When You’ve Reached an Impasse in Your Meetings

Teams argue. Stalemates happen. What distinguishes effective groups from all the others is that they do not avoid difficult conversations, and disagreements don’t wreak havoc on their relationships. I remember a French engineer once told me about his team: “We argue like heck and then we go have a beer.”

But what happens when you can’t reach consensus in a meeting? How do you move forward? Below are seven actions that I’ve seen groups take to make progress when they get stuck:

Stay with the conversation. It’s important to trust one another and the process. As the character Patel says in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.” Often it’s useful to acknowledge what’s happening. You might say something like: Okay, this is a difficult conversation. Let’s just stay with it until we get to a good place. Let’s also remember that at the end, we are still going to be colleagues; our relationships don’t need to be affected by this discussion.

Outline a clear process for working through the issue. The conversation will go better if people know it’s not going to be a free-for-all but that it’s being managed in a deliberate, thoughtful way. Talking about how to work through tough issues helps people slow down and stay on track. But, of course, sometimes you don’t realize in the beginning that a stalemate is going to occur. That’s when you need to step in and lay out a way to work through the issue: Okay, I have a suggestion about how we proceed from here. I suggest we capture everyone’s ideas and concerns, check for clarity and understanding, and then take suggestions from the group on how to resolve the impasse.

Visually capture the essence of what has been said. Displaying the conversation by taking notes on a white board ensures that people’s comments are captured. People can stop worrying about their input being lost and focus on finding a way forward. Mind mapping is a powerful way to take notes on discussions that jump around and aren’t linear. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. When done right, people can look at the graphic and instantly know what’s been said, something that the brain can’t do with lists. Without this visibility, people keep repeating their comments, often with increased volume and drama, which leads to anxiety among the group.

Step in and suggest a path forward or ask others to. When a conversation is going nowhere, step in and offer your sense of where the conversation stands and suggest where it might go next. This is also an opportunity to utilize the wisdom of your group: Nancy, Jim, and Hamid, I’d like each of you to take a couple of minutes and share your thoughts about our conversation and how we might proceed.

Broadening the participation and talking about conversational process provides a moment of reset for everyone. Bringing other voices into the conversation also tends to lighten up the mood. Stepping away from the arguing for just a few minutes will be welcomed. Just be sure to come back.

Encourage the group to assume positive intent. Keep the conversation as kind and as gracious as possible. Ask people to not react defensively and to suspend their right to be offended. This will create psychological safety and will encourage people to say what they are really thinking.

Remind the group that patient, attentive listening is a must. Listening is a critical variable in any difficult conversation. Set aside technology. Give each person the group’s full attention. People are willing to be vulnerable if they feel they are being heard.

Avoid voting. You may be tempted to put the issue to a vote. But that’s rarely the right answer. As Lawrence Susskind wrote in Breaking Robert’s Rules: Consensus-Building for Group Decision Making, “Majority-rule decisions almost guarantee an unhappy minority — and instability. After all, an unhappy minority will often bide its time, awaiting an opportunity to sabotage the group’s outcome. Consensus building allows a group to reach the best agreement it can find, not one that is barely acceptable to a majority.” Rather than voting, agree to strive for consensus and keep the process open until everyone is satisfied with the solution.

Consensus does not mean unanimous, which, while powerful, can be difficult to achieve. A more reasonable standard is agreement or harmony. Ask people to decide whether they want to go with option A or option B and then ask if anyone feels like they can’t live with the choice that the group is leaning toward. Ideally, those in the minority will acknowledge that while they preferred the other option, they’re willing to align with the group’s wishes. Make sure that no one feels this choice is a showstopper — that they simply can’t live with the decision. If someone does, press pause and spend 15 minutes seeing if there’s a way to deal with the individual’s concern. If at the end of that time, you haven’t made progress, the person agrees to meet offline with a couple of other team members to find a way to manage their concern. In other words, the group commits to finding a solution, and the person commits to not holding up the group’s progress indefinitely.

When It’s Two People

Sometimes it’s not the entire group that’s stuck but just two people. It can be helpful to intervene, especially if the disagreement has gotten personal or emotional, or if their impasse is holding up the entire group.

Start by summarizing each person’s position, perhaps writing it on a white board, and check to ensure that you’ve done so accurately. Ask the group to state the benefits of each person’s view, and then any concerns. Ideally, the two people directly involved will participate as well, but at times it’s better to allow them to just listen.

With the pros and cons of each position out on the table, ask the group to think out loud about how both sides can be accommodated. This process often allows the individuals who can’t agree a chance to reflect and think about alternatives. One or both people might need a break before moving forward. Finally, ask the two people where they stand now that they’ve heard the group’s discussion and how they think they might move forward.

Advice in Action

I recently had the opportunity to put this advice in action with a group of 30 factory workers who were at an impasse: some wanted to increase the number of units they produced during each shift to earn production bonuses (which they called “tripping their incentive plan”) and others wanted to keep the status quo because they feared the faster pace would be stressful and unmanageable. Prior discussions had ended in a stalemate and caused hurt feelings and residual animosity that lasted for weeks.

