“How can we improve our meeting culture?” – I am asked on a pretty regular basis. Meetings – nobody likes them. Everyone thinks there are too many of them. They rarely bring the desired results. Some meetings are even downright unpleasant.
At the end of a coaching session a few weeks ago, Mr. O., head of R&D at a mechanical engineering company, told to me that he now had to attend “Latin class.” This is what he and his colleagues call the regular meeting with the CEO. I initially could not make any sense of this statement, since I actually have rather fond memories of my Latin lessons. I enjoyed Latin and also my Latin teacher, Mr. Haunschild. I like to give him as an example when I speak about charisma in my training sessions. I remember Mr. Haunschild as having a great presence. He never threatened reprimands or detention. When he entered the classroom, everyone went quiet and simply concentrated on Latin. In this respect, I did not quite understand what Mr. O. was getting at. He explained that in his “Latin lessons” the managers gathered and everyone got a roasting from the CEO. I see!
When I recently met my school friend Michaela, I asked her what she thought Mr. Haunschild’s secret was. Why did we enjoy his Latin lessons so much? She looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Latin, enjoyable? Haunschild, charismatic? For me he was always a complete nightmare!”
As we talked, memories of school came back to me. 1985, Unterschleißheim. Michaela had one of her frequent blackouts during a vocabulary test in Latin class. Although she had studied hard, she could not recall the vocabulary. The classroom went quiet as a mouse. I avoided eye contact with Mr. Haunschild. I knew the word, but I didn’t want to embarrass Michaela with the right answer and prayed that he wouldn’t ask me. This uneasy feeling of fear, shame, and helplessness. Waiting for it to be over. Now I understood what Mr. O. meant by Latin lessons.
Which memory corresponds to reality? My happy Latin childhood or Michaela’s horror movie? The legal psychologist Julia Shaw, who refers to herself as a memory hacker, suggests in her book “The Memory Illusion” that neither of our memories of the Latin lessons is true. The basic thesis, proven during numerous studies, is “that our brain is an ingenious trickster,” that it can change its contents itself, and others can manage it too. In her studies, Shaw repeatedly implants stories into the minds of test subjects, which they then claim they can really remember. Since this has been proven, the investigation of crimes has been focusing on facts as far as possible, such as DNA analyses and video recordings, and it is nowadays very critical of witness statements.
What is the truth regarding Mr. O.’s Latin lessons? Funnily enough I recently had the pleasure of meeting the “terrible” CEO, Mr. K., and working with him for an entire day. I consider him to be an extremely intelligent, competent, and likeable person. I am firmly convinced that he wants the best for the company. In addition, compared to other German engineers, I would describe him as motivating and – I’m going out on a limb here – rather charismatic. In other words, at least as charismatic as Mr. Haunschild! He complained to me bitterly about his managers: they just weren’t doing their homework. He said that they were always coming to him with problems rather than solutions.
Why is that? Is Mr. K too strict? Or are his managers simply lazy or even incompetent? Both – depending on who you ask. We believe that this is true, we suffer, and we drag ourselves to a meeting experienced as painful, week after week. What a waste of precious time! How do we get out of this?
I’ve learned a lot about leadership since I’ve had children. During our first surf trip to Portugal I went shopping with my two sons after our arrival. I was quite stressed and after the long journey I thought it was a good idea to go for a walk and the children also needed exercise. The supermarket was down a steep hill. Halfway through the trip I wondered about carrying the groceries up the hill again. Then I realized that I didn’t have a rucksack or any bags with me. I like to avoid using plastic as much as possible and my older son, Samuel, is also keen to do so. How could this happen to me? I was so angry that I blamed Samuel – “You could have remembered to pack bags!” Samuel tried to calm me down – “It’s not that bad. We only need two bags at the most. We are not going to buy that much.”
Me – “Oh, because YOU didn’t remember to take any, it’s ONLY two bags!”
