Ground Rules for Business Meetings | Rules of the River

I had a reunion with an old college friend of mine named Shaw. We’d been on many adventures together – exploring in Peru, hiking in Corsica, sailing in Maine. Unfortunately, we had only two days, and we had to settle for an adventure relatively close to Boston. We picked a canoe trip down the Saco River in New Hampshire.

We were shuttled to our put-in point by Dave, the garrulous owner of the canoe rental company. It was a hot June morning. Our wet bags contained rain gear, sleeping bags, tent, and enough food for our entire reunion class.

We pulled into the quick-moving silver waters of the Saco, with stately Mt. Washington sheathed in clouds above us. I jumped into the bow, Shaw into the stern. The bowman leads the boat. The stern’s job is to follow the bowman’s lead. This is important to know for what happened later.

We barreled along the river, navigating the Class II riffles with relative ease. There were many boulders to avoid, but the river’s currents were not too treacherous. The greatest danger was from trees, uprooted and tossed into the river by winter storms, sucking the currents underneath them.

We rounded a curve in the river. I looked ahead. The river’s pace quickened as the channel narrowed. Suddenly, I saw a major problem. A birch tree lay horizontally across the river between two rocks. “Tree,” I shouted. There was two feet of clearance beneath the tree. “We can make it.”

“No,” called Shaw. “Head for the beach. Beach!”

“We can make it!” I shouted. “Dig, dig!”

With my determination to go for it, and Shaw’s desire to exercise caution, the canoe responded accordingly. The stern swung around into the current, heading straight toward the tree. Scared of hitting the tree backwards, I executed a deep draw stroke and swung the bow in the right direction. But not enough. We came onto the tree sideways.

“Duck,” I shouted. We both flattened ourselves into the bottom of the canoe. I held my breath. The tree cleared my nose by inches. I listened for a scrape or a thump from the stern. Hearing none, I exhaled. We’d made it!

I stuck up my head and looked at Shaw, who burst out laughing. “That was classic!” he shouted. “A textbook example of what not to do!”

We high-fived and paddled to a sandy beach where we stretched our legs and replayed what had happened. “Our mistake is we didn’t work out our ground rules in advance,” I said. “We need a rule that if one of us wants to stop, we have to stop – no questions asked.”

“I agree,” said Shaw. “And when in doubt, revert to rule number one.”

We proceeded to navigate several more treacherous spots with no mishaps. Later, while cooking steaks over our campfire, I recounted for Shaw the hundreds of times I’d worked with teams and helped them develop their ground rules.

“It’s a key thing for effective teams to do,” I said. “And it’s interesting and ironic that we overlooked that crucial step.”

David Pogue, the New York Times columnist, writes in Scientific American this month about the “hostile media effect.” This is a cognitive phenomenon where people who hold strong opinions about something perceive that media coverage of that topic is prejudiced, no matter how neutral the coverage actually is.

The same phenomenon happens in groups. People who hold strong opinions about something perceive that anyone who asks questions is biased against them, regardless of how neutral or innocent the questions are.

I saw it in action this week during a meeting of the executive team of a health care company. Ten people gathered in a large conference room overlooking San Francisco to discuss the strategic issues faced by the organization. I asked each person to reflect on these questions: “How is the health care environment changing in California? What are the most important opportunities for the company? What should be our priorities over the next year?”

For the most part, the ensuring conversation was excellent. One team member talked about the “triple transformation:” the realignment of state government, health care reform, and the emergence of community care organizations. Another said she was worried about trends in work force development and the growing need for people with expertise in integrated care. Yet another talked about the importance of marketing services to public agencies.

Then Michelle spoke. She was vice president of marketing, new to the management team. She started by saying: “In my old job, this would be called channel management.” Eyes turned to her. “In a dynamic environment, we need to look at each customer segment and provide a unique value proposition.“

A team member asked: “Can you give us some specific examples?”

“You’re missing my point,” Michelle said. “We need to think more like a business.”

“In what ways?” said the team member.

“We need to be more business-like with our customers. We assume our customers will be there tomorrow, when that’s not necessarily true.”

There was an awkward silence. I could feel the tension ratcheting up in the room. “Which customers are you referring to?” she was asked.

“All of them,” Michelle said. “It should be obvious.” She stared defiantly at her inquisitor.

After the meeting, the CEO asked for my impressions. “I thought it was a good, productive discussion,” I replied. “With one exception.”

“Are you referring to Michelle?” he asked. “That was classic. There should be a name for what she did.”

“There already is,” I replied. “It’s called the hostile media effect. She’s highly opinionated and perceives innocent questions as hostile to her.”

“Is it curable?”

“Only in cases where you can get them to eat a large piece of humble pie!”

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