Stop answering email and listen!

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Have you ever had one of those moments where you just want to grab someone by the lapels and shake them like a sock in the possession of a Rottweiler puppy? This happens when I speak to someone about how well (or likely, not) their team works on conference calls and virtual meetings.

The following is a true (pretty close to verbatim) exchange:

CLIENT: Our online meetings are terrible. Nobody participates and everyone just puts the phone on mute and answers their email.

ME: How do you know?

CLIENT: Nobody talks. Nobody has any questions. You can hear crickets on the phone.

ME: How do you know they're on email?

CLIENT: Because that's what I do when it's not my meeting.

ME: Why do you do that?

CLIENT: Because our meetings are boring.

ME: But you expect people to pay attention and participate when it's your meeting.

CLIENT: Of course. We have important things to get done and we can't get together.

ME: So why don't you participate when it's someone else's meeting?

CLIENT: Huh? I told you, they're so boring….

At that point my brain started to throb in my cranium and made it hard to remember the exact words. You get the drift, though. This person was complaining about people doing something that they do themselves every chance they get, and didn't see the irony.

It's pretty safe to say that nothing good is going to happen when people are perfectly comfortable expecting one behavior from others while demonstrating quite the opposite themselves. Yet I see it all the time. Why does this happen?

Basically, this client was in a culture caught in a vicious cycle: the meetings were boring so people didn't contribute or pay attention, which resulted in boring, pointless meetings which resulted in…well, the conversation I just shared with you.

How do you break the cycle? There are three things that have to happen:

1. People need to understand what's expected of them. Do your meeting leaders set explicit expectations for how and why people will contribute? Is it stated in the agenda and run-up to the meeting? Is it explicitly stated so no one can claim ignorance?

2. Participants need to be held accountable - if they don't exhibit the desired behavior, what are the consequences? This can be as simple as calling on people by name, or asking a question and waiting for someone to respond.

3. Someone has to model the desired behaviors as both leader and participant. If "everyone" tunes out and avoids participating, people have a valid excuse for not participating and tuning out. If someone (like, oh I don't know….you?) consistently exhibits engaged, active behavior then it's no longer "everyone" any more. It's specific people.

As we've said so many times, Webmeetings and virtual conferences don't have to stink. Yes, they too often do, but that's a result of choices made.

Oh, and if you get an email from someone during the meeting? Don't answer it. And shame on you for looking. Keep your mind on the task at hand.

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