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Coach at work: 'Our new supervisor doesn't like team meetings'

We put your workplace conundrums to an executive coach.

Our new supervisor doesn't like team meetings. We are a multidisciplinary research team (mostly PhDs) and while no one here needs a lot of supervision, I feel like some of the juice has gone out of the team and the work since our weekly meetings disappeared. I raised this with her and her response was: "I just don't like meetings." End of story. How can I get her to realise the error of her ways?

In high-functioning teams, everyone speaks and everyone listens.
In high-functioning teams, everyone speaks and everyone listens. Photo: Supplied

The coach:

Poorly run team meetings are a waste of time, and avoiding them like crazy makes sense if you've never had the pleasure of attending a buzzing and engaged staff get-together. The thing is, first-rate meetings don't happen by accident; they happen in teams where someone influential, usually the manager, really values and is curious about how to turn a useless talkfest into the secret sauce of high-performing teams. Great meetings are linked to great teamwork, of which more later.

I can guess at the causes of your manager's reluctance – avoiding your team is a great coaching topic – but let's keep the discussion focused on your role as her able and responsive direct report. From here to a manager who's more engaged with her staff? Let's spend a moment walking through the Tao of Meetings so you can provide her with some information.

Executive coach Jacqueline Jago.
Executive coach Jacqueline Jago. Photo: Sari Sutton

The frequency of team meetings depends on the nature of the work: where a high level of collaboration is involved, as in a multidisciplinary research project, frequency will need to be high to keep the flow of ideas, information and relational goodwill hummin' like a happy hive. So the coach in me is all about meetings – the daily stand-up, the weekly meeting, the monthly review – for the good reason that high performance rests on high engagement. And I'm here to tell you that engagement is not a Thing in a team unless communication (short, frequent, mutual) is a Big Thing in that same team. High levels of communication make people happier, more engaged and more effective at work. When communication is poor, the opposite is seen: unhappy, disengaged teams that produce fewer or poorer-quality outputs than they are really capable of.

In high-functioning teams, everyone speaks and everyone listens. This means that an optimal meeting encourages equal contributions from all members. To some extent, hierarchy is suspended for its duration and, where possible, the chair is rotated. As Alex Pentland has shown in the Harvard Business Review, optimal group dynamics look like a circle, with lines of communication going in all directions. Each line is of similar thickness to indicate the length that a person speaks, and the level of energy in their contribution.

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Extroverts and senior team members are moderating any tendency to talk too much; and introverts and junior team members are self-correcting for any tendency to fade into the background. In all of this, the leader is watching the meeting dynamic and inviting contributions from team members who may otherwise not speak. She is a servant, rather than a hero.

Without discipline and focus, your average meeting can have the look and feel of a Sunday sermon: all simply gather, and many are sad. The team leader/manager talks. All then disperse, and go on more or less as before. This joyless meeting style is both a symptom and a cause of hierarchical or "command" cultures. Hierarchies have their benefits, but high staff engagement and responsiveness to "users" (i.e. citizen Jane or Josef) are not among them. Hence the craze for agile method, which can be summed up in four words: meet all the time.

Provide information. Communicate impacts. Ask how you can help her. Offer to convene team meetings in her place in consultation with her – and earn the kind of trust in you that will see her saying "yes" to your suggestions. Reclusive managers are more common that you'd think: introverts, procrastinators, and newbs will all find reasons to avoid their teams; and managers not performing at the level required by their role (and yes, their teams have noticed) can be extremely hard to pin down. Your best bet is to do your best to engage her, and to model loyalty to the manager in front of the rest of the team. Some useful information about what a good team meeting looks like might turn her around. Well done, you, for stepping up.

Jacqueline Jago is a Canberra-based writer, speaker and coach. Send your questions to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.

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