Samuel – “But you always need a couple of plastic bags at the end of our vacation anyway for dirty laundry and stuff.”
At this point my then 10-year-old son Leander stepped in – “You know what? There is no way you can come to an agreement. Mom’s talking about what we SHOULD have done. And Samuel is talking about what we WILL be doing!”
Bam! That hit home. Out of the mouths of babes. I gave this little guy a puzzled look. How right he was! I must have lost my mind for a moment. Instead of enjoying the first sunny walk with my two sons in a long time, I was creating stress and a bad mood. A big apology was due. A feeling of gratitude for these wonderful children flowed through me. Our vacation could begin!
I expect that this is what happens in Mr. O.’s Latin lessons. He is already tense when he attends Latin class. He knows it will be terrible. Why? Because in his memory it has always been that way! The same goes for his boss. When discussing the to-dos, Mr. K. notices that Mr. O. has not completed a task in the way he, Mr. K., had wanted him to. Mr. K. has high expectations and is annoyed with himself as he SHOULD have formulated his ideas more clearly. He starts to accuse Mr. O. and tells him what he SHOULD have done.
At the same time Mr. O. tries to calm Mr. K. down and explains what he WILL DO by the next meeting. He acts as if he were guilty. He is embarrassed. He wants to do his job well. Mr. O. is increasingly justifying himself and demands that he MUST receive more support in the future. Which is when Mr. K. replies that providing support would not be a problem, but Mr. O. would HAVE to proactively ask him for it. The two are jumping between accusations concerning the past and demands concerning the future. They cannot reach a solution in this way! IMPOSSIBLE!
At some stage the uneasy feeling of fear, shame, and helplessness among the other highly paid meeting participants turns into a certain indifference. They only pretend to be interested and have checked out mentally. What is for lunch in the canteen today? Look at the trousers he is wearing! How much longer will the meeting take? It’s already gone on for 20 minutes longer than expected. I need to get to my next appointment. Finally the recess bell.
The meeting mode is a behavior that has been trained for many years and has become a difficult habit to change. As an antidote, we have long been told that we should set ourselves clear goals. If we focus on visualizing clearly that we will have an efficient and goal-oriented meeting, then that is exactly what will happen. Many successful athletes and actors claim that it is precisely this method that has enabled them to achieve the goal they set themselves. In his fascinating book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues against this method. After all, the losers in the competition for the gold medal or the Oscar would have done exactly the same – and not achieved their goal. He states that therefore, it is not about the formulation and visualization of objectives. A compelling line of reasoning.
Who hasn’t dreamed of showing a dominant or unfair boss his limits in front of an assembled team? But very few people actually do so. We have trained for too long to keep our heads down in these situations. It almost seems to me that for many a prospective manager, Latin lessons were a kind of boot camp for the survival of tough meetings. But I think that is not what was meant by non scholae, sed vitae discimus! (We do not learn for school, but for life!) Isn’t that so, Mr. Haunschild?
Clear recommends a different approach. He postulates that changes on a small scale are the best way to achieve major goals. However, these would only be effective if they did not contrast with our self-image. The basis is therefore the creation of a new identity.
In concrete terms, this is done in the following two steps:
- Choose an identity: Who do you want to be? A student or an (executive) employee?
- Prove your identity using a small detail in your behavior: Look at yourself. Do you have car keys? That means you’re an adult. Sit up straight and embody this adult in the way you sit. Stop justifying yourself. Stop talking about who SHOULD have done what and who SHOULD do what in the future. This could be the first small change that gives the impulse for a higher-level solution orientation in the meeting.
Then ask yourself:
- Do we work at the same company? Yes?
- Do we want the company to be successful? Yes?
- Why are we having this meeting? Remember who you are!
- For which problem would the successful adult, who you are, find a solution here and now together with his colleagues?
And then get to work!
Does that really work? I can’t promise that. You won’t know until you try. Every journey begins with a first step. But one thing is certain: the old method didn’t work. And also – Latin lessons are long over!