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Do Meetings Right: The Neuroscience of Great Meetings

20/05/2013 11:49


A while ago I was facilitating a workshop for the leadership group of a large automotive manufacturer’s senior marketing team when their General Manager suddenly slammed the table in front of him and shouted “Ahhh, now it makes sense!” We had been discussing some basic principles of neuroleadership and I had just explained how our brains perceive and process social threats and rewards in much the same way and through the same neural networks as physical threats and rewards (see Your Caveman Brain: Running from Predators at Work).

Puzzled by his obvious excitement I asked him to share what had clearly been some kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment. He explained that they had more than a hundred dealerships all over Southern Africa but that one of these had consistently been outperforming the rest. Each month this dealership sold more new cars than any of the others in spite of the fact that it wasn't located in a particularly affluent area and it had the same product range as everyone else. Eager to understand what the key to their success was, he had set up a meeting with the dealership’s Dealer Principle and asked him if he could name just one thing which they did differently from everyone else and that could account for their success.

Keeping it Positive

“I expected some smart strategy or new marketing approach but the guy just smiled and said ‘it’s simple – we don’t allow any negativity during meetings’, the General Manager recalled.

Strategic Leadership InstituteIt turned out that what this Dealer Principle had done was to change meetings into predominantly “positive” events. He took great care to make sure that whatever issues had to be discussed – be it day-to-day stuff or more complicated planning sessions – it was always handled in a constructive manner. He deliberately looked for achievements and positive behaviours and used team meetings as opportunities to acknowledge, affirm and celebrate these. Negative issues such as conflict or undesirable behaviour are dealt with during separate sessions in which only those who are directly involved, participate.

I am not sure if the particular Dealer Principle was aware of this or not, but what he had been doing was applying neuroleadership. By changing meetings (and I could imagine other social exchanges too) into mostly positive interactions he was minimizing “threat” responses and maximizing “engage” responses in the brains of his team members (see Neuroleadership: How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace). This enabled them to perform at optimum levels, hence their good results. The General Manager’s “ah-ha” moment came when he understood from a brain science perspective how the Dealer Principle’s leadership style could literally account for his team’s superior performance.

Common Meeting Monsters

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This meeting experience is very different from that of most employees I talk to about meetings. Typical negative meeting connotations include fear of being “put on the spot” and not able to produce an appropriate answer in time; embarrassment when belittled in front of their peers; feeling insignificant when not being listened to; frustration when there is no clear agenda or purpose; aggravation when being bullied into decisions; feeling manipulated during power struggles; feeling humiliated after of public rebukes; and sheer boredom and irritation at being forced to sit through never-ending sessions in which they have no direct interest and which often end with no clear solutions.

David Rock, author and organizational development consultant, devised the SCARF-Model of social needs by using research from social neuroscience to identifying how “threats” and “rewards” are typically triggered in our brains. He concluded that  social “threats” are triggered when our status (position in the “pecking order”) is being compromised; when facing uncertainty; when we experience a lack of autonomy (feeling that you have no control); being rejected or excluded from the group (a threat to our need for relatedness); and being treated in an unfair manner. It is no wonder then that so many people experience a “fight or flight” response even when just thinking about the next meeting!

The negative impact of participating in meetings in this condition could be massive if considered that according to several studies, the average employee spends about a third of their working time in meetings. In corporate America alone, an estimated 25 million meetings takes place each day. Long and boring meetings would have the opposite effect of the “fight or flight” and see participants’ brains go into a “slumber mode” which would of course also mean they’re not functioning at their optimum level (in one study 91% of participants admitted to daydreaming and 39% said they have dozed off during meetings). However, being in a “fight or flight” condition may at least to some extend explain the results of a Microsoft survey involving 38 000 participants in 200 countries which found 69 percent of all meetings to be ineffective. .

