How Psychology Can Improve Your Meetings
What would your next meeting say if it were on the couch? The issues corporate psychologists probe about meetings focus on how human behavior can affect return on investment: Can a strategic planning meeting held in another state be justified? Is there value in pulling the team across town to brainstorm growth ideas? How can we accomplish our meeting goals in half the time? How can I develop a relationship with a client that will get his business? Most of these essential new-economy concerns can be answered, or at least informed, by corporate psychologists.
Use Offsite Locations for Strategic Planning and Creativity
When should a meeting be held offsite? Psychologists suggest that this decision should be based on the meeting’s purpose. Some tasks are better accomplished in person, while others may be handled virtually. For example, discussion or brainstorming is most effective face-to-face, while the dissemination of information is more efficiently delivered electronically. Psychological principles shed light on why.
“Offsite meetings are particularly valuable when you want people to think about the future and planning, rather than the day-to-day,” says William Berman, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist in Connecticut. He explains the term state-dependent learning, which means that people think differently based on their context. If they meet in a conference room where everyday tasks loom nearby, participants’ minds will be distracted by the mundane work on their desks. Conversely, if they’re away from the office, they can focus on a bigger-picture initiative, such as planning and brainstorming.
Evaluate whether the meeting room suits your purpose. Natural light is a plus, psychologically speaking, unless the view is distracting. And it’s up to the meeting leader to create psychological boundaries around the room, informing participants if phones, laptops and texting are off-limits.
Once you’ve decided to go offsite, use that to your advantage. Expectancy theory says that expectations create motivation. Billie Blair, Ph.D., president and CEO of Change Strategists in Los Angeles, suggests that an offsite meeting sends a message to participants that the meeting is important. This expectation motivates employees to take the gathering seriously and to perform at a higher level.
Build Stronger Realtionships with Activity, not Conversation
Built into many meetings—especially those held offsite—is the opportunity to network and build relationships. Yet this can be one of the most stressful challenges for executives, even those with well-honed social skills. How can you make this time work most effectively for you?
“Talking is probably one of the least effective ways to build relationships and trust. You build those by engaging in a shared activity that creates a stronger bond,” says Berman. Consider, then, that the classic cocktail-networking gathering may not be the most efficient venue for creating business relationships. Instead, make full use of other activities that may be planned around a meeting: sports tournaments, team-building exercises, or participation on panels or committees with those whom you’d like to know.
There will always be times when you’re standing with a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand, looking at a room full of potentially valuable contacts. A few strategies based on psychology may be in order. First, consider arriving early to size people up as they enter; and if you know in advance that you want to meet a particular individual with whom you have a friend in common, ask ahead of time for an introduction.
Most important, experts say, once you’re meeting others, focus on creating a personal connection with you on the listening end. “Psychological research shows it’s your ability to elicit things from others that makes you endearing to them and makes them remember you,” says Blair. Other strategies for making an immediate connection include offering a compliment or searching for similarities. You’ll know you’re successful when eye contact shows engagement and your conversational partner shows interest in you, too. Sometimes, though—no matter how incisive your questions or how flattering your compliment—the new contact will be scanning the room, clearly not engaged.
The problem may not reflect at all on your networking skills. “There are always going to be 20 percent of people who are self-absorbed or rude,” says Karissa Thacker, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist in New York City. Her best advice is to move on: “What I see happening is that people will have that kind of experience, then feel deflated, and then it impacts their next interaction. That’s what you don’t want to have happen.”
Prevent Bad Behavior with Clear Objectives
Meetings don’t usually bring out the best in people, but much can be done by a wise leader to prevent power plays and unproductive behavior. With an eye toward prevention, nothing is more important to a meeting than an agenda that is prepared in advance, say corporate psychologists. “The psychological message that gets communicated when you have an agenda is that this meeting has been thought out, there are key points and key objectives. That really calibrates people’s understanding and expectations of the meeting,” says Susan Battley, Ph.D., a corporate and leadership psychologist in East Setauket, N.Y.
Thacker says her favorite recommendation to clients is that they color-code each agenda item to note its status as up for information, discussion or decision.
“That clarity of structure prevents a lot of bad behavior and interpersonal mud that happens during the meeting, and it lets you get what you want to get out of the meeting,” she explains.