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Men meet together for many reasons in the course of business. They need to instruct or persuade each other. They must agree on a course of action. They find thinking in public more productive or less painful than thinking in private. But there are at least as many reasons for meetings to transact no business. Meetings are held because men seek companionship or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for the prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside. Finally, there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action.
J K Galbraith

It’s the last sentence that resonates with me. I am guilty of calling board meetings and ‘brainstormings’ based my need to control my anxiety and feel potent and proactive. I can’t remember any useful initiatives that came out of these sessions, only that I steered the outcome – and the outcome often involved junior people doing time-consuming, make-work tasks – that helped me feel more potent.  Needless to say, outcome measures on these initiatives and cost-benefit analyses were sadly lacking.

This behaviour is a clear example of acting out. What is happening is that the problem driving the meeting – that of anxiety about performance or turnover is never acknowledged as anxiety – and explored as that. It is always construed as a problem with a rational solution. In my experience, anxiety, like any other state of mind that seeks to be be hidden, does its most pernicious work in our inner worlds where it nips away at confidence, and jumps at ‘solutions’ that are, in fact, antidotes to anxiety rather than paths to resolution.

A much better group process is:

  1. Everyone talks about their anxiety – and its effect on them. You will almost certainly find some people in a good place as well as those in the grip of anxiety.
  2. The group discusses this anxiety and whether ‘acting out’ is a good route – or might simply containing the anxiety be more productive?
  3. You look around outside of your field for ‘outside’ examples of such anxiety being acted upon to produce a better result – and see what you can learn from them.
  4. Some time is allotted to the consideration of the consequences of anxiety upon you and your colleagues.
  5. If acting out is decided upon, strict outcome measures and cost benefit equations are designed and put in place.

If, in spite of your opening up the anxiety in an attempt to resolve the issues, the anxiety persists, then in my experience one or more of the following causes is at work:

  1. Withheld communications: someone isn’t being open and transparent about their thoughts or feelings
  2. Thwarted ambitions: people in the group are hoping for things that they feel are being blocked – usually by other group members in their view.
  3. Unfulfilled expectations – one or more members of the group think that they were promised an outcome either in substance or style that is not forthcoming.

In these circumstances the only remedy is openness and transparency. The inevitable alternative is the break up of the team in some way: usually a key figure leaves.

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As a psychologist, psychotherapist and research practitioner of 40 years, I've had the benefit of the experiences of more than 100,000 people around the world. They've talked about their daily lives, hopes, fears, ambitions and needs. These experiences have helped me to contribute to innovations from Beds in Business and the Fast Track for airlines to television drama and online communities. Specialties:Large groups, facilitation, application of psychological theories to commercial issues