Respect can give us so much.
The moment someone sits at the head of a conference table, we have a power dynamic that is often more regressive than progressive.
The most common meetings are for status updates, problem-solving and decision-making. Others are for generating ideas, team building and new product or service presentations. Let’s consider the situational dynamics of the more common types, as they are often the arena for poor interactions.
Those who sit at the head of the table or ‘chair’ the meeting automatically get into a typical mental state. The very location probably makes them feel at least three things — powerful, critical and responsible. There are good things about these feelings, but I have frequently observed that they don’t get the best out of the rest of the people in the room.
The presenters expect this standard arrangement where they will be in the minority with the majority being a critical audience, led by one chief critic at the head of the table. This makes the presenters tense up even before they enter the room.
On the other end, the chair assumes the full right to ask any number of questions, expect bottomless preparation and demand the perfect answer to everything.
Between the stress in the presenter and the chair’s automatic need to exercise power and display wisdom, only a few seasoned and hardened presenters manage to convey the true status or get the best resolutions and decisions from meetings. The bulk of presenters deteriorate as meetings progress and can end up looking like blathering nincompoops, which the vast majority of them are not.
And the problem is wider than the chair as those who sit closest to the person at the head of the table feel more powerful than those farther away and feel a great need to impress the chair. They chime in with their own variations on the interrogation and try to outdo each other and the chair in what they consider impressive probing and heroic hammering.
There are three ways to avoid this dystopian microcosm playing out this very instant in millions of offices around the world.
The first is to use round tables and change all meeting rooms to be square or circular. Meanwhile, use the rectangular tables but have a different person sitting at the head by rotation in each meeting. Even the presenter can present from somewhere other than the central position. And the seniormost person can ask her questions from somewhere other than the usual location. It may even make everything more interesting.
The second is to restrict the attendees to those who have to present their own work regularly in meetings. Questions can be asked only by those who produce something physical like analyses, designs, plans, parts, reports, papers, code, contracts or anything tangible. Keep out those who survive only on talking, emailing, questioning and arranging meetings. No pure leaders. No unalloyed managers. They have other fora for their use.
The third aspect is the culture. Interrogation has to change into inquiry, head smacking into co-working. This can be achieved by the senior leaders and managers actively cultivating an atmosphere of professional equality. The only superiority they should claim is in soft skills and the experience of a larger variety of situations from which they may offer better solutions.
If millions of professionals are freed from presentation dread, and faculty deterioration during meetings, imagine how much good can emerge from them and how much faster the world will progress.