The culture of meetings in the Gulf destroys productivity

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Adopting the proper process for running a meeting impacts that meeting’s effectiveness. In the Gulf, the culture of corporate meetings is close to being the exact opposite of how to get good results, which helps us understand why productivity remains so low in the region.

When you want to predict how productive a group of people working together is, it makes sense to assume that the whole is equal to the sum of the parts and look at each group member’s abilities. This principle certainly helps sports coaches to pick teams: the best players are selected, and the weakest ones benched.

However, in the introduction to his book on the culture of winning, Daniel Coyle presents a parable that shatters this eminently reasonable supposition. In a scientific study, teams were given an assortment of household items (sticks of spaghetti, a marshmallow, some tape, etc.) and instructed to build as high a tower as possible.

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The teams included MBA graduates, lawyers, physicians, and other competent professionals. They also included teams of kindergarteners. Despite having vastly superior qualifications to the young children in every dimension and using nominally sophisticated brainstorming techniques to forge their collective ideas, the groups of professionals consistently performed poorly. The whole appeared to be less than the sum of the parts.

By far, the tallest buildings were constructed by kindergarteners, who relied on highly erratic and primitive methods of coordinating their actions. These included snatching things from one another and frequently ignoring their teammates. The fruits of their efforts were considerably more than the sum of the parts.

This study is a part of the organizational behavior sub-discipline known as collective intelligence. The scholarly literature is so extensive because of the importance of collaborative work to modern economies. The days of a white-collar worker performing a repetitive task in isolation all day have gone the way of rotary telephones and VHS cassettes.

Learning about the prescribed best practices is an uncomfortable process for organizational leaders in the Gulf countries unfamiliar with the collective intelligence literature. A typical meeting in our area of the world is almost a caricature of how to undermine a group’s productivity and breed disenchantment.

Scholars have identified the critical success factor in generating productive meetings: making people feel safe and connected. Our brains have evolved to disengage when we consciously or unconsciously sense that we are being judged negatively.

While on the surface, the sophisticated strategizing of the MBA graduates in the marshmallow experiment looked like an effective means of marshalling the team’s talents, it was an exercise in status management. It contributed very little to the task at hand. The team members’ brains were fixated on maintaining their self-esteem and navigating the group exercise’s subtle social hierarchy. Everyone was careful not to look like a fool and to avoid drawing negative judgment, resulting in collective mental constipation. That is why so many meetings feature people thoroughly checking out, denying the group the fruits of their unique insights.

On the other hand, the kindergarten children were in their element and felt uninhibited. Perhaps it was their little sense of self-awareness; regardless, they felt safe to experiment spontaneously, enabling a much higher level of performance.

Scientific research has identified tangible steps for making people feel safe and connected. The first is having people in the group sit close to one another in a manner that permits eye contact. The second is having everyone speak for an approximately equal time, with people listening attentively and earnestly. The third is imbuing people with a sense of longevity – that this meeting is part of a long relationship, where the contribution of each member is valued.

In the Gulf, meeting rooms are often arranged to reinforce a sense of hierarchy and create social distance between the participants. The limited eye contact between the chief and their subordinates makes little for mutual affection. Considering these criteria, anyone attending meetings in the Gulf will immediately sense the dysgenics.

Gulf corporate gatherings trip up on the principle of equality of participation. Most meetings involve most attendees sitting in total silence. There is a culture of “don’t speak unless you are told” and a well-placed fear of negative judgment should an inappropriate or low-quality intervention be delivered.

Participants are often made to feel wholly expendable and replaceable, limiting their sense of belonging to the organization. They usually have no idea of the meeting’s agenda before the start. They are not offered the opportunity to reflect upon the minutes following the meeting’s conclusion. Consequently, they have no sense of the future schedule. They often get invited to discussions they have no business attending and are shut out of meetings that concern them directly. It’s a phenomenon explained by executives’ affinity for petty power politics.

The upside to having such a terrible culture of meetings is that the only way is up: virtually any perturbation to the existing configuration will result in an improvement. Given the depth of our knowledge of collective intelligence, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit. Maybe it’s time we let our kindergarten-age children run our meetings.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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