The Most Useful Question to Ask if You Expect People to Take Action on a Meeting Agreement, Hint: It’s not, “So… are we agreed?”

Organizations fall into meeting patterns. Leaders often set up and conduct meetings the same way irrespective of the meeting purpose. Getting ready for a status update meeting may not require a lot of forethought. Getting ready for an alignment building meeting on the other hand, requires careful consideration of process, stakeholders and decision-making roles. If you want an agreement, you’ll need to think through how to conclude the meeting in a way that increases the chances people will turn meeting agreements into action.

There are actually two challenges related to a group reaching agreement during a meeting. The first and most obvious challenge has to do with building consensus when people have different perspectives and needs. The second and subtler challenge has to do with interpreting what people mean when they indicate agreement by verbalizing, nodding or not raising an objection. The question referenced in the title of this blog post helps with the second challenge.

Imagine that you have reached the end of a meeting you are leading. You’ve managed to facilitate a productive discussion that has led to alignment on a solution to a problem. You want to confirm that the group has reached an agreement that will result in concerted action. What will you say or ask?

You might be tempted to ask, “Are we agreed?” It seems like a simple way to confirm the group’s conclusion. The most common answer to a meeting leader who asks a group, “Are we agreed?” is silence. Extroverted members of the group may nod or say, “yes,” but you are very unlikely to hear from everyone. For starters, unless the answer is, “no,” no individual can actually answer the question, “Are we agreed?” No individual knows whether or not “we” are in agreement.

Because silence typically greets the question, “Are we agreed?” many teams and organizations have adopted the informal practice of equating silence with agreement; if no one raises an objection, we must be in agreement. Interpreting silence as agreement has always been risky. It can work for some teams and in some cultures. It’s a particularly risky strategy in a virtual meeting setting.

It turns out that the “silence procedure” or “tacit acceptance” procedure has a long history and plays an accepted role in matters of international diplomacy. There is even a Latin phrase for the formal practice of equating silence with agreement: Qui tacet consentire videtur, he who is silent is taken to agree. Both NATO and the European Union use Qui tacet consentire videtur for gaining member acceptance of joint statements and procedural documents.

Asking the group, “Does anyone disagree?” represents an improvement over “Are we agreed?” At least, individual meeting participants can answer the question, “Does anyone disagree?” Interaction Associates uses the term, “Negative Poll” to describe a question framed as an invitation to speak up if you don’t yet agree. Whether or not an individual who disagrees will accept the invitation of a negative poll has a lot to do with the trust and rapport the leader has created.

Whether you use the positive or negative framing of the question, you still have a problem. Let’s say you manage to hear from every person in the meeting. Furthermore you now know that everyone agrees with the proposal or plan under consideration. Here’s what you still don’t know: What does each meeting participant mean when they say, “I agree?”

“Yes, I agree” versus “No, I don’t agree” seems like an unambiguous, black-and-white distinction. When everyone is in the “Yes” column, we should be able to declare victory on the meeting. Consider however, the shades-of-grey intentions that may accompany someone’s assent. A person could indicate that he or she “agrees” and be entertaining any one of the following thoughts:

  • I’ll go along with the majority. I think we are making a mistake, but it’s not that important to me. I hope they’ll remember my warnings when we start running into obstacles and resistance.
  • I think there are better approaches, but this seems workable. I’ll cooperate when we start acting on this agreement, but I won’t volunteer to lead anything.
  • We reached the right conclusion and I’m eager to begin lining up resources and getting people excited. Let’s start assigning next steps.

When you think about it, leaders don’t really need to know whether people are in agreement with a proposal or a plan of action. Leaders need to know whether or not they can count on people taking action or changing behaviors consistent with the conclusion the group reached in the meeting. It’s nice to know you agree, it’s essential to know what action I can count on that will turn the agreement into progress.