To clear the air, we began the meeting by creating the following agreements:

  • We will not “trip the plan” unless everyone is OK with doing so; and we will not resort to voting where the majority wins.
  • We will keep the conversation as relaxed and as gracious as we can.
  • We will try not to offend each other, and we will give up our right to be offended by what someone says or asks.
  • One person will speak at a time while everyone else listens attentively and patiently.
  • We will capture every concern, idea, and point of view on a flip chart until everyone agrees that every issue has been surfaced and heard.

During the discussion, one person shared that they were living from paycheck to paycheck. Another person wanted to start saving for their kids’ college tuition. A couple of the older workers were worried about being able to keep up physically. Someone else thought that increased productivity would lead to fewer jobs for the factory. This level of honest speaking created a deeper understanding of the other’s viewpoint, which is the first step in finding a light at the end of the tunnel.

Once people had listened to one another and the situation was fully described and captured, a smaller subgroup agreed to meet and see if they could resolve all of the issues so a decision could be made. That group agreed that if the decision was to “trip the plan,” it would be an experiment for 30 days, at the end of which if people’s concerns were not addressed, the group would agree to return to the previous levels of production. Thirty days later, everyone was comfortable operating at the higher rates, no one was whining about the change, and several equipment changes were made to address concerns that surfaced during the initial discussion about raising the production levels. 

Many of us have been raised to avoid confrontation. We’ve also learned to be nice rather than to be candid. Yet, we know that on the other side of difficult conversations is progress and a sense of accomplishment. You can get there by raising issues, staying in conversation, and trusting yourself and others on your team.

How to Help Your Team with Burnout When You’re Burned Out Yourself

As a manager, you want to do right by your employees and support them through intense work periods so they don’t get burned out. But this can be a challenge when you’re feeling overly stressed yourself. How can you take care of yourself so that you have the time and energy to support your team? What steps do you need to take to reduce your stress level? And what actions can you take to improve your team members’ well-being?

What the Experts Say
It’s tough to find the energy you need to help others when you yourself are at your limits. Burnout — as opposed to more run-of-the-mill stress — can cause you to “feel utterly depleted,” says Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and author of Emotional Agility. And it “can permeate all aspects of your life. You are overtired and under-exercised; you’re not attentive to food and nutrition; and you’re disconnected from relationships.” But it’s not just you who suffers. “Your team is picking up on your stress, and it’s making everything worse,” says Whitney Johnson, the author of Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. So for the sake of both your health and the health of your employees, you need to summon all the resources you can to improve matters. Here’s how to do that.

Make your own health a priority
Before you can help your team members manage their stress, you need to manage your own. “Instead of hunkering down and concentrating” on your job, “you need to stop, look around, and figure out how you’re going to help your people get what they need,” says Johnson. A good starting point is to take care of your physical and mental health. Eat healthy, wholesome food; exercise regularly; get plenty of sleep at night; “try meditating, and find someone to vent to”— preferably “not your boss.” Taking care of yourself is not an indulgent luxury; it’s a matter of self-preservation. Johnson suggests sharing your tension-management techniques and rituals with your team. “Say, ‘here’s something I’m doing to manage the stress. This is how I cope.’”

Tackle the problem as a group
Even if you haven’t fully reigned in your stress, it’s helpful to demonstrate that you take the issue seriously. You can even suggest that you all take on self-care as a team — learning meditation as a group or sharing tips about what practices are working to reduce stress. You can make it a team goal to keep stress under control, says David. “Say to your team, ‘Even in the context of this change, how do we come together?’” This is helpful for the group but will also keep you accountable for taking care of yourself. Don’t force anyone into these activities though. A sense of autonomy can counteract the symptoms of burnout so you want people to feel they are making their own choices.

Exhibit compassion
Don’t be so hard on yourself or your team. “Burnout can often feel like a personal failing,” says David. But of course, that’s not true: We are all susceptible to it — and, in fact, our “environment precipitates” it. We are “living in an imperfect world, and yet we expect perfection.” Many organizations breed stress. “The ambiguity, the complexity,” not to mention the 24/7 nature of technology, leads many of us to feel “an extreme level of strain.” Be compassionate. Recognize, both inwardly and publicly, “that all of us are doing the best we can with the resources we have been given.” This doesn’t mean that you’re “lazy or letting yourself off the hook.” Rather, you’re “creating a psychologically safe place for yourself and others.” Johnson recommends talking your team through stressful periods in an honest but upbeat way. Yes, the workload is intense. And yes, big, high stakes projects are daunting. Tell your team, “‘We are in this together, and I know we can deliver.’”

