Are Your Meetings Like Golf or Hockey?

One of my favorite books that cuts across two of my favorite topics (truth and conflict) is Michael Roberto's Why Leaders Don't Take Yes for An Answer. He is the source of the definition I often use of consensus: it's not universal agreement–it is a combination of a high level of shared understanding with a high level of commitment.

In his chapter about candor, he provides a list of warning signs that your organization might have insufficient levels of candor, and the first one I thought was particularly awesome:

Do management meetings seem more like hushed, polite games of golf or fast-paced physical games of ice hockey?

This metaphor apparently comes from research done about Jack Welch's reign at GE. Welch played hockey growing up in Massachusetts and described it as a game where you can crash someone into the boards during the game, but then go have a drink with him after. Apparently he treated his meetings the same way. He would follow you around the room hurling arguments and objections at you, and you were supposed to "fight back." 

A lot of management meetings aren't like that. People say about one fourth of what they are thinking and then retreat back to their offices and departments where they say what they REALLY think or express objections they weren't comfortable saying in front of everyone.

Now, I also played hockey growing up in Massachusetts (though not with Welch), so I'm not sure I would take the hockey metaphor too far (hockey's love of violence is a problem if you ask me), but the basic point made by Roberto is spot on. In hockey you're wearing pads, so "getting physical" is designed to be relatively harmless. In our organizational meetings, we need the ability to get rough like that–not hurting anybody, mind you, but challenging them fully, maybe upsetting them, maybe even sparking an emotional reaction, because that is a part of being human. But we also stick with the conversation long enough to come to resolution. We push each other because we both share a commitment to truth and problem solving and its only when we push each other that you advance the conversation into new areas. Otherwise we stay stuck with the same problems, year in, year out.

We need to build our internal capacity to handle conversations like that–being rough without hurting anyone. More often than not, we come into organizations without the experience of being able to be direct and up front with people in organizational settings, particularly in the group setting of a meeting. In hockey we practice and we scrimmage. We figure out how to check people into the boards (people on our own team, no less, during practice) and we also learn how to be checked into the boards ourselves. It just becomes part of the game. 

How can you provide opportunities like that in your organization, where people can learn to challenge and confront each other?

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2 Comments

  1. Scott Meske
    12.04.2011 at 9:52 am

    Jamie: Hockey can be a pretty good analogy in this case for board meetings or organizations in general. We do have a tendency to shy away from contact, if we aren’t prepared properly…and if we are afraid of getting (our feelings) hurt.
    Leave your egos at the door, keep your eyes on the bigger issue at hand, stand up for your values, get knocked down, get back up and do it some more. Shake hands at the end (one of hockey’s great traditions).
    My question: if your board meetings are more like the 18th at Augusta, is your chief staff officer the golfer or the caddy?

  2. Scott Briscoe
    16.04.2011 at 11:43 am

    Love the post — sorry I didn’t see it before I wrote mine yesterday.
    The hockey/golf metaphor does make me think, because there could be worse things than approaching a board meeting as a golf game. Golf is thoughtful strategy followed by ability followed by adjustment. Give me a board and an organization that does that, and I think a lot of good could happen.
    Of course, hockey will always win out in comparison. It’s a team sport vs. an individual one, and you have to put the good of the team ahead of the individual when serving on a board. It certainly has the same elements of strategy-ability-adjustment, at a much faster rate. That’s also probably more like the world, but I think there would still be times when I’d want my board to step back from the rough-and-tumble and approach a problem or issue in the relative calm.