Stop asking groups of people whether or not they agree. Start asking each member of the group: “Given the conclusion we’ve reached today, what do you plan to do?” 

 

For a more comprehensive treatment of how to discern what people mean when indicating agreement, have a look at the Interaction Associate’s article, “How Much Yes Do You Need?”

The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

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Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.

Rotate!

Two of my daughters played volleyball in high school. They played a significantly more complicated version of the game than the one I remember playing in elementary school gym class. Whether the players are 8 years old or 18 years old, the game still involves six people on each side. When 8-year-olds play, everyone seems glued to a spot on the court until someone wins a point. When 18-year-olds play, everyone moves around the court in choreographed sprints that look fairly chaotic to the untrained eye.

When I played volleyball in elementary school, I remember standing in my designated spot until it was time for our team to serve the ball and then somebody would shout, “Rotate!” The shouter was often the same helpful person who would push you into the next position when you couldn’t remember whether to move left, right, up or back.

Individuals on work teams also need to rotate. Over time, teams can fall into patterns of behavior that create barriers to productive collaboration. David Kantor, a family systems psychologist and consultant uses the term, “structural dynamics” to describe the unseen patterns of interaction that characterize the way teams exchange and process ideas and opinions. Kantor’s original research focused on the structural dynamics at play in family systems. Kantor and his colleague William Lehr detailed their analysis of the structural dynamics underlying interactions among family members in their 1975 book, Inside the Family.

Kantor and Lehr introduced four stances or parts to be played by members of a social system that describe categories of action and reaction. The model, which became known as the Four Player Model gained popularity among organizational development consultants who use the tool to describe and analyze patterns of interaction on work teams. The model is especially helpful for understanding patterns of interaction among members of teams that stay together over time (e.g. an executive team) where the team becomes a sort of second family system complete with all the corresponding benefits and challenges.

Kantor and Lehr identified four basic behavior patterns which teams need in equal measure in order to get the best from an exchange of ideas and opinions. Each of the four action stances can be characterized by the behaviors typically demonstrated:

  • Moving means taking charge, offering ideas or leading the discussion
  • Following means agreeing or going along with what’s being proposed
  • Opposing means disagreeing or challenging what’s being proposed
  • By-standing means paying attention to what’s being discussed and how people are interacting

From the point-of-view of productive teamwork, each of the four stances is simultaneously useful and problematic. For example, when the team can’t seem to get going or loses focus, it’s critical that someone makes a move or takes charge. On the other hand, when the team is engaged in a productive dialogue on a difficult topic, or when the team is brainstorming, team members will resent someone intervening to take charge in order to move things along. Kantor points out that each behavior provides a specific benefit to the team. Moving provides direction, following provides completion, opposing provides correction and by-standing provides perspective.

Teams achieve productive balance in their interactions when individual team members rotate among the stances rather than getting stuck demonstrating the same behavior repeatedly. Over time, a team that lacks one of the behaviors will miss out on the attendant benefit. They might describe their team as “lacking direction,” (in other words, insufficient supply of moving) or “settling for half-baked solutions” (in other words, a deficiency of opposing). The behaviors can also feel out of balance when individuals get stuck taking the same one or two of the four stances.

While each behavior provides a specific benefit, repeated demonstration of the behavior by the same individual creates dysfunction. There is a significant risk that other team members will make less than flattering judgments about individuals who only bring one type of behavior to the team. Team members will use words like, “bossy” or “dictatorial” to describe individuals who only ever move. The individual who always follows and goes along looks “wishy-washy” to the rest of the team. Someone who only ever opposes will quickly develop a reputation as “negative” or “critical.” The by-standing team member who observes without ever sharing their perspective with the team will be viewed as “disengaged” or “aloof.”

When your team becomes sophisticated enough to move in and out of the stances the way players on volleyball teams cover the court, you’ll be sure to get the best each team member has to offer. Until then, you might want to designate someone to shout, “Rotate!” now and again.