A Troubling Work Meeting

You enter a meeting as a manager of a six-person team. You have thirty minutes to consider ways to cut spending on a particular deliverable that currently involves a lot of work hours to produce.

At first, team members offer their thoughts on the value of the deliverable in terms of customer expectations, organizational brand, and practical necessity. You add your input and feedback, and for a few minutes, the conversation seems productive.

At some point, however, participation begins to dwindle, and you find yourself holding forth before an unresponsive audience. By the end of the thirty minutes, you get the sense that the team is simply waiting for you to tell them what to do, but you didn’t enter the meeting intending to dictate predetermined action steps.

What vs. Why

The gathering hasn’t lived up to its purpose. As you try to figure out what happened, there are two simple questions you could ask:

  • What happened?
  • Why did this happen?

“Why” seems to be a natural follow-up to “what”—you analyze the sequence of events, and then you provide an explanation. What better way to account for an imperfect meeting, right?

I want to suggest here that the first, simpler question—“What happened?”—might uncover enough to provide an opportunity for change.

In a blog post I wrote several years ago about the importance of self-awareness in the workplace, I quoted Tasha Eurich from her 2018 Harvard Business Review article titled “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)”:

As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.

In the process of demonstrating self-awareness, we often want to provide a reason behind our habits and behaviors. As Eurich points out above, however, while the story may be satisfying as a narrative, it risks being wholly inaccurate and counterproductive. I would add that it can also stifle our motivation to change.

The Productive Question: “What Happened During the Meeting?”

Let’s return to the hypothetical meeting I began with. If I were your coach, I might begin by asking you what specifically happened. As you reflect on your behavior during the meeting, you might recall that on several occasions, you felt compelled to refute what the team members were saying. For example, one person had said, “We can’t rush this or cut corners, because it is one of the key elements of our brand.” You immediately responded, “There are many other critical components of our brand that far outweigh this deliverable.” Noticing your reactive response pattern—giving an honest, direct answer to the “what happened” question—represents incredibly valuable data as you try to identify opportunities for growth going forward.

The Confining Question: “Why Did It Happen?”

I would encourage this kind of frank—and nonjudgmental—forensic analysis. At this point in our session, however, you might feel like a justification is in order, an attempt to account for why you acted this way—this is human nature. You might tell me a story that is broader than the issue at hand: “I’ll tell you why I do this. I have always played the devil’s advocate. It’s my way of pursuing alternatives. The supervisor who hired me mentioned to me that it was this trait she admired the most in me. So far, it has served me well. What’s more, there is very little I can do about this tendency; it is deeply ingrained in me. My own father was this way.”

The story of “why” is thoughtful, interesting, and worth sharing—but when it comes to the earlier meeting’s unproductive result, it may not lead to a solution. It produces a persuasive, consoling narrative, but it can also discourage you from trying different behaviors. Instead of prompting you to change, it might entrench the behavior, potentially causing you to dismiss alternatives that, ironically, you presume to encourage through devil’s advocacy.

Focus on “What” Questions

After hearing you out, I might recommend temporarily putting aside “why” and sticking to “what.” For instance, you might ask yourself: “What would happen if I demonstrated curiosity rather than automatic opposition to my team members’ ideas?” In this case, you could consider alternatives in the spirit of problem-solving for one particular incident. Again, you are like a forensic investigator.

Ask yourself, “When it came to this particular meeting with these particular people, what behavior would have been most likely to elicit more participation, better engagement, and outside-the-box ideas?” For the next meeting, you can experiment with refraining from reactive counterarguments and instead encourage team members to develop their ideas.

“Why” is not always a pitfall, but in developing deeper self-awareness in the workplace, it can be less reliable as a forensic tool, particularly when we extend that guesswork to other people’s motivations. In the end, although “what” questions might seem stripped of emotion, they tend to lead to a more compassionate attitude—toward ourselves and others. They make us more receptive to opportunities for success.

Photo Credit: Sora Shimazaki