In some countries, the coronavirus lockdown has been more than three weeks already, and the future ahead looks similar, with a minimum of three more weeks. Organizations and employees have reacted to this new threat, and most workers who had the chance, are working from home. However, we should acknowledge that during the Coronavirus crisis, it is not that most of us are working from home; but that (fortunately) the government has sent us home and we are trying to work.
This difference looks trivial but having people requiring special care, looking after kids, and performing normal housework, etc., is making working from home quite challenging for many of us. If this wasn´t enough, a highly contagious disease is interrupting the already complicated balance between work and confined life. This disease comes from many managers who are confined at home, and perceive this situation as overwhelming as well. Can you guess the disease? Yes, it is the terrible “meetingitis”, the so-called excessive propensity to hold unnecessary meetings.
Meetingitis is not a new phenomenon, rather the opposite, but the coronavirus crisis has spread online meetingitis from the corporate environment to the private sphere inside most homes, and bosses are becoming “one more” in the house. Now, many managers at home have a tendency to over control through excessive online meetings where everybody has to attend.
These weeks, through online executive coaching and consultancy sessions, I have had the opportunity to talk to managers and to middle managers. I have listened to managers from one side, who need and enjoy such daily long online meetings from home, and from the other side, employees who complain a lot more because those daily meetings affect their productivity, execution and morale.
What is this dynamic telling us? My first guess is a management insecurity in some, not all, managers. In this coronavirus crisis, without previous experience of being confined at home, some managers´ identity has been threated. Some questions are popping up within their brains: which is my role? How do I fulfil my role? What is expected from me now? For many managers an automatic copying mechanism for releasing stress seems to be scheduling online meetings every day, sometimes up to 4h each meeting, forcing all team members to assist with the excuse of guiding them in these times of confinement.
What is the main reason? Why does it appear? In the 60´s, a social psychologist, McGregor, developed two contrasting theories that explained how managers´ beliefs about what motivates their employees could affect the way they lead. Theory X included managers who presume (sometimes unconsciously) that employees need to be controlled and managed, especially because they do not like to work. Theory Y embraced managers who presume that employees can self-motivate and self-manage and that accept challenges and responsibilities.
With the coronavirus lockdown, many managers who fall into Theory X (probably more than we would like to admit) have felt the urge to control their teams, and have stablished daily long online meetings as a way to perform their management style. It has allowed them to feel busy and productive, as a kind of “cure” for their anxiety. Unfortunately, on the other side of the computer, many employees are complaining from online meetingitis.
How can we help leaders NOT to do this? We can approach this question from two different angles.
First, directly with the manager. Systemically, she could activate her systems intelligence, her ability to see her experience as not just her own, but also as a part of the system as a whole (which includes her team and her need to have quality time to be creative, to finish projects, etc.), therefore, with a focus on interaction and feedback (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/virtuous-vicious-circles-here-now-jordi-escart%C3%ADn/). Being aware that everything connects to everything else, the manager could reframe the meetingitis and to be more selective (ex., shorter meetings, less meetings, less participants) and to be a servant leader catalysing, enabling and supporting widespread action from her team.
Second, if we do not have access to the leader, but to the employee who is suffering from meetingitis, our approach may be helping them to do the following: to (1) question for whom the meetings are excessive and unnecessary, for her or for the manager? And to (2) ask herself what is the systemic function of those “excessive unnecessary” meetings? In other words, what is the systemic reason of why this is happening? Why things are as they are?
These reflections could lead to (1) acknowledge and accept that it is what it is (yes, here and now is your manager). To (2) thank the manager´s support in the areas and moments that adds value to her goals (even if the manager´s support is perceived as disturbing most of the times). To (3) propose new ways to fulfil the function of the meetings, such as:
(a) proactively informing the manager about the progress of her projects and responsibilities with KPI´s, at a glance reports, etc., diminishing the need for control through the online meetings;
b) coming up with a different sparring every day (a different team member having a meeting with the manager, freeing up the rest of the team) if the manager just needs “audience” in order to be creative and efficient (as Doctor House needed and demanded from his doctors in the American television medical drama “House”);
(c) preparing much more the meetings so you are not victimized but energised by them as an active agent, getting the most out of it (preparing good questions, asking about the vision, strategy, etc.). It would resemble the poem Invictus from William Ernest Henley “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.
Finally, we should remember that “what is important is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us” (Jean Paul Sartre)