Want Better Meeting Results? Start by Shutting Up

Last Updated Sep 21, 2010 7:31 PM EDT

If you're wondering why so many meetings end up with nobody's mind being changed, (and thus time wasted and people frustrated) you're not alone. Turns out psychologists have been wondering the same thing. Recent research shows that once you've stated your opinion, you're not very likely to change your mind. That explains a lot about the failure of meetings, especially online.

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (don't be impressed by the depth of my research, I found it on the Strategy and Business website) points out an important point for anyone who is worried about the quality of their meeting outcomes: most human beings fail to process information that differs from their stated opinions. Not only is this important for meetings in general, but there are additional lessons for those who run online meetings and conference calls:

  • If you're worried about quality, quit worrying about consensus. Keeping peace on the team is important, but sometimes you need the best possible answer to a problem, not the one that makes the most people happy. Team members need to keep the end result in mind. Meeting leaders should state it frequently and keep bringing people back to the objective. Online, the objective can quickly become "getting done in time for the next conference call." Maintain focus.
  • Stating your position means you've drawn a line in the sand for everyone to see. The biggest point in the research is that once people have stated a position, they tend to defend it rather than honestly assess conflicting information. Try running the webmeeting or call by starting with the criteria a good solution will have, rather than asking for everyone's solution to a problem. It's easier to be objective about a position that won't meet those criteria than it is about your precious ideas.
  • Hearing someone else's position locks you in place, too. Even if you don't have a stated position you begin to assess what you've heard -- and it isn't always on the quality of the evidence. Politics plays a big role in these situations. (Does anyone really believe that the boss or top salesman's position is going to be looked at as dispassionately as the intern's?) Your opinion of the speaker's point (and often it bears an eerie resemblance to what you're already thinking) dictates your willingness to step up and raise questions that could make all the difference in the quality of the income.
  • Online, it's hard enough to get a word in edgewise or even get people to say anything at all without creating conflict. Why is meeting online even more impacted by these dynamics? Because it's harder to get people to offer quality input in the first place. Unless you as the meeting facilitator make a special effort, it's very easy for people to lose focus and put effort into their email rather than the task at hand, so good ideas and conflicting points get left unstated. Since so many people are quietly wishing the clock to speed up so they can get on with their "real" work already, why drag it out by continuing discussion if the decision is predetermined?
As the meeting leader, it's important that you keep people focused on the outcome and its criteria and find ways to encourage as much feedback from as many sources as possible before people state their opinions or solutions.

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photo by flickr user striatic CC 2.0