skip navigation
Share this:

Staff Meetings - Friend or Foe?

This Advisor column was originally published in February 2006.

What follows is an all too familiar scenario that may be occurring somewhere in your own organization. A workgroup has become engaged in on-going conflict, disagreement and strained communications. In staff meetings, employees take the opportunity to be disrespectful of each others’ ideas, make snide comments, argue, or simply won’t communicate with each other at all. As a result, the last thing that employees want to do is attend or participate in a staff or team meeting. The supervisor breaks out in a cold sweat if the subject of a staff meeting is even mentioned. As a result, the weekly staff meeting is often cancelled several times a month and eventually disappears altogether.

While eliminating staff meetings might seem like the best quick fix solution, doing so usually increases the problems in the workgroup, rather than calming them down. In most instances, the decision to eliminate staff meetings or conduct them intermittently causes the existing negativity and dysfunctionality within the workgroup to increase and spread throughout the entire work unit and sometimes the organization.

Why should it matter if there are staff meetings? In the absence of regular face to face communications with employees about workplace issues, employees are left to create their own reality. As a result, in a workgroup that is already suffering from dysfunctionality, employees begin to participate in gossip, speculation, and rumor to fill in the void. Although gossip, rumor, and speculation are often very painful and personally damaging, it quickly becomes the usual form of communications for the workgroup. As the gossip, rumors and speculations increase, conflicts inevitably result as employees become offended by the latest rumor being spread about them and in turn retaliate. In addition, negativity increases as employees respond in fear to workplace rumors that oftentimes have very little basis in truth.

Thus, the main purpose of the staff meeting is to provide accurate and up-to-date communications to your employees and to shut down unsubstantiated rumors, gossip and speculation about workplace issues. In addition, staff meetings provide a forum for employees to share their perspectives about changes that may be occurring in the workplace in a controlled environment, as opposed to having employees act out their reaction to the change in a negative fashion in the workplace.

At a minimum, staff meetings should focus on the following topics:

  • Information about policies and procedures, especially if a change has occurred. Even if there are no new policies and procedures, however, the supervisor should take the opportunity to focus on one high risk policy per month, such as discrimination, harassment, whistle-blowing, ethics, use of City equipment, Workplace Expectations, etc. and allow employees to ask questions. Employees routinely share with us that they appreciate these policy discussions in staff meetings as it increases their comfort level regarding what is expected of them.
  • Changes in priorities and/or recent developments in what work needs to be performed that may directly or indirectly impact the employees; e.g., new building acquisitions, new hires. Sometimes supervisors are afraid to share this information because they only have small pieces of the information, not all of it. They know that employees will have questions that they don’t have the answers for, and therefore decide it is easier not to talk about the changes at all. Resist that temptation. Let employees know up-front that you do not yet have all the information, but wanted to share with them what you do know so that everyone can be on the same page. Assure employees you will share more information as it becomes available. Acknowledge that you have questions too and that you will be doing your best to get the answers. Then meet that commitment by sharing additional information as it does become available.
  • Any changes in personnel assignments and/or budget revisions.
  • Reinforcement of goals and objectives as well as the progress in accomplishing the prior goals and objectives. Discussing progress helps employees recognize that they are working together to achieve the common goals and objectives, which often gives them a sense of pride and shuts down that feeling that nothing ever really happens in the workplace.

At first, if employees are not comfortable with each other and/or the supervisor, they may not respond to the information being shared by the supervisor. This can be painful for the supervisor (it can feel like paint dries faster) as it can feel like you are talking to an empty room. Do not be discouraged. The time you take to share the information, even if it appears employees are not responding, is still more effective than the time you are spending chasing down the rumors and gossip. In addition, as employees begin to see that you are making a true effort to improve staff meetings and make them more meaningful, they are more likely to start participating.

There are many techniques supervisors can use to try and make the meetings flow better, be more systematic and remain respectful. To keep the meeting progressing, prepare an agenda well in advance of the meeting. Permit employees to submit topics for the meeting and once the agenda has been published make clear that no other topics can be brought up during the meeting. The use of an agenda reduces the chaos that occurs when the meeting is not formatted. In addition, a closed agenda reduces the chance of the meeting being sabotaged by random and undirected questioning.

In order to encourage more participation, consider assigning tasks, reports, learning opportunities, and the oversight of the meeting progression to different staff members. Rotate the assignments throughout the staff until everyone on the staff has contributed.

Finally, to keep communications respectful, the workgroup may benefit from having a set of guidelines for how attendees will treat each other during the meeting. The following suggested guidelines, if enforced, will assist in keeping the meeting focused and respectful:

  • Respect each other and the speakers by arriving at the meeting on time;
  • Arrive at the meeting prepared to focus on the information and conversation being offered;
  • Be respectful of others and don’t engage in side bar conversations with a colleague;
  • Speak as an individual using “I” when making reference to your perspective;
  • Speak to the idea being offered by the individual without criticizing the individual offering the idea
  • If emotions become heated, set the topic aside for further discussion later on. In this case, be sure to report back to the larger group the outcome of the later discussion.

With a little work staff meetings can be a very positive experience for everyone and no longer a dreaded task.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Janice Corbin and Janet May