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Can meetings really be inspiring, productive and fun?

By Becca Timmins, When We Think

Do you know what makes the difference between mediocre teams and high performing teams? In 2012 neither did Google, and so they embarked on a 2 year long initiative (Project Aristotle) to find out. You can find more about it here if you’re interested.

What did they find?

Well, the top indicator of the highest performing teams was not, as you might expect, the capability of the individual team members. It was in fact, psychological safety. They found that how safe a team felt with each other, was the most important factor in how well they performed. Pretty interesting, huh?

Why is that?

Well about ten years earlier, Patrick Lencioni published his now legendary leadership fable The 5 dysfunctions of a team. He obviously explains his work far better than I could - you can find him talking about it here.

From his research, he found that for teams to achieve great results, they need to hold each other accountable to agreed standards, targets and behaviours. To do that, they need to all buy into those agreements and commit to them. In order for that to happen, they need to first engage in healthy conflict - where every voice is heard and every individual feels able to speak their truth without fear of reprisals. They need to engage in conversations (and meetings) where people put all of their ideas, thoughts and feelings out there courageously.

And that can only happen where there is a high degree of Trust.

Makes sense.

And the way Lencioni talks about Trust, is very similar to the psychological safety that Project Aristotle described.

If we want people to think courageously, they need to feel safe to express what they really think. Their “out there” ideas. Their feelings about a project that isn’t quite sitting right. Their vulnerabilities, mistakes, and weaknesses. All without fear of reprisals, ridicule, or judgement.

So I think, if we’re really interested in creating high performing teams, the next natural question becomes:

How can we create the conditions that support psychological safety in our organisations? How can we have meetings and interactions that consistently create the conditions for courageous thinking? Conditions that foster Trust.

I have found the Thinking Environment work of Nancy Kline and Time to Think gives a fantastic, simple (if not necessarily easy) framework to do just that.

As a starter - there are two things that I would highly recommend you try.

1. Pay Attention!

When we’re listening to others, it’s all too easy to get caught up in our own thoughts. We begin to prepare our reply before they are finished and stop paying real attention. We don’t hear all of what the other person has to say.

And that’s no surprise- we speak at around 125 words per minute, listen at 400 and think at 900! Our thoughts run away with themselves if we let them.

So instead, as you listen to someone, whether one to one or in a group, imagine that your own thoughts are words on a whiteboard. And simply choose to rub them out, and return to listening to the other person. Practice paying really high quality attention.

What is amazing is that you will begin to notice their thinking improve! Simply because we are paying better attention, others think better with us.

Pretty simple, really cool, but not easy! It takes practice.

And that brings me to my next tip:

2. Think in turn

When we know we will get our turn, we can pay better attention. So, whether there are two of you, or a group of 10, agree upfront to take equal turns to contribute. Think of it as handing the baton of thinking between you. A simple “what do you think?” works beautifully.

If there are a few of you, go around the table. Ask for a volunteer to start and then give everyone a turn, with no one speaking again until the “baton” returns to them. If you’re meeting online, just create a virtual table instead, so everyone knows where they are “sitting”.

To show that you value everyone’s input equally, each person also needs to take a roughly equal turn. You can agree to that upfront, but it’s sometimes hard to know how long we babble on for! I can talk for hours if I let myself.

So raise your self awareness. Try timing yourself next time you speak in a meeting. Did you speak clearly for 2 minutes, or did you fill the space for 10? You may surprise yourself. And awareness is the first step towards change, right?

A case study

These simple changes will improve psychological safety very quickly. We’ve been working to apply the Thinking Environment at Emery Little for about 7 years, and it is now core to our culture. And I honestly don’t remember the last time I left a meeting feeling like it had wasted time.

Here are NextGen members Jo Little and Marcus Farnfield talking about the difference it has made.

In fact, it made such a difference, that I now also train others in this transformational way of interacting.

If you would like to learn more, and really challenge the status quo of meetings that waste time and talent, I am running a 2 day course on 5th and 6th May, which will teach you a new way. I would love to hear from you. Take a look at more details here, or drop me a message and we can have a chat.

A recent attendee (you might know him!) said:

This course provides a total reset of everything you think you know about communication and provides actionable processes and techniques that add immediate value. In 30 years of professional development, this is the best course I have attended.

Adam Owen, Director and Head of Content, NextGen Planners

For more information, please visit

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