By Stefano Mastrogiacomo
“We have too many meetings.” If you think or heard that, know that you're not alone.
Atlassian - the collaborative software company, reported that on average, 50% of meetings are considered unproductive and a waste of time (Atlassian's infographic).
This lack of productivity results in an estimated $37 billion USD in salary costs in the United States alone. It’s easy to assume that the real global cost is much, much higher.
This sense of meeting fatigue we experience strangely echoes back to a booklet recently declassified by the CIA. Published in 1944, The Simple Sabotage Field Manual described ways for everyday citizens to sabotage the US’ World War II enemies.
The manual (available on CIA's website) suggests simple behavioural techniques such as:
When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.”
Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible - never less than five.
Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
It’s troubling to think that what used to be considered sabotage techniques some 80 years ago, has become part of the everyday routine for many of us. Has the workplace been taken over by patented saboteurs?
Of course not, organizations haven’t been flooded with intentional saboteurs. Data leads us to another hypothesis: that we are collectively negligent with the very basics of teamwork. We seem to embark on big and ambitious projects, neglecting the quality of our small, everyday interactions.
In fact, the CIA did an objectively good job in identifying how to destroy a team’s productivity by acting in the small, at the level of team interactions. The techniques they suggest undermine two of the most fundamental requirements of collective performance, technically described years later by leading academics and researchers.
More precisely the concept of psychological safety: the belief that the team is safe enough for interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson, 1999).
The team is a safe place. Members carefully nurture strong, trust-based relationships.
Symptoms of psychological safety neglect:
Psychological safety –a variation of trust– was introduced to the organizational sciences in 1965 by Schein and Bennis, both professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management at that time, and continues to be empirically developed today by Amy Edmondson, Professor at Harvard Business School.
2. Mutual Knowledge
Or a team's common ground: the sum of team members’ mutual, common, or joint knowledge, beliefs and suppositions.
Information flows transparently among team members. Knowledge is shared.
Symptoms of common ground neglect:
Empirically developed by Herbert Clark, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, the concept of common ground has been introduced by the philosopher Robert Stalnaker in 1978, an MIT Professor who based his work on older notions that included common knowledge (Lewis, 1969), and mutual knowledge (Schiffer, 1972)
Meetings seem to be problematic but we believe that they're not. Meetings are just the place and time where both these neglects are made public. Criticizing meetings is like complaining about the plate if we don't like a dish. Meetings as such are neither good nor bad, it all depends on what we do with them.
To improve our effectiveness as a team, what should be reviewed is:
It’s not a victory to have fewer, shorter, and lighter meetings if business problems remain unaddressed.
Want to learn how to become more effective as a team, both in terms of joint efficiency and creativity?
Try the red pill (psychological safety) and the blue pill (common ground) as a team. Even more, make sure that every team member is accountable for nurturing these two requirements.
Both pills are needed to solve complex problems together in a time of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA model). Team innovation starts by building and nurturing a solid team alignment and a safe climate. Guess where? During these team meetings that are so criticized, and rightly so.
A large internal study conducted by Google highlighted that psychological safety is the main enabler of high-performance teamwork (Duhigg, 2016). Team members engage in a productive dialogue that fosters the learning behaviors required to understand the environment, the clients and solve problems together.
Team members remain constantly aligned on what needs to be achieved and how. Execution of tasks is more efficient and personal contributions integrate more successfully. Teams with higher common ground perform tasks 4 to 12 times faster than teams with no or insufficient common ground.(*)
We spent a decade designing simple tools to increase the team’s ground and build safer team environments. Plus, all tools are in stock and available for you to download for free.
Three practical tools to build a safer team climate and foster psychological safety within your own teams.
The Team Contract
Helps define the team rules and set the boundaries for what’s ok and what’s not. Jointly address behaviors, values, decision-making, communication, and frame expectations in terms of failure.
The Fact Finder
Ask powerful questions that transform unproductive assumptions, judgements, limitations, and generalizations into observable facts and experiences.
The Nonviolent Requests Guide
Helps manage conflict constructively by reducing emotionally devastating attacks. Express legitimate negative feelings by using proper and empathetic wording.
How to clarify the team activities and create higher common ground easily.
The Team Alignment Map
Align together on the team mission, the objectives to be achieved by whom and how.
Use the TAM as a co-planning tool to boost the teams’ common ground and engage people from the start.
Download the Team Alignment Toolkit
High-Impact Tools for Teams, Wiley, 2021.
Illustrations by Severine Assous and BlexBolex.
Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge University Press.
Clark, H. H., & Brennan, S. E. (1991). Grounding in communication.
Clark, H. H., & Wilkes-Gibbs, D. (1986). Referring as a collaborative process. Cognition, 22(1), 1-39.
Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times Magazine, 26, 2016.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta‐analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113-165.
Lewis, D. K. (1969). Convention: A philosophical study. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
* Measured by TeamAlignment.Co using a variation of the tangram game (+100 pairs) presented in Clark, H. H., & Wilkes-Gibbs, D. (1986). Referring as a collaborative process. Cognition, 22(1), 1–39.
Schein, E. H., & Bennis, W. G. (1965). Personal and organizational change through group methods: The laboratory approach. New York: Wiley.
Schiffer, S. (1972). Meaning. Oxford University Press.
Stalnaker, R. C. (1978). Assertion. In Pragmatics (pp. 315-332). Brill.