Recently a Good Group Tips reader contacted me asking how to reckon with an “informality” culture in meetings. Here’s his question and my response.
I’m a big proponent of structure in group decision making. In my job and my community I serve in various leadership roles on committees and boards. In many circumstances, the leaders of these groups express little-to-no interest in providing any structure whatsoever. The meeting begins when everybody seems to be done chit-chatting, the chair rambles through various topics, and we inevitably go around the table talking about what each person is up to. Decisions are rarely well-defined and voting is all but ceremonial.
I don’t recommend strict Robert’s Rules in every circumstance, but when I do recommend adding any modest structure to the meeting the result is eye-rolling from many members and an overall feeling of “Whoa now! Who’s this guy who wants to be all formal?”
In most circumstances I’m the secretary for the organization. I usually step into that role after a few meetings where no one wants to be the secretary and no records are kept. I’ll most likely be moving into the chair in some of these organizations but until then do you have any advice for improving the function of groups where they take pride in their “informality?”
If almost all members of the group really do “take pride in their informality,” then perhaps you are in the minority and might just have to go along with the group culture. Or leave the group if you can’t stand it.
But perhaps the “pride in informality” is worth testing. Perhaps others feel frustration just like you do but “it’s not cool to say it out loud.”
When you move into the chair role, perhaps try a survey. “Okay everyone, in this new role I want to make sure these meetings are really serving you well so please fill out this little survey and return it to me. Anonymously.”
On the survey ask if people are totally content with how the meetings are now. How they think meetings should be improved. Keep the survey simple and ask open ended questions. Make sure it’s truly anonymous, perhaps electronic even. Then see what the data says.
If most people want a higher degree of formality then you have license to change how meetings are run. “We are making this change because this is what most of you said you wanted.” If people like the meetings as they are, then it is you that might need to make a change.
I loved this reader’s question. Personally I believe that adding a little structure to meetings helps groups work more efficiently, hear more points of view, and unlock more creativity. (See the Good Group Tips Structure sets you free, Consensus doesn’t mean casual, and Loose in the harness.) But some people are uncomfortable with formality. Some groups resist structure. And there can be casual modes of doing business that serve a particular group just fine.
Individuals who want more structure have several choices: they can work to change the level of formality, they can make peace with the group’s informality, or they can leave the group.