Structure Won’t Get You There

We define how we play the game. If we don’t, the game plays us.


Here’s a pet peeve that’s hurled at me every week as I work with my clients. And I’m not exaggerating – every week: We have too many meetings. They’re tedious and unproductive.

So why are we playing the “let’s have a lot of tedious meetings” game? Why are we not defining how and what we want our meetings to be?

Great meetings hinge on how we articulate our meeting norms. Our guidelines for how we want to play with each other when we meet. Great organizations have figured this one out. Their meeting norms are bold and explicit. You can’t get away from them. They are visible everywhere.

Structural norms In a Leadership Program I facilitated this week, I challenged my participants to come up with meeting norms. The first draft looked something like this:

  1. We have an agenda.

  2. We have a formal leader.

  3. We have a time keeper.

  4. We don’t have side conversations.

  5. We generate action items.

  6. We assign folks who take ownership of follow-up items.

These are structural norms. Necessary (maybe …). Somewhat intuitive. And oh so polite and safe.

You get where I’m going with this, right? Polite norms = polite meetings. Polite meetings = boring meetings. Boring meetings = more incessant complaining about meetings. And so the show goes on …

When you and your team create meeting norms, please, please, please create engagement norms. Engagement norms define the fire and commitment with which you wish to play. They electrify the space for you.

Engagement norms

The moment my program participants made the switch to engagement norms, they came up with some potent stuff. A sample:

  1. We challenge the status quo.

  2. We thrive on conflict.

  3. We fearlessly state our opinions.

  4. We do not rush the process.

  5. We fully show up – mind, body, spirit.

Now – this is starting to sound like a very different meeting, isn’t it? And it is so simple. Articulate the norms. Live the norms. Challenge those who don’t.

Yes, it IS that simple. Conscious norms will elevate our conversations. Collective unconsciousness will foster a sense of separateness and dissatisfaction. You choose …

This week, pay attention to how your meetings are played. If you find yourself in meeting after meeting that lacks engagement norms, urge the meeting leader to take time with the group to define such norms.

And regardless of the social situation you’re in, be clear about your very own engagement norms. Articulate them. Write them down.

And live them!