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Every Company Has a Meeting Culture – Which Is Yours?

Your meeting culture goes hand in hand with your company culture. How you manage meetings sets the tone for everything else.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 10, 2021

The way you manage meetings shapes your culture (and the other way around)

Meetings bring culture to life, amplifying both the positives and negatives within an organization. As Bob Pothier, former GE executive, wrote, "The strongest message about how you want your culture to perform is embedded in how you conduct your meetings."

Studies show that meetings have a huge impact on not just productivity, but also on culture and climate – they even play a vital role in promoting inclusivity.

Your meeting culture is a byproduct of your broader company culture – they must work hand in hand. In this article, I'll share the different types of meeting culture and help you choose the best for your organization.

Why Your Meeting Culture Matters

Meetings provide a realistic picture of how your team members relate to each other. They shed light on how your organization operates when it comes to power, decision-making, communication, and collaboration.

If yours start late, lack focus, or get nothing accomplished, there's probably a bigger cultural problem affecting your organization.

At Fearless Culture, we've spent the past few years studying the meeting culture of all types of organizations to help our clients improve theirs. We found that what happens in meetings sets the tone for everything else.

Most companies struggle to improve their meetings because they miss the cultural connection. They proclaim to stand for one thing and then their meetings reflect something different.

Meetings at TINYpulse start at odd times. For example, the daily staff meeting kicks-off at 8:48 am. This approach has helped eliminate tardiness at the employee engagement platform.  

Facebook's engineering team holds 15-minute stand-up meetings at noon daily – no chairs and an imminent lunch keep updates short. This practice makes sense for a company culture that values "Moving Fast."

What makes the above practices effective is that they solve specific issues and, most importantly, align with those companies' cultures.

Similarly, Richard Branson encourages employees to meet in non-conventional spaces – such as a park or café. This approach helps people live Virgin's creative culture of "insatiable and smart curiosity."

The founders of Hugo, the meeting software company, believe in fewer, more effective meetings. They have a 4-hour meeting cap to ensure employees spend no more than ten percent of their working week in internal meetings.  

Smart meeting practices are tempting to replicate. However, you cannot adopt them out of context – your meeting culture should work hand in hand with your company culture.

The Meeting Culture Framework

Mapping your meeting culture requires some method. We developed the Meeting Culture Framework to help organizations assess how the way they meet shapes culture. We've been applying it with clients and in our programs to help participants become more intentional about meeting culture.

The Meeting Culture Framework is built on two axes:

– Fluid approach versus structured approach

– Focus on the input versus focus on the output

There are four types of meeting culture:

- People-Driven

- Power-Driven

- Idea-Driven

- Results-Driven

Although the matrix has four clear quadrants, it's possible – and convenient – to adopt a hybrid style.

For example, Spotify has a hybrid meeting culture that combines the best of the idea-driven and results-driven worlds.

Spotify teams hold daily syncs, but members can decide on the spot whether or not it's really necessary to meet. The meeting agenda is flexible and built on the fly versus pre-determined – with input from each of the participants.

Let's review the characteristics of each meeting culture.

1. People-Driven Meeting Culture

This type of meeting culture tends to be more informal and less process-oriented.

This fluid approach focuses on creating a good atmosphere, making people feel welcome, and building a sense of belonging.

Mindset: participation, belonging, appreciation for colleagues.

Behaviors that are typical of people-driven meeting cultures:

- Informal conversations: lots of chit chat, people going off-topic, two meetings at the same time

- Need for personal time: team members need to share personal stuff before getting to work

- Loose structure: lack of agenda (or not sticking to it), meetings run longer than expected, not clear next steps

- High trust and high collaboration

IKEA's meeting culture is informal and vibrant, typical of tribal companies. Even though many of its meetings might lack structure, a clear purpose, or agenda, teams still get work done. People enjoy the good atmosphere and that everybody has a voice.

Some employees recognize they're a bit sloppy capturing meeting discussions and agreements.

At IKEA, people are encouraged to have impromptu meetings. From Fikas (small-talk over a coffee and piece of cake) or central staircases that act as a hub for collaboration, unplanned gatherings help address and solve workplace issues.

At IKEA's meetings, employees have been practicing check-in rounds since before it became cool.

Patagonia also has a people-friendly culture. It's forbidden to schedule meetings at lunchtime so people can go surfing (or practice yoga, go for a walk, or just have lunch in peace).

Meetings at Patagonia are not just people-driven but actually family-friendly, too. It's not unusual for kids to join a meeting unexpectedly or to see women nursing without anyone batting an eye.

Watch outs:

- Endless conversations could derail important topics

- Inviting too many people not to hurt their feelings

- Allowing informal conversation to take too much time

- Failure to land: difficulty in making a decision

- Trying to solve all issues via consensus

2. Power-Driven Meeting Culture

This type of meeting culture tends to be structured and process-oriented. Unfortunately, the goal is no to generate positive outcomes but to reinforce power positions.

This fearful approach turns meetings into a battleground rather than a fertile land.

