Career Coach: How to avoid killing creativity in meetings

September 9, 2012

Another meeting to attend? If you were planning to offer some new ideas for how to do something at your firm, forget it. The boss has other ideas. He or she may say they are looking forward to meeting with your committee, hearing the group’s input and blessing its continued progress. But, what really happens is something else.

It might go something like this: Your committee, which was charged to investigate a new product or direction for the firm, has completed its preliminary research. As the leader of the group, you feel good about what you have accomplished so you are holding a mid-term progress review to update the boss.

You put together a detailed Power Point presentation to highlight the committee’s progress and direction. You expect (hope) the boss will recognize the group’s incredibly hard work (it wasn’t easy to get everyone on the team to buy in and finally all be going in the same direction), listen respectfully and attentively while you explain what you have done, and then offer some input or suggestions at the end of your presentation. You know your boss is pretty innovative, so maybe he or she will offer some alternative ideas or creative suggestions.

But, what happens instead? As soon as you get to the second slide, the boss immediately interrupts to explain why your idea will not work or what you should have done instead, letting you know that he or she doesn’t understand the idea and definitely doesn’t think it can work. This continues on each and every slide, and after about 20 minutes of the constant interruptions and “killer phrases” from the boss, you feel deflated, frustrated and ready to bail on the project. Looking around at your committee members you can see they feel the same way you do — their enthusiasm for the committee’s work is rapidly fading.

Why does this happen in so many meetings today? If you ask bosses, they will be more likely to say that the committee did not fully do their work, instead of admitting their own part in killing the creativity and success of the meeting. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Managers can encourage creativity in meetings. Here’s how:

Determine the purpose of the meeting and state it. Maybe the purpose is to review progress to date and just share ideas (without evaluation of those ideas at this point). The purpose should guide the structure and type of meeting that is conducted. Have an assigned facilitator, especially if they can keep the boss in check.

Adopt norms for how the meeting should be run. For example, saying you will throw out all ideas without evaluating them might be one norm. Allowing everyone to offer ideas might be another norm.

Listen respectfully and attentively to others in the meeting, especially to those who are presenting or offering their explanations for various ideas. According to research by the Center for Creative Leadership, many leaders take for granted their ability to listen to others and are often surprised when someone tells them they don’t listen well and are impatient, judgmental, arrogant or unaware. Studies that show that leaders do 80 percent of the talking in their interactions with others, despite the fact that they think they do a lot of listening.

The CCL offers a great practical guide called “Active listening: Improve your ability to listen and lead” that offers tips for leaders to enhance their listening skills. These include:

Pay attention. Get comfortable being silent; use the meeting as an opportunity to learn from the other party.

Hold judgment. Suspend judgment, hold your criticism, avoid arguing or selling your point of view right away; be patient.

Reflect. Use paraphrasing to confirm your understanding.

Clarify. Use open-ended, clarifying and probing questions to better understand the other person’s views.

Summarize. Briefly restate the core themes raised by the other person.

Share. Once you better understand the other person and have listened to them, share your ideas and suggestions.

Today, so many important projects are handed over to committees and task forces dedicated to uncovering creative ideas and building excitement for change. Despite the good intentions by leaders to form innovative teams, they can often defeat the actual progress of the group, and quickly kill momentum by their simple acts when they meet to hear the committee’s progress. Don’t let that happen to your team.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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