My work with management teams involves invariably the question how to change individual and group behavior. “Alper, we need to change our working culture. My people need to take more responsibility.” or “Alper, I am planning this major change in my department. I will have to run a workshop, any ideas how I can make the team get engaged?”. These are frequent questions that get me started on sharing some of the thoughts on how to engage people meaningfully.

The basic premise
People assume ownership if they feel meaningfully involved.

When I work with groups I ask myself: “How can I get the group involved as early as possible and in a way they is relevant to them?”. This is a good question for yourself to ask as well if you are planning a workshop or a meeting. Often as the meeting organiser or manager we can have the tendency to talk early and a lot. This brings me to…

The 1st practice – Checking in
Here is a practice to provide clarity and also engagement early – Have people including yourself ‘Check into the meeting’:

0) Welcome people, recap why you have called the meeting, and check-in by stating two things:

1) How are you today? (in general, anything that is preoccupying your mind? how are you feeling about this meeting?)

2) What would success look like for you? (for this meeting? What would you like to walk away, answers, decisions, commitments etc.)

3) After this role modelling, have everybody check-in.
I like to use a check-in object as a symbol for the speaker to have in their hand as they talk.

When they are done they pass the object to the next person, indicating their right to speak and the commitment of the others to listen. I usually let people pass the object if they are at that very moment not ready to talk and let them take their turn when all others have spoken.







The 2nd practice – Setting working agreements
I usually adopt a second practice before going into the meeting content: setting working agreements. The purpose of such agreements are to agree with people on ‘how’ we want to conduct ourselves during the meeting. The working agreements serve the following purpose:  “We agree to take joint responsibility for theresults of this team and the well-being of all its members.”

This purpose can, in my opinion, already be an eyeopener and challenge to people. Depending on team or organisational culture the responsibility for the meeting outcome and it going well for the people rests with the person who calls the meeting, perhaps the boss. Not according to this agreement. And in my experience this makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. However, behaviors in the group need to support this practice which is what the four additional working agreements are for (I will for now skip a more detailed explanation).

In my experience, people like a lot agreement number four: We ask for what we give and we give what we can. How else could I know that you are unhappy where the agenda or the meeting progress is going if you don’t tell me and make a request what to do different. Makes sense, but without an agreement many people might not think they have the permission to do so (and even with this agreement it might take a few pivotal events in a meeting in which people role model this agreement in practice so that it takes hold). By listening to your request I don’t promise before hearing it that I will accommodate it, but if I or anyone else in the group can so easily we agree to honor request or offer something equivalent or at least an explanation why we can’t honor the request right now.

I usually start the group out with some proposed agreements, let them discuss for a few minutes amongst themselves what they like about the agreements, what is unclear. Then I ask for thumbs up/down to indicate if there are questions that need discussion before everybody can say for themselves: “I will support the implementation of this agreement”. (When I have more time I let the group customise the agreement. Setting working agreements that serve the group can be a workshop topic in its own right).







The 3rd practice – Time-outs
The other ‘cool’ practice is to take time-outs. We agree to stop our talking if something is not helping us as a group achieve our meeting objective. A person volunteers to be the time-out keeper/guardian/observer… (find a suitable name in your language and organization culture). We all agree to be silent if the signal for timeout is used. I like to use a bell, but anything the group agrees can work. Once the signal is there everybody agrees to stop their talking or activity and centre. The time-out keeper then states why they asked for a time out: e.g. because the conversation got off-topic, or talk started to be conflictual, or conducted in a way not honouring the agreements of the group.

In many organisations it is the boss who is this time-out keeper. What a great way to distribute authority in a meeting to other people and also role model as the boss that you are will be subject to the same agreements like everybody else. This is a very powerful act in many organisations in which people opt out of their responsibility, because ‘the boss will fix it’.







The last practice – Checking out

At the end any meeting I will take even the briefest 3 minutes to close by asking: “What are you walking away with from this meeting?” (or How are you feeling about this meeting, or In light of your check-in objective where are you now?). If I have a few extra minutes I might also ask a question that is on my mind: e.g. ‘What about the way we did the meeting today should we continue doing, what should we improve?’. This practice in itself gives people the message that their voice matters and they have here the opportunity to speak their mind. Well if this isn’t revolutionary (sadly) in far too many organisations.

Please let me know your reactions, questions, inspirations…

Source for further reading:
I like to thank my mentors and friends whose work and experience I am leveraging here. Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, whose ‘The Circle Way’ gave me the working agreements and many other practices ( Holger and Roswitha from the Kommunikationslotsen in Germany for their outstanding environment for development (