Applying Neuroleadership to Get it Right

As with so many other aspects of organization or group success, effective leadership is the key to effective meetings. By using the SCARF Model to avoid triggering social threats and conduct meetings in a way that would activate social “rewards” in stead, leaders and managers could help optimize their followers’ performance and meeting experience. If you’re ready to start doing meetings better, here are ten suggestions from a neuroleadership perspective (with the relevant SCARF social needs in brackets):

  • Create an open meeting culture: It is important for all participants to feel that their contributions will be appreciated and not used to judge or belittle them. (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Prepare participants: If participants know what will be expected of them during the meeting, they will be able to prepare and contribute more sensibly.  (Certainty, Autonomy)
  • Clarify the purpose: Not having a clear purpose if one of the most common reasons for failed meetings. Participants need to know if the purpose is to do planning; solve a problem; make a decision; be informed of a decision; receive updates; etc.. (Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness)
  • Set the ‘Big Picture’: When possible, help participants to see how the current discussion or activity contributes to the larger vision, mission and strategies of the group. People are motivated when they can see that what they’re doing has meaning and that something positive will come from investing their investing their time and energy in the meeting. (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness)
  • Facilitate engagement: With a few exceptions the purpose of meetings is to get individuals to contribute their ideas, expertise, and insight. Structure your meetings to be open dialogues and minimize one-way information dumping. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Embrace diversity: Get to know your team members’ strengths and unique personalities. Then facilitate meetings in a way to enable everyone – from introverted analysts to extroverted optimists – to contribute.  This will help to avoid “groupthink” and stimulate creative thinking. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Clarify how each decision will be made: As a leader you will make some decisions on your own and involve your team members in the making of others. The key here is to know when which option would be the best and to let your team members know what decision making process they can expect. If you aim to achieve ownership of and commitment to decisions, here are three decision  making styles to consider (ranging from the least to the most effective):
  1. Directive: Make a decision and announce it or announce a decision made by senior management. (Certainty)
  2. Participative: Make a decision, announce it, and challenge participants to change your view. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness)
  3. Collaborative: Team members work together to select the best possible solution from all available options. Everyone participates in the process and agrees to support the final decision. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness) 
    NOTE: In some cases democratic decision making can also be considered where a final decision is made by voting. However, be careful for uninformed “mob-decisions” as a democratic process only works when all voters have access to all the relevant information.
  • Give recognition and celebrate wins: Receiving recognition in front of our peers is very motivational and helps build trust. Find reasons to publicly give credit to participants and to celebrate team wins – even the small ones. (Status, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Schedule time for social interaction: Yes I’m serious. This doesn’t mean spending hours chatting about your dog, but as social beings we all have a need for regular social interaction and meetings can help fulfill this need. Show genuine interest in people’s lives and allow some sharing of personal issues or views – this will help build team unity and trust. (Status, Relatedness)
  • Manage disruptive behavior:  Disruptive behaviour by an individual or group can derail a meeting. However, be extremely careful not to publicly humiliate or offend transgressors. Depending on the situation and team, you can use meeting “ground rules” These situations have to be managed on a case-by-case basis, whether through the use of group dynamics to change the offending behaviour, the leader pulling aside and confronting the offender(s), or an established process. (Certainty, Fairness)

I hope that this provides you with some practical ideas on how to apply social neuroscience in your workplace. I would love to hear from you – please share your views, experiences and insights on how we can transform our workplaces into more effective and brain-friendly environments!

References and Further Reading:

Bandiera, O., Pratt, A. (2012). Executive Time Use Project: Span of Control and Span of Activity. Harvard Business School Working Paper -
Klubeck, J. S. (n.d.). The Expense of Ineffective Meetings. Wolf Management Consultants -
McDonough-Taub, G. (2012). Top 10 Meeting Mistakes. CNBC.Com -
Moncrief, G. (July 2013). Meetings: Time Wasted or Well Spent? Ayers Report Newsletter -,0,w
Silverman, R. E. Where's the Boss? Trapped in a Meeting. Wall Street Journal -
Two wasted days at work. (2005). MoneyCNN.Com - Clonidine Toprol XL Topamax