Set a good example
You also need to “think about the [behaviors] you’re modeling” to your team, says David. “If you’re running from meeting to meeting and don’t have enough time in the day to breathe,” what message does that send? Set a good example by making downtime a priority. Show your team that you don’t always operate in full-throttle mode at the office. “Bring humanity back into the room,” she says. Johnson agrees. When “your people are completely overwhelmed,” you need to “encourage them to take regular breaks,” she says. “They need time to rest and rejuvenate and disconnect from work.” It’s also important to set limits on how much work encroaches on evenings and weekends. Whatever you do, “don’t send anyone on your team an email at midnight,” says Johnson. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this out.’ But you’re also throwing a grenade into your employees’ peace of mind.” Instead, she recommends using Boomerang, or a similar program, that allows you to schedule emails.

Focus on the why
A common symptom (and cause) of job-related burnout is a “disconnect between a person’s values” and the work at hand, says David. “You feel stressed and tired, and yet you continue to work and work and work,” all the while forgetting what drew you to your career and organization in the first place. “It can be toxic.” As a leader, you need to “develop a shared sense of why” — as in, why are we driven to accomplish the mission? As a boss, it’s your job to galvanize your team. Remind them of the objective and why it’s important to the organization and your customers. When people have shared values and connection they are more likely to feel positively about their work.

Advocate for your team
If you and your team are suffering under a heavy workload, it might be time to ask your boss for a reprieve. It is your responsibility “to advocate for your team within the context of your organization’s goals,” says Johnson. She recommends talking to your boss about the effect stress is having on morale and performance. “Say, ‘My team is fully committed to this project, but people are tired. And we all know the law of diminishing returns.’” Convey the consequences of burnout and describe how it is in your boss’s best interest to take action. “There are going to be mistakes and slippage. And those will be costly.” Explain that you’re worried you might lose people who are valuable to the organization. Then ask, “can this deadline be pushed back? Or can this assignment be curtailed?” Think, too, about what you can “put in place within your team that can help,” says David. Perhaps certain meetings can be discarded or at least shortened. It’s “important that leaders go to bat” for their employees.

Be a source of optimism
Whenever work is frenzied and frantic, make a concerted effort to promote positivity, says Johnson. This is hard to do when you are stressed out but “look for the good,” she says. “Smile at people. And be kind.” Make sure you regularly acknowledge, recognize, and thank people for their efforts. “Say, ‘I notice you did X. Thank you. I appreciate it.’” Cultivate a feeling of community and social support. When your team hits a milestone or when a particular crunch time is over, celebrate. Acknowledge the accomplishments — yours and the team’s.

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Encourage your team to take regular breaks and seize opportunities to rejuvenate.
  • Support your team with inspiring language. Your message should be, “We are in this together.”
  • Go to bat for your team. If the workload is too heavy, ask your boss if deadlines can be moved or tasks reassigned.

Don’t

  • Neglect your health and wellbeing. Take good care of yourself and share your favorite stress-reducing strategies with your team.
  • Consider burnout a personal failing. Recognize, both inwardly and publicly, that people are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
  • Get bogged down in negativity. Be a source of optimism and try to cultivate positivity in the ranks.

6 Ways to Prepare Your Organization for Change

Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is among those who believe the coming business transformation will be on a par with the vast changes brought about by the steam engine, electric power, and the introduction of computing.

Schwab identifies several ways businesses will need to change to survive in this new era:

  • They must look “outside in” to embrace the developments outside their industry that have the potential to radically change what’s happening within it.
  • They must create internal cultures of innovation willing to embrace rapidly-changing ways of doing things.
  • They will need to “resist short-term thinking” and keep focused on the long-term changes that these technologies can bring to their business.

Schwab argues that the profound nature of technological developments in areas like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering will require business leaders “to draw deeply on their values and those held by their employees and stakeholders to both navigate and shape” this new industrial revolution.

Three Factors That Define Organizations Ready for Change

First, effective leadership is in place at all levels in the organization. Your organization may have excellent pay, benefits, and employee-friendly policies, but if incompetent leaders are in place, your team will not be motivated to adapt and change.

Second, your people are personally motivated to change. Change happens when people are sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo and are willing to make the effort and accept the risks involved in doing something new.

Third, your company culture is accustomed to collaboration. Effective change demands collaboration between willing and motivated parties.

Six Techniques for Fostering Change in Your Business

Here they are:

  • Share information freely. Information is the lifeblood of any organization.
  • Help people see why the change is necessary. During times of change, getting and disseminating information is critical to operating effectively, flexibly, and quickly.
  • Encourage participation within your team. Allow others to make informed decisions, rather than imposing your own. This will increase employee autonomy and empower your team members to do their best work.
  • Make communication a two-way process. Talk but also listen, especially to people who are resistant to change.
  • Get into the trenches with frontline employees to better understand the day-to-day issues they face.
  • Push decision making down to the lowest levels possible. Give people practice in collaborative work between functions by tackling problems and assigning projects through cross-functional teams.

Change is part of the new normal. Outperforming leaders will be those who help their people get ready.

Although creating a culture that is ready for change is not easy, it will be worth it.