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How to boost people’s energy and productivity during meetings

People’s energy and productivity during meetings can be hugely energized if you take the right approach: and the opposite if you don’t. Elizabeth Doty walks us through the concept below.

Written by: Elizabeth Doty
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When the president of a technology services firm convened her executive team virtually to review the company’s strategic agenda, she started by allowing a few minutes for casual conversation and explained the purpose of the meeting. It seemed to work well—people were laughing, chatting, and asking questions. Then she moved to the main discussion with a (very) brief introduction: “OK, let’s get to work. You all have seen next year’s plan. I need everyone bought in and ready to make it happen. Any thoughts?”

Awkwardness ensued. As she scanned her team’s faces on the screen, they avoided looking at their cameras and stayed quiet for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, one woman unmuted and shared the same idea she had brought up at several previous meetings. The rest of the group sat politely and listened, but the energy level had crashed. Even while telling me the story, the leader couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong. Only a moment prior, everyone had seemed “on.” Somewhere between her successful warm-up and her ill-fated attempt at digging in, she’d failed to engage.

In my previous article, I discussed Dick Axelrod’s finding that the first five minutes of a meeting set the tone. But after their introduction, leaders too often move to the core of their agenda by simply announcing the topic and opening it up to the floor—and are met with silence, random thoughts, or a rehashing of prior conversations. These leaders understand the value of listening, dialogue, and active participation. But they may not realize that even the most cohesive teams and confident senior executives are more successful when they have a clear invitation for how to contribute, and when the goal they are working toward feels specific and tangible.

Imagine yourself doing improv, walking onstage to start a scene without any props. It seems daunting, right? You might find your mind going blank. Then imagine your partner saying she sees a hammer on the floor. Now you have somewhere to begin, and the ideas start flowing. Similarly, to help meeting participants engage productively, leaders should actively design the “middle” of their meetings. This design does not need to be elaborate in order to give people the spark they need. Here are four ways to lightly structure the conversation.

Choose a “prompt” to focus the discussion. The single biggest missed opportunity I’ve observed in meetings is the failure to craft a clear prompt. Usually framed as a question, a strong prompt is specific enough that people can respond without too much effort, and broad enough to invite diverse views and new thinking. For example, imagine if the technology services leader above had asked, “How ready does each of you feel to deliver on your part of our plan? And what do you need to be confident you can deliver?” Team members would have had a clearer understanding of what she was looking for but also would have felt free to raise questions and concerns.

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