The psychology of meetings – why don’t people tell the truth?

5th September 2014

You can tell Autumn is on its way, the leaves are turning, the hedgerows are full of berries and… the TV is full of XFactor! I must admit that the audition phase of XFactor is my guilty pleasure. It’s just an amazing cacophony of human behaviour – from the humble teenager who doesn’t know the power of their own performance, to the deluded individual who thinks they are going to be the next winner, but can’t even hold a tune.

At the end of one of the recently televised auditions Cheryl Cole said, ‘I think you’re very nice people, but you’re just not my cup of tea!’ My reaction to this was ‘How British!’  and  I don’t just mean the reference to tea. The implication of her comment is that the person singing’s style was not her preference, when actually it was technically appalling, and none of the other judges voted for the audition – it was a  dreadful audition. Whilst I admire people who can see their own preference as their individual view on the world, this feedback was just an easy way out for Cheryl, without any investment in a developmental approach.

I’ve spent the best part of 20 years working with groups, and I have learnt a lot about the phycology of groups from this practical experience. In my work with groups I take a developmental stance, where learning is embraced. When I set up any meeting, one of the things I establish with a group is the ground rules for working, my aim is to create enough trust and respect in the meeting to get the work done effectively. I often have groups that suggest openness and honesty as a ground rule. There are many things that can get in the way of people being open an honest in meetings. one of them is  the group’s desire to avoid ‘upsetting’ people, causing conflict. This can lead to people holding their opinions in, which could mean valuable insights get lost. It takes emotional investment from all involved, for a group to work in a developmental way i.e. a way in which there is genuine learning. Without learning, there is no improvement, creativity or innovation in our work in groups.

I have a client who uses the phrase ‘straight talking with respect’, which I like, as this starts to get more specific about what we usually need in a meetings, when we say ‘open and honest’. For most business meetings, even leadership groups, we don’t need to do open heart surgery to have enough trust to work together. What we do need, is permission for people to share differences of opinion, in service of making good quality decisions. Comments like, ‘its just not my cup of tea’, are just too bland to be useful. A more helpful comment would be something like, ‘I have a concern about your idea, because I once implemented an idea like this and xxxx hapened’ – this comment not only shares the concern, but the reasoning behind it. You can even add to this by saying, ‘what I like about this idea is…. but I also have a concern because….’. This high quality dialogue in groups is rare, but can be fostered with the right set-up (before and at the start of the meeting) and effective facilitation in the meeting.

Whilst we might not want to become Simon Cowells, you have to admire his ability to put it out there, and avoid ambiguity about what he thinks. So, next time you are in a meeting… listen carefully to participant’s comments. Listen out for what they might not be saying, as well as what they do say. Often it takes only a little encouragement to get to the nub. Although conflicting opinions can be painful at times, it invariably leads to more robust meeting outcomes.

If you are interested in the Phychology of groups in business, you may be interested in the forthcoming Association of Business Phychologists annual conference at which I will be running an opening World Café.

To discuss the psychology of meetings from our perspective contact us at +44 (0)1628 471 114 or complete the contact form.