Thursday, June 3, 2010

All-staff meetings

A couple of hundred colleagues are all invited into a room to sit together, hear someone influential in the organisation share, and ask any burning questions they may have. They filter in over the course of ten or fifteen minutes, some with intentional looks of boredom, others excited and curious, and yet others revealing no emotions at all. The seats fill up and people try to find space in the front or close enough to the centre of action so as to ensure they'll be able to follow along, and that their hand will be seen if they raise it.

The influential person may have been the first one there and has been sitting chatting with some key managers as the room filled. Or he may be a bit late and arrive last. Either way, once the room is full and people have taken their places, the room quiets down and the influential person starts talking.

You know the speech. It's motivational yet sensible, all about telling the staff how much he (because, of course, it is somehow always a he) appreciates their hard work, ensuring them that he has every intention of acknowledging and rewarding their hard work, and then grounding them in reality by explaining that they must be patient with the fact change hasn't come as quickly as everyone had hoped. It's always just the same speech, but the exact references are tailored to the nature of the company, the location, the socio-political situation.

Then he invites questions and comments. After a two-second pause, he reminds the hundred or two people that he wants to hear from them, that he appreciates them, that he respects their opinions. Then he makes an awkward little joke and repeats the invitation for questions and comments.

At this point, one of two things happens.

The first possibility is dead silence, inevitably uncomfortable, followed by another awkward joke and a tentative end to the meeting. Everyone shuffles out.

The second possibility is a few moments of silence, followed by someone tentatively raising her (somehow it usually seems to be a her) hand. The question is timid and respectful, but laced with just a hint of controversy. The influential person gives a succinct answer. Then someone else jumps in with a question that's a tad more confrontational, but still mainly timid and respectful. With each question, the controversy rises and the timidity fades. Within a few minutes a lively debate is well underway, and assuming the influential person is a good leader, he fields the questions with a smile and calm thinking. This can go on for as long as the meeting's organisers allow it to go on, but eventually they decide the conversation will be best continued one-on-one, or else they decide people need to go home. And the meeting ends abruptly, with people chattering loudly on the way out.

I've been to two such inspirational meetings here in Haiti so far, and both have taken Option B.

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