Saturday, October 16, 2010

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades,… and Meetings?

How close to starting meetings on time is considered "on time" in your group? In short, what's close enough? For commercial airlines, if you depart or arrive within 15 minutes of the posted schedule, it counts as "on time." Is that good enough in your group?

It turns out that the answer varies widely group to group. Worse, if you randomly poll members of the same group about: a) the group's punctuality; and b) how members feel about it, I've found that both answers can vary widely. In general, those who are habitually slow to arrive tend to be equally slow to perceive the issue (rather like less-than-fastidious cleaners who never see the dirt on the kitchen floor). The long-suffering on-timers face a Hobson's choice of: a) waiting patiently on the pleasure of the tardy; or b) making a stink about it and running the risk of being labeled anal, control freaks, or the Clock Gestapo. In consequence, most groups never talk about timeliness as a value or a behavior norm. They just roll the dice and hope for the best. While meeting punctuality doesn't tend to be any group's #1 issue—and some groups function fine without any explicit agreements—it's more of an issue than many realize, and thus is a worthy subject for today's ruminations.

As you might guess, issues around punctuality can easily lead to low-grade tension that undercuts trust and good will—even before you've launched into the first agenda topic! To be sure, there are subtleties. No one (or few, at any rate) would argue that it's appropriate to chastise folks who sit down 43 seconds after the scheduled start time. On the other hand, for every 12 people waiting for latecomers, the cumulative cost to the group is one hour every five minutes. Delays get expensive in a hurry! However, absent any agreement about what's acceptable, individuals are free to apply their own standard of punctuality and this can inadvertently lead to people fuming about others having a violated a standard that has never been articulated. When you toss in the additional complication that member's watches are never synchronized, it can get ugly.

And it's worse than that. How about the person who arrives at the last second and then tells the group to go ahead and start while they lurk in the next room making tea? In the tea drinker's mind, they're on time. But to someone who is wanting everyone in the room to share a sensitive opening statement, the meeting is effectively delayed.

Another complicating factor in this genre is hand work. Under what conditions, if any, is it acceptable that people do hand work during meetings? For those whose dominant channel of input is visual, hand work can be a distraction. For those who are more aural, this doesn't tend to be the same issue (though it can appear to be: consider how it may land for a visual person who is telling a heart-rending story while an aural person listens and simultaneously shells peas). While most groups find it easy to agree that members should offer each other respectful attention in meetings, it's not so simple defining what constitutes "respectful."

The answer here, I think, is that group's need to talk about punctuality (how close is "on time") and also need to have a way to discuss tensions (of any kind), so that awkwardness around someone being perceived to fall short in their responsibilities as a group member can be dealt with directly and with compassion—not to punish, but to clear the air as a prophylactic against distortion when the heavy lifting is attempted on more weighty topics.

I bring this up because meetings are an important aspect of the group's life, and I'm all in favor of people having the time of their life at them—not just sitting around watching the clock, waiting for life to happen.

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