What your meetings can tell you about company culture 

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Reflection can be a very effective tool to understand how a business is operating. Image: Unsplash/MailChimp

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  • Team meetings are an effective way to show a company's culture.
  • Research suggests that only around 50% of meeting time is well used, and engaging.
  • Here are steps you can take to ensure they're inclusive, authentic and effective.

The time we spend in meetings is at an all-time high, which is terrible for Zoom fatigue but valuable for creating a picture of company culture in action.

Reflect on the meetings you took part in this past year. Think about what you observed, how everyone treated each other, and the general team dynamic. Those behaviors and interactions between team members have big implications for how a company lives out, or fails to live according to, its values and beliefs. Though one action alone may seem inconsequential, these moments add up and they affect your outcomes.

While founding and scaling a startup that eventually went public, I was privy to all types of team meeting behavior—negative and positive—and I saw how it impacted our larger goals. What I witnessed convinced me that meetings are a microcosm of a company’s culture. Here are some questions to ask yourself about the meeting habits that have some of the largest cultural implications:

Is your meeting agenda intentional or ad-hoc?

Research suggests that only around 50% of meeting time is effective, well used, and engaging. This last year of working remotely has put the idea of “planning ahead” to the test. When hallway conversations and “quick huddles” are no longer possible,meetings need to be more than a one-off fire drill to react to the problem du jour.

Ask yourself and your teammates:

  • Do meetings end because you’ve run out of reserved time or do they conclude with a clear outcome and next steps for attendees?
  • How much of the meeting is reflecting on tactical tasks vs strategic initiatives? Can attendees clearly state which company goal the meeting supports?
  • Was enough knowledge documented effectively and shared ahead of time? Could the meeting be done asynchronously if needed?

One small positive habit to adopt now: At the end of each meeting, review and agree upon the action items and follow ups, write them down, and share them with the meeting attendees.

Are your meetings inclusive or clique-ish?

Canadian entrepreneur Cameron Herold stated it best when he said the best meetings enable everyone to speak up. Products and services are better when people with various identities, perspectives, and experiences can contribute, because it leaves fewer blind spots. Meetings are where this input can be nurtured—or suffocated, only to remain buried in someone’s notes and of no help when six months later, your product is shipping late or getting panned for a lack of accessibility features.

Have you read?

Ask yourself and your teammates:

  • How much meeting time is consumed by the same voices?
  • Does everyone have a chance to speak?
  • Are invitations based on title and authority or knowledge and involvement?
  • Does everyone always agree with each other or are there differing opinions?

One small positive habit to adopt now: As a meeting organizer, set a goal for yourself to ask a question where everyone has to respond. This encourages everyone to participate in the meeting.

Are meeting participants truly present or clearly distracted?

By accepting a meeting invite, there is an unsaid agreement that attendees are committing attention and focus to the organizer. Tardy arrivals, devices out during presentations, video cameras off… it all sends a message. And it’s not a good one.

Ask yourself and your teammates:

  • Do attendees have to wait to find out why they were invited or can they clarify, or already articulate, why they are present and what their role is?
  • Do leaders spend more time talking, listening, or asking questions?
  • While a team member is speaking, are attendees on their phones or are there visual cues that folks are engaged and present?

One small positive habit to adopt now: At the beginning of the virtual meeting, everyone agrees to have their camera on or camera off. Or if it’s in person, everyone agrees to have laptops closed.

Is the meeting discussion honest or inauthentic?

Meetings are often a place for status updates, which can be intimidating for contributors. A manager once shared a story with me about a boss who endeavored to shield his own boss from bad news. Ahead of the meeting as a group, the manager was explicitly pressured to rate his goals as green (suggesting the goal was going well) because the boss did not like seeing the color yellow (the goal was being delayed) and really hated the color red (the goal would not be completed.)

While not always so explicit, this type of corporate peer pressure is common. There’s a reason for the saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Ask yourself and your teammates:

  • Does every status update conclude with positive marks across the board?
  • When was the last time bad news was shared?
  • Do team members only seem to work on projects that succeed?
  • If projects fail, are they celebrated as a chance to learn?
  • When a launch date is postponed, does it come as a surprise or is it anticipated because the reasons for the delay were discussed transparently?

One small positive habit to adopt now: Next time you’re tracking a deadline on a project with your team, ask everyone to write down their confidence level (green, yellow, red) of completing the project on time and then share at the same time!

Small, positive changes can lead to huge results

Hosting productive meetings isn’t just about the meetings; it’s larger than that. It’s about cultivating the right habits to help facilitate the right conversations, and ultimately nurture a positive culture of purpose and achievement. That’s why these are hard questions. After you spend time reflecting on your meetings, can you more clearly see what’s working and what could use improvement? Could you commit to changing one meeting habit and then gauge progress over the next three months?

This last year of forced remote work helped many of us grow into better communicators. We learned how to connect, influence and lead solely using digital means. We’re at a (sorry, I must say it) unprecedented crossroads as offices slowly reopen. We can go back to how it was or we can keep a good thing going.

In this next phase, let’s bring along our good meeting habits—and start making new ones.

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