The Manifesto of Benevolence in Meetings

This manifesto is only about benevolence in
meetings within hierarchical organizations.

Version française…

Here is a manifesto of benevolence which can be summarized in 3 words to ensure employee wellbeing on a daily basis:

No public criticism

In any kind of meeting, publicly criticizing someone’s ideas can be humiliating or hurtful: “I don’t agree because…”; “It’s not a good idea because…”; “Yes, but…”: yes, your idea is interesting, but not so interesting because…

Public criticism fosters a climate of fear and distrust and then disengagement: fewer ideas expressed and therefore less decision-making excellence.

Constructive criticism (factual and future-oriented) is useful in one-on-one meetings to improve technical and behavioral skills (working relationships). In a hierarchical context (career, reputation) and in public (meetings), people want to be listened to, not criticized. At the end of the meeting, the decision-maker explains why he is retaining an idea, not why he is rejecting other ideas.

Constructive criticism is always negative. For this reason, it must be factual and future-oriented: areas that need improvement in terms of skills. Positive criticism is a compliment! Criticizing a person publicly is not constructive, but rather humiliating. It should therefore be done in a one-on-one meeting and not in a meeting. If you really want to explain why you reject an idea, or if an employee asks for an explanation, then do it in a one-on-one meeting after the meeting.

Collective intelligence is fueled by divergence; it is destroyed by criticism. Diverging means expressing opposing ideas and arguing them with facts in order to create a safe space of discussion, in writing or speaking, from the beginning to the end of the meeting.

Criticizing or objecting is acceptable in a non-hierarchical context: political, scientific, sports, associative, educational, family or friendship contexts; a confidential one-on-one meeting with only the manager and the employee; possibly in teams in self-management mode. However, in a hierarchical context, criticizing in a meeting is a major obstacle to collective intelligence and decision-making excellence.

Criticism in a non-hierarchical context is acceptable, but when it is public, it is still problematic. When a professor criticizes a student publicly in front of the class, what are the consequences? Does the fact that the criticism is based on facts reduce the student’s level of humiliation? Developing a critical mind is very important, but it means questioning, doubting, arguing, exploring, verifying – not humiliating.

Bad practices in Strategic or Operational Codev: “Thank you for your ideas, but I already knew all that. You have taught me nothing or nothing much”; “Thank you, but I have already tried that idea and it does not work”; “Thank you, I have not tried that idea, but I doubt it will work.”

Benevolence does not mean speaking last, then going over all the ideas you think are bad and shooting them down. Being benevolent, managing a team effectively, consists in focusing on the ideas you’ve retained and working to improve them. Shooting down what the chief considers bad ideas is useless and potentially malevolent. If you have not identified THE right solution, it may be because you did not take sufficient time to find it; you do not have the right people around the table (those who will execute or those who will be impacted); you have not properly defined the problem. That said, to make things worse, you can also waste time by criticizing “bad ideas.” Just because your criticism is factual does not mean it is acceptable or helpful. Be factual about the ideas you support, not the ones you reject.

Hurting and humiliating people in meetings can be considered as a necessary evil if we want to be efficient. Of course, we must admit that it has always worked that way and that it is a norm in many organizations. Public criticism is therefore “normal”. Unfortunately, in a hierarchical context, the more we criticize, the more we object, the more people will be afraid, the more distrustful they will become (reputation, career) and the less ideas they will express. Fewer ideas means fewer solutions. We increase decision-making risks. We also foster cognitive biases, especially the Group Think bias. Each member of the group tries to conform his opinion to what he believes to be the consensus of the group. This phenomenon of pseudo-consensus leads to a kind of one-track thinking. Thus, benevolence in meetings contributes to decision-making excellence by limiting irrational decisions.

The objective of benevolence in meetings is to move from the logic of destroying other people’s ideas through objections/criticism to the logic of hybridization and co-construction on each other’s ideas. Where should we focus our energy? We can go directly from the objection to the counterproposal. You have nothing to propose? Then ask questions! You have identified risks? Propose a less risky solution. Thus, benevolence in a hierarchical context can be summarized as follows:

“I object, I criticize” becomes “I propose”

“I identify a risk” becomes “I present a less risky solution”

Criticize, object becomes Diverge or ask questions

Many organizations promote benevolence, but where are the penalties and rewards? You will leave behind organizational incantations the day that maliciousness becomes a red line: actually punish deviant behavior. Just like harassment, maliciousness is a poison that gradually renders your organization toxic. Little comments, words, postures that accumulate and destroy engagement, trust and therefore collective intelligence over time.

In fact, a negative public criticism is like smoking: a micro-poison. The effect is not instantaneous. It gradually erodes the engagement like a cancer. When your spouse criticizes you in front of friends at a party, you will probably complain about this behavior. When it is your manager or your colleagues, you will probably suffer and protect yourself by reducing your participation to the minimum. You are going to be quiet.

This manifesto of benevolence in meetings invites you to create a safe space for discussion by respecting a simple principle that can be summed up in three words: no public criticism.

If you want to go further, I invite you to discover the Collective Intelligence Manifesto.

“To become a leader, you must first become a human being.” Peter Senge

Author: Olivier Zara

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