are the days of ‘take it to the mattresses’ where meetings are personal and not just business. This is where the passive aggressiveness plays in and shows the immaturity level of the participants. I long for a constructive meeting where no one cries at the end.

  14. Benjamin Z. says

    An approach that I’ve seen work effectively is to always (in every meeting or team gathering) have the manager or individual conducting the meeting to first ask the opinion of the most inexperienced person in the room.

    It initiates feedback; sometimes useful sometimes not, but more importantly it creates a secure environment for open communication among everybody. Individuals typically seem more encouraged to share their perspective, present ideas that don’t fall inline with the status quo, or build on previous comments.

    This approach has not only increased the productivity of our meetings but has helped to eliminate the meeting after the meeting.

  15. Luis R. says

    I don’t understand why hallways or coffee shops are safer environments. The only difference between the types of meetings are the people involved in them. If only the opinion of the most powerful people matter, why is everyone else invited to the meetings?

    What if everyone had a voice and everyone had a vote?

  16. Lemel J. says

    At one of my business entities we often have the “meeting after the meeting” because of the type of culture that has been developed. I am pretty much always the assertive one at the meeting that will challenge ideas. However, none of my colleagues ever step up to plate and say anything until after the meeting is over with. I think a solution to this problem could possibly be to have “brainstorming” sessions that will allow everyone involved a chance to have a “voice”.
    Thank you,
    Lemel J.

  17. Don says

    In my experience, it is the person running the meeting (or the highest level person in the room) who can encourage or discourage people voicing their ideas or concerns. If you see a pattern of people being berated or immediately dismissed when they present an opposing idea, you are going to have a meeting after the meeting because it provides a way to see if their is a contrary consensus that just wasn’t being aired in the meeting. If there is a pattern of valuing a contrary opinion and using it as an launching point to see if the obstacle or concern can be eliminated or at least alleviated, then people feel free to voice all their ideas, not just the supportive ones – oh, and you tend to end up with a much stronger proposition.

    One of the best practices I have seen to help with this is to ask the questiosn: “What are the potentials problems in executing this idea? What might be the concerns of others not in the room?” This certainly provides a safety net for people to voice a different point of view.

  18. Gaye says

    Our leadership is such that the decisions have already been made before any meeting. We ALL just attend, few respond, and mainly we are all very quiet and hedge any response we may be ‘required’ to provide to direct questions by the leader. We have spent too much wasted time and know it, know the outcomes before hand will be a ‘done deal’ and so the office has very low moral. No one wants to contribute except in those pre meeting areas where one has to report on a specific area of content.

    Too many of us have been verbally (with a nice big smile mind you, ooohhh so always polite) backhanded and just want to get this meeting over with as fast as possible. AND we are told we can ‘hold it’ if we have to go to the bathroom, some of us have health issues that needs to have one or more of us zipping out at the speed of light (or carefully mosey) to the necessary rooms. She does not care! And again, we all know it.

    On the other hand, there were the pets, now reduced to one lazy kiss up – gets away with setting own hours – working from home most days, does not respond to other co-workers’ work requests, is always late with turn-around of professional and contract work, but will take co-authorship as the first author, does not follow any and all preset formatting. Need I go on? He is on a pedestal, too many have been on the podium in the past years.

    Long ago, we used to have meeting rules to let everyone voice their opinion, no one was wrong, no one was right, then all was listed and settled into a consensus at the end. People felt unafraid to speak up. These days are forever gone. Now we just live with discouragement and waste time in meetings.

  19. Luis says

    Now we can understand the importance to summarize, fix next steps and responsibilities after the meeting… Thanks again for your clear, relevant and funny drawings!!!

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