The managing director is frustrated because so much time is being wasted in meetings. He describes a lack of discipline: people arrive too late, go outside the door during meetings, read their laptop as an aside, write emails, decide nothing and all meetings take forever. He believes there is a lack of knowledge about how meetings are organised professionally and would like to purchase a ‘meetings management training’ for his managers (around 250 people).
We meet with the entire management team. The gentlemen are relaxed, in a good mood and explain that they wish to support their line managers. The organisation is highly dynamic, there are many young people employed. Trainees have responsible jobs; many are employed here in their first position since completing their studies; everyone seems ambitious and motivated. The average age of the managers is around 30 years. There is, therefore, a lack of experience and knowledge but it appears that this can be changed. We introduce our toolbox for Meetings Management and also suggest undertaking additional presentation and moderation skills training. This suggestion is taken up.
We first take part in diverse meetings in which we observe that there is really not much discipline to be seen. There is an agenda but they discuss other questions, arrive late, spontaneously take breaks and interrupt each other. Nevertheless, they have fun; they enjoy the exchange and their colleagues. We decide to start with three groups of twelve people each and then see how the meetings change. As we expected, it is a great pleasure to work with highly motivated young people. The participants are enthusiastic, participate actively and challenge each other. The marketing department designs a poster with rules for meetings, which fit with the corporate identity. We are very satisfied with the result and prepare the next appointments. Nevertheless, we attend meetings once more and are disappointed to notice that hardly anything that we have taught has been applied. Only the posters are hanging prominently in all the rooms. I am frustrated and puzzled; what have we done wrong? I make the decision to look at this more closely, before we continue as before. I seek conversations with the participants and want to understand what is happening beneath the surface. Accordingly, I ask the following questions:
- Who has a career here?
- What do you have to do for this?
- How do you get a good reputation?
- How do you show your competence?
- What is rewarded?
- When are you overlooked?
- How does the boss behave?
- How do you get the really exciting, prestigious jobs?
The more I hear, the clearer it is to me where we have gone wrong: breaking the rules is rewarded here. Those who stand out are positively perceived. Those who have time are not important. If you are not in stress, you are not contributing anything meaningful. Interrupting and pushing yourself forward are signs of motivation and assertiveness. Service according to the rules is something for the minions.
I quickly realise that conformity and adherence to the rules undermine their status and, therefore, I seek a talk with the managing director. I have the impression that he and his senior management colleagues are role models for success and that the meetings culture will only be able to change, if they, themselves, begin to stick to the rules, use the toolbox and steer their own behaviour in accordance with it. As I tell the managing director this, we look at each other and start to laugh. This thought suddenly seems absurd to us both, because, in this organisation the ‘pushing against the boundaries’ is the measure of all things. Therefore, we give up the training programme for the reason that it would not fit in with the organisation.
It becomes clear to the management and to me, that the company, according to their opinion, lives from chaos and is successful and dynamic precisely for this reason. As long as rules are associated with this, it could lead to the firm becoming authoritarian and thus meeting management is only feasible for the administrative departments. In the areas of controlling and logistics, the rules have established themselves to some extent but the rest of the troop remain ‘creative’ and, with it, the dispute is at an end.
At what point do we operate with rules, and where do we respond situationally? Every organisation must decide this and form patterns for it. The organisation we advised here is a playground that is very informally organised. It attracts young, independent people who have a high requirement for self-efficacy and self-determination. On the surface, they wish to have order so they can save time. But in fact, disorder is linked with freedom, autonomy, creativity and status, whereas order and rules are linked with boredom, bureaucracy, limitations and reluctance (see also the guiding processes of psychodynamics and regulation of needs). Therefore, if in doubt, one decides in favour of breaching rules, in order to preserve the motivation of the employees. This one-sidedness, in turn, always leads to much chaos and consequently to burnout and states of exhaustion.
So far, though, the organisation can live very well with this cost, even if there is a high level of staff turnover and hardly anyone over the age of forty remains in the company. Therefore, a conscious decision has been made not to alter anything in this approach, at least not with the ‘creative’ ones. However, now and again a ‘bureaucrat’ is offered a promotion. This is a signal that compliance with rules is rewarded, at least in some areas and that the organisation has begun to occupy both poles of the guiding process Handling the Present.
To protect our clients and customers, and to preserve their privacy, no real names are used and all descriptions of organisations and areas of work are avoided. However, the cases are real and have played out as described.