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The Invisible Culture of Meetings

If you had to explain the purpose of a meeting in your work to someone, what would you say? Would it be to get things done? Connect and build relationships? Brainstorm? Team building? Get directions from your leader? Present facts? All of the above?


Generally speaking when working within your own environment there isn’t much of a need to think about the actual purpose of a meeting. Basic assumptions about why everyone is meeting are typically shared, but when you start working across cultures that may not be the case.


For example, some say that in the U.S. the predominant purpose of a meeting is more about brainstorming or participation and less about information delivery. Of course there are meetings transferring information, but generally speaking the tendency in U.S. based multinational companies is to share ideas, come up with solutions and identify next steps. A week later it’s time to do it all over again.


As a result, the weekly meeting is considered a necessary checkpoint because of the tendency in the U.S. American based companies move so fast that they don’t have time to iron out every detail. “U.S. Americans don’t get rewarded for details,” Leadership Expert Julia Sloan once said. Details tend to slow things down and U.S. Americans value action and speed.


Meetings serve as a way of assessing the team members’ present work and then correcting next steps so as to make sure people are on the same page and hitting the right target (which may have moved, by the way). Too much planning is seen as a hindrance to innovation.


Then there are cultures that value planning over adaptability. They would rather sacrifice the benefits of change or the flow of ideas in exchange for thoroughness, planning and lowering risk. In those cases, meetings are more about presenting information and listening, not contributing ideas and suggestions for next steps. As a result, people tend not to see meetings as a place to speak up, but instead to listen.


Since 2000, I have asked almost every one of my U.S. American clients what they think of someone who doesn’t speak up in a meeting and I hear similar things over and over again. “They're not paying attention.” “They don’t know what’s going on.” “They aren’t team players.” I even had one person say, “They’re stupid.”


Ask someone from a more planning-oriented culture what they think of people who speak up in meetings and depending on the culture they might say, “They are wasting everyone’s time.” “They are fixing mistakes that never should have happened in the first place.” “They are disrespectful to the person in charge.”


These comments come from highly educated and qualified people who are in their positions because they are valuable on some level. So who’s right? Who should determine the purpose of a meeting? The culture or the task? The leader or the team?


The focus of the work of Invisible Culture is to illuminate the space between in order to create a “third” culture - one that includes the best of both. One that cultivates the highest potential of each individual in service of the group, for the ultimate benefit of both.


The key to navigating meetings when the participants are from varying backgrounds is to first recognize that there are different assumptions about the purpose. The next step is to suspend judgment about people who may not behave the way you are accustomed and then to seek out the reasons behind visible behavior to make sure there aren’t different assumptions.


Finally, when working in virtual, global or diverse teams it is valuable for a team leader to establish protocols for contributing ideas as well as listening so that one culture doesn’t dominate the stage over another, simply because of their cultural disposition. I remember during the Naughts, one expert on Indian workplace culture once said, “Traditionally women won’t speak up in a meeting of mixed gender and status, but get them into a room by themselves and you can’t stop the ideas from flowing.”


While the purpose of a meeting has traditionally been driven by national cultural norms, in the future, the multicultural leader will know how to leverage a diverse range of influences, powers and needs.

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