As paradoxical as it may sound, silence could be a leader’s greatest ally in meetings, if a 12 October piece at Quartz at Work  is anything to go by. According to the article, ‘silent meetings’ are becoming all the rage – particularly within the strategic hothouses of Big Tech organisations.
The piece notes that Jeff Bezos registered his strong belief in silent meetings as far back as 2012, citing a profile in Fortune magazine  that noted: “Meetings of his ‘S-team’ of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team – including Bezos – consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes.”
The Quartz article points out that similar practices are favoured at the Jack Dorsey-owned US fintech firm Square. Again, staff at meetings are required to spend half an hour quietly and patiently absorbing information before anyone can strike up an opening gambit.
In a recent post on the blogging platform Medium,  Square software engineer Pierre-Yves Ricau quoted the policy line on its meetings culture straight from product manager Alyssa Henry, in which she said: “Lots of research says that minorities, women, remote employees and introverts are talked over in meetings and/or have trouble getting their voice heard in traditional meeting culture.
“It sucks not only for the people that are disempowered by the traditional approach, but … for those that unintentionally talk over/shut down conversation, and sucks for leaders that want to hear the best ideas but can’t because folks are being shut down – usually unintentionally.”
Henry explains that meeting agendas are circulated almost bulletin-board style, in the form of amendable, shared documents with broad staff access. “By writing things down,” she says, “it’s easier to share with a much broader audience and it’s easier for all ‘voices’ to be heard via comments. It’s scalable. You all get to see the bi-quarterly discussion docs. Not only do you get to read everything that those attending the meeting read, but you also get to see [the subsequent] Q&A.”
Has this silent revolution created the ideal meetings culture? Or could the mandatory, half-hour reading period pose scheduling issues – given that some, entire meetings with more conventional formats are not even as long as that?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Typically, once a person who is organising a meeting has sent out the agenda papers, from their point of view it’s ‘job done’: all the necessary details have gone out, the relevant parties have been informed and everything is ready. But what that simple step can’t really factor in is how much time people have available – or are willing to devote – to preparing for the meeting. So when you finally get everyone together, there are bound to be varying levels of preparedness.
“How often have we been at meetings where someone has said – with that unmistakeable, ‘dog-ate-my-homework’ sheepishness – that they haven’t read the papers, and offered a host of mostly vague excuses? The impact of this is that you are forced to start the meeting either from the lowest common denominator, which is to assume that no one has read anything, or to accept contributions from people who have not taken time to absorb the available information – and don’t seem to mind contributing on that basis.”
By contrast, Cooper notes, “if you begin every meeting on an explanatory note of, ‘These are the things we’re going to discuss, and these are the key factors to which you need to pay attention,’ then what you are effectively doing is introducing a mindful approach: ‘Let’s focus on what we are here to do without any interference or distraction.’ So, on that basis, I can’t see what’s not to like about the ethos behind silent meetings. It should ensure that conversations start from the precept that everyone is informed. It gives people who like to digest information a chance, privately, to consider it.”
Cooper adds: “We do know that some individuals like to process their ideas while articulating them, while others have to think their ideas through first. Silent meetings would not disadvantage either group: they allow both sets of people to contribute from the same, identical starting point. Much like some of the issues we explored in our GDP blog last week, one of the biggest, perennial challenges for leaders is how hard it is to quantify how much time is wasted in meetings, given that some people are late and others are catching up because they haven’t read the papers. Any system that minimises this time wastage as much as possible while creating a more mindful atmosphere can only be beneficial.”
For further thoughts on running meetings, check out these learning resources from the Institute