Mindsets: People feel left out if not invited, low psychological safety, blame

Behaviors that are typical of power-driven meeting cultures:

- The boss often interrupts or changes subjects

- Participation is low and people try to accommodate what's expected of them – real conversations happen after the meeting

- Lots of preparation (perfectionism as a way to avoid being punished): agendas go through endless revisions, people have meetings to prepare for the meeting, directive rather than collaborative approach

- Power plays: the boss silences or contradicts people to show they are in charge, divisions and people taking sides, the most senior person sets the tone

At a client I worked with, meetings never started until the boss arrived. People waited in the room chatting and wasting their time. Once the boss joined, the dynamics and mood changed for the worse.

This senior executive changed the agenda on the fly and then blamed people for not being prepared. He loved scheduling meetings when people were already booked, forcing them to cancel the previous engagement.

No one said what they were really thinking, trying to adjust to the cues the boss was sending. Even when they tried to be a little bit honest, he interrupted them, either contradicting what they said or changing the subject.

Watch outs:

- Overall, power-driven meetings should be eradicated. Meeting are meant to drive collaboration, not infights

- Groupthink or trying to conform to an authority figure

- People agree in the open and disagree once the meeting is finished

- Focus on pleasing the boss rather than on getting work done

3. Results-Driven Meeting Culture

This tends to be the most appealing type of meeting culture – at least in books and articles. When discussing meeting performance, we usually hear advice related to making meetings more effective – such as clear goals, a detailed agenda, time-keeping, etc.

This type of meeting culture is very focused, prioritizing order, process, and structure to deliver the right outcome. However, having a results-driven culture doesn't always guarantee positive outcomes.

Mindset: Efficient, competitive, goal-oriented, high-performing

Behaviors that are typical of results-driven meeting cultures:

- Well-designed agendas and session dynamics

- Tardiness is never an issue

- A mix of different durations (15', 30' and one hour meetings)

- Clear roles and responsibilities before, during, and after the meeting

- Everyone abides by the process

At Netflix, meetings start and end on time (really). There's an obsession with having well-prepared agendas. The company has a regular cadence of various types of meetings. Team members usually get together to learn from each other and get more things done – not to make decisions.

PowerPoint decks are banned at Amazon. Instead, the meeting owner has to prepare a well-crafted 6-page memo. When the group gets together, they spend 15 minutes going through the document in silence. This step is crucial as Jeff Bezos believes that "executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they've read the memo because we're busy."

The memo is supposed to provide context. Writing one takes a lot of time and mastery – the writer must use full sentences and paragraphs rather than bullet points. It requires a lot of editing and input from colleagues. Getting it right can take a day or two.

Watch outs:

- Too much structure can harm creativity

- Agendas and dynamics are not designed collaboratively

- A structured process might hinder the emotional culture

- The meeting owner has too much power

- Not every process works for every organization

4. Idea-Driven Meeting Culture

This type of meeting culture is at the service of ideas, promoting creativity and collaboration.

Having an idea-driven meeting culture doesn't mean that all meetings are a brainstorm. It's about creating an environment where the best idea wins – no matter who it came from.

Mindset: Collaborative, experimental, generous

Behaviors that are typical of results-driven meeting cultures:

- Generative practices (a "Yes, and…" mindset)

- People willing to help others build their ideas

- Enthusiastic conversation, candid feedback, and pushback

- Opinionated participants

- Inspiration sessions, sharing work in progress, reviewing work and practices from other teams/ organizations

Hugo has an idea meritocracy meeting culture – it's called "Absolute Honesty." Employees practice thoughtful disagreement – numerous back-and-forths to evolve people's thinking and come up with better decisions. Clear disagreement protocols help conflict in a respectful manner.

At Hugo, they use weighted votes to protect ideas from democratic processes that usually lower the bar. The person ultimately responsible for the work or decision gets 3x the weight, those affected by the decision have 2x, and the rest only 1x.  

Pixar meetings are in the service of ideas, too. Advancing projects matter more than powerplays – senior managers are okay to walk into a meeting and be surprised.

Pixar teams hold "Dailies" to review work in progress. Its legendary Braintrusts allow teams to get constructive feedback about their movies from those working on another film, and vice versa. Pixar's post-mortems improve the creative process by identifying 5 things they will continue to do and 5 they wouldn't do again.

Watch outs:

- Turning every meeting into a brainstorming session

- Don't confuse being idea-centric with inefficient

- Adopting a flare mindset when the team needs to focus

- An idea-centric culture should promote collaboration, not competition

What's the Right Meeting Culture for Your Organization?

Meetings are one of the most important activities your team performs. Your meeting culture and your company should work hand in hand.

Start by assessing your company culture and see which meeting style could be the right match.

Trying to adopt an idea-centric meeting culture in a controlled environment is a recipe for disaster. The same happens when trying to impose rigid processes into a creative culture. Set the stage first – make sure new approaches will fall on fertile ground.

Avoid confusing your meeting culture with the outcome. Having a People-Driven meeting culture doesn't mean ineffectiveness. Conversely, I've seen many companies with a Results-Driven meeting culture achieve disappointing outcomes.

Tweaking meeting practices helps accelerate adoption. I remember the struggle of implementing self-organization meeting methods in one of our clients. Once we realized that the company had a tribal culture, we tweaked the approach to make it feel more people-driven.

When it comes to designing how your team meets, follow your common sense rather than fads. Every company has a unique meeting culture either by design or by chance. Choose yours purposefully.

Do you want to improve your meeting culture? Reach out and let's discuss how we can help you.

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