Mysteries surround so much in the workplace. One of these is why certain people get promoted and others don’t. Why are certain people chosen for certain projects while others are not? I have some insight about this. There’s this thing that I call “the meeting after the meeting.” If you weren’t there, you’d have no way to know about it.
There’s also always a “meeting before the meeting,” and you only know about that if you’re on the setup crew.
The meeting before the meeting, and the meeting after the meeting, may or may not have some overlap.
The first and most important factor for both of these meta-meetings is that the people involved are available at the key time. This may be because it’s their main priority, it may be because they’re merely interested enough, or it may be because of total coincidence.
Any person who is cross-scheduled or too busy to come early/stay late is going to miss out, most likely through no fault of their own.
I started to become aware of these meta-meetings when I was a young office assistant. As the person tasked with setting up tables and chairs, laying out handouts, making coffee, bringing in trays of breakfast pastries, and setting up catered lunches, I saw a lot.
I saw that some people come to meetings early to stake out a favorite seat, review their notes, hide out, take calls, or set up presentations.
I saw that other people hung around after the meeting because they couldn’t stop talking about a project or because it was their only chance to compare notes during a busy day.
I had a broad awareness of who worked on which projects, because almost everyone on staff relied on me to help at various stages. I copy-edited and rewrote sections of technical documents. I collated giant stacks of binders. I ran packages up and downstairs, working to beat the clock before FedEx and UPS stopped by each afternoon. I took notes, interrupted meetings with phone message slips, and summoned people from their cubicles. I was everywhere.
In many ways, I was also the resident bartender. People of every rank from every department would lay out their burdens of resentment, frustration, and wishes on my non-threatening underling shoulders.
When you routinely bail people out on tight deadlines and do their scutwork, they either mistreat you or adore you. It takes about ten seconds to figure out who is in which group. The mean people never understand why the kind people get extra attention, or why their projects somehow wind up farther up the queue. (This also works at coffee shops, by the way).
Years have gone by, and now I see side meetings from a different perspective.
Inside groups are created because the people who always meet before the meeting have accumulated many extra hours together. They have more time to get to know each other. They have a longer track record of working together on mutually desirable goals. They have deeper trust and they feel more collegial. They share values along the lines of punctuality, organization, preparedness, and other qualities related to work ethic.
The rest of us probably share values related to other, competing projects; obedience to a taskmaster; or anything else unrelated to what the people who meet before the meeting are doing.
There is another inside group of people who meet after the meeting. Sometimes this group is created in reaction to the group that meets before the meeting. It can be like a rebel alliance. The post-meeting group lines up due to enthusiasm, but sometimes also to pushback against a new program. What are we going to do about this??
Sometimes the meeting after the meeting comes from ideation. Someone comes up with an appealing idea, someone else is on the same wavelength, and they can’t stop themselves from chattering about it. Others are drawn in by curiosity.
If there’s anything that should be encouraged and supported in any organization, it’s the spontaneous ideation meeting.
Unfortunately, the majority of people in the corporate world are not strong in ideation, and these are the people who tend to move into management. They regard spontaneous ideation meetings with suspicion, even disgust. Knock it off, you slackers. It’s been forty-five seconds and you should be back at your desks, grinding on predictable tasks in isolation.
There’s also something here about nominal authority versus earned authority. The true leader of a group, the thought leader, is probably a natural change agent. This is why this unrecognized and uncrowned leader is so threatening to the established order. This is also why this person draws the instinctual loyalty of anyone who cares about the organization and major projects.
What people want at work is to feel like their contribution matters in some way. They like hearing what happened as a result of their paper-pushing and grinding away at their task lists. They want to know that if they answered someone’s call or email, that response helped the other person to get something important accomplished. They want to know that the right things are getting done.
Weirdly, people are often out of the loop on this cost-free, simple and easy type of communication.
Tell people why they’re doing what they’re doing. It got made, it got pitched, it got bought, the company made money, the test worked, the prototype is up and running. Thanks, everyone, great job. Is that so hard?
A lot of what happens at the meeting after the meeting is communication that should properly have come from official channels. A lot of it is planning for projects that also deserves respect and recognition from higher-ups. Meeting after the meeting is a sign of a need for time, resources, and even an available conference room. If people are standing in the hallway or the parking lot, chattering away about company business, it’s either a very good sign, or it’s not.
What are people talking about in the meeting after the meeting? Stick around and you might find out.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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