It was a long, beautiful, and elegant conference table. For more than a decade, we had frequent meetings around this table.
I believed that we had healthy discussions or.. conversations. Did we?.
Usually, twenty to thirty people attended those meetings, facing off one another in two long lines. We often patted ourselves on creating an environment where people felt free to share their views about the issues. We encourage people to open up and throw their crazy ideas. We proudly told outsiders how every attendant would get an equal opportunity to contribute their views to the meeting outcomes. We also boasted how we were disdainful of Job titles and hierarchies in our meetings.
Then, one day, like how a burst of ice from Elsa’s fingers had hit Anna’s head in the ‘Frozen’ movie, the reality hit us hard. Oh! Lucky! Like Anna, the blast of truth struck us only in the head -Not the heart. It touched our rational mind, not the emotional part of the brain.
Remember the lines spoken by a Troll named Pabbie in the frozen movie -The heart is not so easily changed but the head can be persuaded with efforts.
Ok. Let’s cut the slack -What’s the problem with this table?
Nowadays, this conference table reminds me of the banquet dinner parties. Most of them have a long table where people sit in two opposite rows facing each other. I have attended many such dinners along with my friends. We usually sit on one side of the table. I found it impossible to interact with a mate sitting after the 4th or 5th chair. Forget about communicating -It was nearly impossible to make eye contact without craning your neck.
While at the dining table, I also observed that we had unintentionally formed small groups, comprising 3–4 members. Each team discussed different topics.
How did we happily adopt this banquet table for meetings in our conference rooms?
As the table length increases, the communication gap widens.
We observed that people who stayed farther away from the middle of the table became more of a passive listener than an active contributor. As time passed, they felt that sharing their ideas/views would appear as interfering with the discussions. The table indirectly discouraged the flow of crazy ideas from people sitting near the ends of the table.
We have successfully created an obstacle for the free sharing of ideas. And the unfortunate part -We were not even aware of it.
Over the decades, as we paraded in and out of countless meetings around this long conference table, we witnessed another unpleasant outcome. Our directors and department heads needed to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas. So, they began to sit at the center of the table. An innocuous step that set off a vicious circle of power-politics. The name & title boards began to appear on the meeting table before we could realize it. Soon, people who sat closer to the middle of the table were considered as prominent people, next to the directors and department heads. They became the second most influential team in the meetings and the company. It was the beginning of hierarchy in meetings that we had vehemently opposed it earlier. A monster was growing up in front of our eyes. Unfortunately, we failed to take note of it for years. Longer the table, greater the power distance between those people near the middle of the table and those on the end. It was an unequal power distribution.
Gradually, the concept of personal success took precedence over the organization’s success in an individual’s mind. It became apparent that where you sit can help or hurt your chance of success in the meeting.
So, slowly, the table had become an impediment to our organizational growth. Who created this obstacle? We. Yes. We were completely unaware of how this table had been undermining our core cultural values.
Unfortunately, we assumed that only the people who attend the meeting are essential for quality work output. We failed to fathom the profound impact a conference table can have on organizational culture.
Humans are fallible and imperfect in many ways. Mistakes are inevitable. We have a lot of blindspots & many things stay below our awareness. It takes conscious effort and time to bring those hidden things into our knowledge. An open mind, empathy, and patient listening ability would help to identify those blindspots.
So, What kind of table do you have in your meeting room?
Note: The above article is a slightly modified version of content from the book ‘Creativity Inc.’ written by Ed Catmull.