Staff meetings that work

March 21, 2012

Photo:  Somos/Veer/Getty Images

Photo:  Somos/Veer/Getty Images

Yes. You know you are supposed to have ongoing staff meetings. However, very few practices find these meetings productive, let alone inspiring or instrumental to practice building. It reminds me of a great quote from comedian Dave Barry who said, "If you had to identify, in one word, why the human race has not achieved and will not achieve its full potential, the word would be meetings."

This is, unfortunately, true in many dental practices-small and large-and for the dentists who run these practices, the question quickly becomes: Why have staff meetings at all? The truth is, there are far-reaching benefits for having effective, efficient meetings-benefits that far exceed potential negatives. These benefits include:

  • Practice strategies are more likely to be realistic because the people who need to implement the action steps take part in creating the plan.

  • A culture of self-direction and internal motivation is supported when each team member feels that they have a say in the running of the practice.

  • The team can be more proactive and flexible in anticipating and adapting to problems, obstacles and changing priorities.

  • Conflicts can be handled positively-before they become divisive issues.

  • Continuous learning and improvement become the rule, not the exception.

Even though the benefits are compelling, if your staff meetings are like "Dawn of the Dead" sessions (zombie-like experiences where the dentist is droning on about something and the glazed expressions on everyone's faces indicate there is no human life force remaining), or "vomit and spew" sessions (lots of screaming, yelling and general mayhem, with no change), then making the leap of faith and having more meetings can be a dicey proposition, at best.

The answer must be to buckle down and learn the fine art of leading effective meetings. There are two foundational elements that, if in place, will insure a good meeting that inspires follow through and results. It is the leadership team's responsibility to make sure these elements are in place so that the practice can capitalize on all the aforementioned benefits.

Element 1: Create a culture of safety and trust by establishing ground rules about behavior, participation and focus.

Ground rules represent a collection of agreements the team makes about how they will treat one another. They create a sense of order and safety within the group so individuals can share ideas and concerns comfortably and creatively.

Because it is crucial that ground rules reflect the office culture, you can't simply impose them on your team. To create your own set of ground rules, ask the team what agreements they would like to make about what they should and should not do during meetings. Ask, "How would we like to behave so that our meetings are safe and productive?"

Some classic ground rules include:

  • Respect each other-personality, learning style and communication.

  • Be specific when highlighting challenges, strengths and solutions.

  • Be punctual.

  • Always be open and honest (and as unemotional as possible).

  • Critique ideas, not people. What is a great idea to some is not so great for others.

  • If you oppose, than propose. If one solution won't work, what will?

By agreeing to follow these rules and then closely monitoring to ensure success, you will create a foundation for group collaboration and consensus. 

A word of caution: Beware the "meetings after the meetings." When there is a perceived lack of safety, team members often engage in these informal "meet-ups" (most often in the office parking lot) where individuals share their true opinions and concerns. These informal sessions most often happen when individuals choose not to honor the ground rules and don't speak up or speak disingenuously during the formal meetings. Meetings after the meetings are so powerful that they can actually sabotage positive decisions made during your actual meeting and set the tone and strategies for future plans.

 Prevention is the best remedy for this problem. While setting ground rules with your team, discuss the possibility of these after sessions. Set a rule that lets team members know that if they choose not to voice an objection or concern during the formal agenda, they will lose the right to criticize later. At the same time, make sure the team feels safe enough to play devil's advocate on topics that may disagree about. In fact, you may want to set a ground rule that differing opinions are welcome. 

Element 2: The team is trained on effective discussion, problem solving and decision making processes and committed to following the protocol.
Now that you have created a safe environment for true discourse, what are the secrets that drive a team to analyze a problem and come up with workable solutions that they will (at least most of the time) endorse and support?

During an effective problem-solving process, the team converges on a specific issue, identifies possible solutions, selects the best solution, identifies action steps to implement that solution, and finally evaluates the solution to see if adjustments are necessary. The beginning of this process is when the team defines the current situation and explores the gap between what is desired and what is actually happening.

The conversation clarifies:

  • Where we are (the current state)

  • Where we wish to go (the desired state)

  • The challenges that must be addressed in order to close the gap between the current situation and the desired situation (the solution path)

Ideally, when making decisions on strategies that are pivotal to your practice success, striving for group consensus is imperative. Consensus agreement does not mean that everyone on the team must support an action plan with identical levels of enthusiasm. Consensus does mean that everyone can live with the strategy and work to achieve and maintain it.

When a team strives to reach consensus on a given decision, it means that each person is granted veto power. Because even one veto can prevent a decision from going forward, the team must work together to design solutions acceptable to everyone. It requires taking all concerns into consideration and finding the most universal decisions possible.

Team members who have the ability to reach consensus demonstrate the following:

  • Unity of purpose, a basic agreement shared by the entire group regarding the vision and goals of the practice

  • Equal participation

  • Recognition that the process is as important as the results

  • Underlying attitudes of cooperation, support, trust, respect and good communication

  • Understanding and tolerance of difference, conflicting views

  • Willingness and a capability to devote time to the process

All of this takes time, effort and investment in and from the team. It's easy to ready about the elements of a good meeting, but putting it into action is another story all together. Per Michael Doyle and David Strauss in their seminal work, How to Make Meetings Work, "There is a big difference between understanding how to make meetings work and actually making them work better. You too are going to have to do some changing and changing behavior is rarely easy. Things may seem strange and uncomfortable at first, just like a new suit of clothes. It will take time, patience and willingness to take some risks. While it will take commitment on your part, the rewards will come soon and continue to grow."