Tuesday, November 14, 2006

 

In Praise of Group Meetings

Once in a while, an idea emerges almost inductively from a group meeting that almost certainly would not have emerged from a series of one-on-ones.

My chairs have been a little out-of-sorts this semester, both individually and as a group. Even the most even-keeled ones just haven’t been quite right lately, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason.

We had a meeting yesterday that I thought would be fairly brief and pedestrian – a quick run-through of a few logistical things, and everyone leaves early. Nope.

In the course of what I thought would be a very quick gloss of agenda item six, which I considered unremarkable in itself, one of my smartest and most level-headed chairs had a complete meltdown. That was surprising enough, but it was compounded when her colleagues joined her.

As the group meltdown progressed, they started connecting issues – some valid, some shaky – that I had considered unconnected. They fed off each other, until one of them found a common theme underlying the disparate issues. When that happened, they started echoing each other.

At that point, I tried repeating their refrain back to them, to make sure I got it right. Once we agreed on what was bothering them, I fell silent for a while as they elaborated variations on the theme. I took copious notes, interrupting only when something was either unclear or patently false. Before we adjourned, I thanked them for connecting those dots for me, and for being as candid as they were.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to solve the issue, or even how or when to address it. It’s pretty fundamental, and far too inflammatory to blog about in any detail. (I also can’t say I agree with them on every count.) But at least now it has a generally definable shape. I have some sense of why they’ve been so edgy, and of why they’ve (in my mind) wildly overreacted to what were really some pretty ordinary things. If they and I got it right, I should be able to predict a little more accurately what’s going to set them off. Best case, I might even be able to shift some frames of reference in some other offices to avoid needless drama (conceding that some drama will always be necessary).

This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t met as a group.

In retrospect, a few conditions were necessary: we had to be all in the same place at the same time, we had to have enough respect for each other to speak freely, and I had to be willing to shut the hell up and toss my planned agenda when we obviously went off the rails. (For some reason, the ability to shut the hell up and listen is remarkably rare in both management and faculty ranks.)

The next part is even harder: figuring out how to package it to other parts of the college, to try to preserve what’s of value in their collective insight without tarring anybody (including myself) as merely negative. It won’t be easy. But at least know I know there is a next part.

Comments:
At an pre-academia job, I used to call our weekly meetings "Staff infections," and yet I always promote the value of dialogue and community. Of course, important dialogue requires more listening than speaking (no sheep, though). Kudos for listening.
 
Sounds to me like you are doing alot right. You did great by just going south with the group and letting them vent.

Allowing all of the emotion to spill out - gives everyone a chance to unload and the problem seems to lose energy after that.

When people are emotional logic goes right out the window. Logical brain shuts down -so you did the right thing just to listen.

Damage control? Just make a list of the facts and a list of how you will deal with each fact.

I think a big mistake Dean's make is not following up after a meeting with something in writing that says - I heard you - these are the facts - let me know if I am missing anything.

Then - to save your own reputation and more angst - respond to each fact in writing and copy everyone.

If you don't respond they will think you don't care. If you don't know what to do - ask for suggestions, and if you disagree - tell them in an e-mail and ask for written responses.

Writing makes people accountable. It is easy to spout off in a meeting but when you are asked to send ideas to create a positive outcome -it puts a whole new light on the problems.

Good Luck. This too shall pass. Love your blog - read daily.
 
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