We all know that an organization’s culture doesn’t spring from the lofty sentiments on a website. Culture emerges from what we do together and how we do it.
Meetings are concentrated culture in action.
Nowhere is it easier to see the beliefs that drive a team forward and the beliefs that hold it back. If the culture encourages power struggles, blame, and evasion, you’ll see it when they meet. If they like to have fun, or if they’re passionate about the work, you’ll see that too.
In the strongest cultures, you’ll see meetings crafted to drive business results and put the organization’s desired values into practice.
In over a decade of research into successful meeting practices, I’ve learned to watch for four ways companies seize cultural ownership in their meetings. If your company’s meetings aren’t reflecting the culture you’re trying to build, consider embracing these practices.
1. Strong cultures adopt intentional language.
What you call a meeting and how you describe what you’re doing in the meeting changes how people feel. In social psychology circles, they call this use of intentional language priming or framing. The way you frame a meeting sets the tone and the boundaries, and shifts how everyone shows up.
Here’s an example.
At Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, one person takes on the “Monkey Minder” job in each of their “Huddles,” or weekly team meetings. They call the meeting a Huddle because it evokes the spirit of a game. The team meets to “check the score” (a.k.a. business revenue), celebrate wins, and get pumped for the the next play (a.k.a. the next week’s work).
The “Monkey Minder” title, given to the person tracking action items, evokes pictures of a friendly zookeeper working to gently corral mayhem. The Monkey Minder is a well-meaning Man in the Yellow Hat, trying to keep Curious George out of trouble.
That same job could have been called the Action Item Tracker (listless, boring), the Accountability Cop (scary, perhaps a little badass) or even the Guardian of Getting Things Done (very Knight’s-Quest-meets-hipster business). The task is the same no matter what name you give it, but your enthusiasm for taking it on will be very different.
2. Strong cultures establish meaningful ground rules.
Meeting ground rules, or norms, can be strictly procedural — things like always starting on time or turning off cell phones — but they can also spell out the ways the organization wants people to approach conflict, accountability, decision-making, and more. Culture comes from how people behave, and ground rules give you an opportunity to clarify what this behavior should be.
At our company, we’re fans of Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements.” Our meeting ground rules give us specific ways to live these agreements in practice. One of the agreements — “Don’t Make Assumptions” — translates directly into a ground rule that expects everyone to question what they don’t understand, to invite constructive conflict, and to engage differences of opinion with curiosity.
3. Strong cultures develop preferred rituals.
Some companies design meetings that are nothing but ritual. Awards ceremonies, virtual happy hours – each of these gatherings works to strengthen the group’s shared identity.
Great rituals don’t have to take up a whole meeting, though. Many of the most effective rituals provide meaning to the start and end meetings.
For example, the Canadian government convened a series of meetings between First Nations representatives and government ministers with a goal of improving relations. The first few were rough. The issues involved go way back, everyone had a vested interest to protect, and the discussion was both acrimonious and nonproductive.
Then, they changed how they began the meetings. Instead of just calling the meeting to order and launching into the agenda, they invited a First Nations elder to open meetings with a smudging. Smudging is a traditional ceremony used to clear negative energy and bless a space. The smudging had a transformative effect on subsequent meetings. Ministers who had been defensive began to listen, ask questions, and offer solutions.
As one witness related, “It was amazing. Such a small thing, but it made a huge difference.”
4. Strong cultures experiment and improve.
Small changes create big ripples. When a team changes how they meet, they change their culture – and not always in the way they expect. The most successful meeting cultures include everyone in the experiment, explaining why they’re meeting the way they do and then inviting the team to join in the pursuit of ever better ways.
Here’s an example from RSF Social Finance, a group of investment bankers.
A young banker had a stellar first year, so the boss granted him a favor. “I’d like to start our team meetings with a minute of silence,” the young banker requested. Though doubtful, the boss acquiesced. “All right. We’ll try it, but just for one month. If it doesn’t work, we stop.”
At the next meeting, the high-powered investment professionals powered off their phones, shut their eyes, and spent one minute in silence.
At the end of the month, the boss asked the group if they should continue with the practice or go back to how they started meetings before. The group unanimously agreed to keep the practice, suggesting that it might be even better if they spent more minutes in silence.
Over time, the team found they made better decisions when they were centered. The company’s performance improved.
They also started spending time together outside of work. They began practices centered in gratitude and random acts of kindness. They shared stories about their families. They became more cooperative and less competitive, and their job satisfaction soared.
It was a small experiment that the team agreed to try, and agreed to alter when they saw a way to improve, that had a big positive ripple effect.
When I share stories like these, people tell me they wish they had something like that for their team meetings.
Of course, you can have meetings like this with your team. Perhaps your building isn’t set up for smudging ceremonies, but you can begin with a moment of silence. Or a prayer. Or a quick jog around the room. Or a chat about your favorite moment in the past week. Or a coffee tasting.
Together, you get to create the environment you need for success, and seizing cultural ownership for your meetings provides a simple, effective way to go about it.
J. Elise Keith is the CEO of Lucid Meetings and the author of “Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization.” She writes the Inc.com Ask the Meeting Maven column and is an expert commentator on all things meetings (as seen in BBC News, SHRM, Industry Week, and the LA Times). As a speaker, educator, and enthusiastic champion for excellent meetings, Keith brings practical meeting inspiration to business leaders worldwide.