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Why the Boss Shouldn’t Run Meetings

By: Martin Murphy
Last updated 12/19/2012

Meetings have survived as the primary collaborative process because it is assumed that an individual, once promoted to a leadership position, already knows how to effectively leverage human capital. The facts don’t support this—all of us still get trapped in meetings that squander time we’ll never recover. While the number and complexity of issues that require resolution accelerates, unsatisfactory meeting outcomes are still an everyday event.

For most executives, managers, and supervisors, the meeting is the only work management tool they’ve ever used for collaboration. The drill is ingrained: Everyone gathers in a conference room, and the most senior executive both conducts and participates in the meeting at the same time. This wasteful collaborative ritual takes place millions of times daily in organizations around the globe. And, while its shortcomings are acknowledged, it has been the principal means for collaboration over the course of many generations.

Granted, we now have distance conferencing capabilities, but digital conferencing platforms are basically delivery vehicles—their ultimate effectiveness as a collaborative tool is dependent upon users having the ability to leverage the intellectual and creative potential of the individuals participating in the dialogue.

If managers are doing a poor job of collaborating in person-to-person-gatherings—and be assured that they are—digital collaborative performance will be even less effective. Right now, this reality is overshadowed by excitement over the diversity of impressive delivery vehicles and platforms for distance conferencing. That excitement will prove hollow unless we also upgrade the human element of the collaborative equation.

The most senior person in attendance definitely should not run a work session. As a matter of fact, if there’s more than one person in the room who knows how to facilitate, the task should go to the most junior. This frees up the greatest number of senior personnel to contribute to content.

As already mentioned, conventional meetings are characterized by the ranking manager both running the session and participating in content discussions. This is the main reason meetings are not as productive as they could be: You simply cannot do a decent job of facilitating a meeting and participate in the content of the meeting at the same time. Facilitating a meeting is a full-time job.

If there’s any doubt in your mind about the logic of this practice, consider the fact that it’s easier to acquire the skills needed to run a productive workflow session than it is to accumulate the knowledge, experience, and wisdom brought to a session by the CEO or other senior managers.

When the most senior executive in the room runs a meeting, an array of counterproductive interpersonal dynamics is triggered that impedes optimum collaboration. While politicking and fear-based reticence rank high on that list, the single biggest reason meetings fail is that the individual running the session isn’t familiar with collaboration practices.

A facilitator creates a level playing field, where input from everyone is encouraged and given the same consideration. Thus, a normally domineering boss is neutralized and prevented from unintentionally intimidating lesser souls so that they don’t contribute.

Most collaboration problems occur in the arena of process, not content. This happens because most managers focus on content and ignore process. While content and process are equally important, few managers understand the importance of separating them or possess the ability to do so.

The fundamental purpose of meetings is to utilize the collective human capital of a group to get things accomplished. When that opportunity is properly presented, good things happen and even the most timid are motivated to contribute; the energy in the room sparkles; radical ideas and breakthrough solutions (which in a normal meeting wouldn’t see the light of day) are solicited and suggested without fear of judgment.

© 2013 Martin Murphy. Excerpted and adapted from No More Pointless Meetings: Breakthrough Sessions That Will Revolutionize the Way Your Work. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Martin Murphy is founder and president of QuantumMeetings, a management education consultancy. He is the author of No More Pointless Meetings: Breakthrough Sessions That Will Revolutionize the Way Your Work (AMACOM, 2013) from which this article was adapted.