Too many group discussions in the workplace are journeys to nowhere in particular.

Prompted by an issue or opportunity confronting the team, these discussions often proceed in pinball like fashion with participants bouncing from topic-to-topic exchanging opinions, venting emotions and obfuscating the real challenges in a haze of egos and politics. And then there are the really bad meetings.

Learning to actively lead group discussions is an essential skill for leaders and individual contributors in today’s project focused and heavily matrixed organizational settings. The best professionals understand the tendency of group discussions to move towards disorder and they actively cultivate their skills as meeting guides to help their teams strengthen performance and productivity.7 Common Group Discussion Pitfalls and How Good Guides Help Us Avoid Them:1. The poorly defined problem or opportunity. Lack of clarity around the issue at hand results in a series of short-lived, high intensity dialogue flash fires where opinions are shared and energy expended but no sustaining heat created.Effective Guides know that a problem or opportunity discussion proceeds based on its framing, and they understand that something framed as a positive or as a negative will elicit different responses and different risk profiles. They strive for neutral framing or, they guide teams through the discussion of both a positive and negative frame and then challenge the group to assess the differences and implications.2. Lack of proper advance meeting planning. We’ve all been in these meetings. The organizer kicks things off but has no real plan for navigating the issues towards some outcome, setting the stage for a rapid descent into discussion entropy.Good Discussion Guides always create a meeting blueprint. They understand the pitfalls described in this post and they define a process that deliberately helps the group move through the stages from venting to clarification, ideation, assessment and decision. Prior planning for group discussions truly prevents poor performance.3. The failure to identify the data needed to support the analysis and evaluate the options. There are a myriad of different data traps that individuals and groups trip into, including the confirming evidence trap (we only seek out information that confirms our opinion), anchoring (we cling to information that support our conclusion and push other information away) and the recency effect (we trust the most recent data and fail to look at history). All are potentially fatal.Discussion Guides understand the power of data to obfuscate reality and they work to ensure that groups define data and information requirements early in the process. They are also sensitive to any trending towards a data decision-trap and cry foul early and often.4. Allowing emotions to constantly pollute discussion quality. We all have them…and sometimes we need to vent, but poorly guided meetings include more flash-fires of emotions which derail ideation and block progress towards solutions.Experienced Discussion Guides allow for upfront and periodic venting. A savvy meeting leader monitors and responds to the pressure in the room, allowing for emotional venting in bite-sized chunks of time. Once the venting has run its course, the meeting leader guides the discussion back on-track.5. The discussion and potential solutions diverge in different directions and the group members become frustrated without a clear direction towards resolution.Great Discussion Guides balance the need for creativity and ideation with the recognition that the group has to eventually converge on an approach. Of all of the challenging tasks discussed here, this takes finesse and deft facilitation.6. The group falls in love with its’ own ideas, at the expense of reality, and Group Think takes hold.Effective Discussion Guides expose assumptions and approaches to objective outside sources and they challenge the group to think through objections and questions.7. Group discussions devolve into debating societies without proceeding towards resolution and action.Good Discussion Guides are resolute in leading  teams through the stormy seas of egos, emotions and traps towards ideas, assessment and then actions. They connect approaches and actions to execution, allowing the discussion to end only when clear accountability for next stepsThe Bottom-Line for Now:Group work is inevitable and all too often wasteful. The best leaders understand the pure raw potential that groups offer, as well as the traps that stand in the way of productive outcomes. They take on a “Guide” persona, and deliberately develop approaches that steer around or over the traps towards effective outcomes.Too many group discussions in the workplace are journeys to nowhere in particular.Prompted by an issue or opportunity confronting the team, these discussion often proceed in pinball like fashion with participants bouncing from topic-to-topic exchanging opinions, venting emotions and obfuscating the real challenges in a haze of egos and politics. And then there are the really bad meetings.

Learning to actively lead group discussions is an essential skill for leaders and individual contributors in today’s project focused and heavily matrixed organizational settings. The best professionals understand the tendency of group discussions to move towards disorder and they actively cultivate their skills as meeting guides to help their teams strengthen performance and productivity.

7 Common Group Discussion Pitfalls and How Good Guides Help Us Avoid Them

1. The poorly defined problem or opportunity. Lack of clarity around the issue at hand results in a series of short-lived, high intensity dialogue flash fires where opinions are shared and energy expended but no sustaining heat created.

Effective Guides know that a problem or opportunity discussion proceeds based on its framing, and they understand that something framed as a positive or as a negative will elicit different responses and different risk profiles. They strive for neutral framing or, they guide teams through the discussion of both a positive and negative frame and then challenge the group to assess the differences and implications.

2.Lack of proper advance meeting planning. We’ve all been in these meetings. The organizer kicks things off but has no real plan for navigating the issues towards some outcome, setting the stage for a rapid descent into discussion entropy.

Good Discussion Guides always create a meeting blueprint. They understand the pitfalls described in this post and they define a process that deliberately helps the group move through the stages from venting to clarification, ideation, assessment and decision. Prior planning for group discussions truly prevents poor performance.

3. The failure to identify the data needed to support the analysis and evaluate the options. There are a myriad of different data traps that individuals and groups trip into, including the confirming evidence trap (we only seek out information that confirms our opinion), anchoring (we cling to information that support our conclusion and push other information away) and the recency effect (we trust the most recent data and fail to look at history). All are potentially fatal.

Discussion Guides understand the power of data to obfuscate reality and they work to ensure that groups define data and information requirements early in the process. They are also sensitive to any trending towards a data decision-trap and cry foul early and often.

4. Allowing emotions to constantly pollute discussion quality. We all have them…and sometimes we need to vent, but poorly guided meetings include more flash-fires of emotions which derail ideation and block progress towards solutions.

Experienced Discussion Guides allow for upfront and periodic venting. A savvy meeting leader monitors and responds to the pressure in the room, allowing for emotional venting in bite-sized chunks of time. Once the venting has run its course, the meeting leader guides the discussion back on-track.

5. The discussion and potential solutions diverge in different directions and the group members become frustrated without a clear direction towards resolution.

Great Discussion Guides balance the need for creativity and ideation with the recognition that the group has to eventually converge on an approach. Of all of the challenging tasks discussed here, this takes finesse and deft facilitation.

6. The group falls in love with its’ own ideas, at the expense of reality, and Group Think takes hold.

Effective Discussion Guides expose assumptions and approaches to objective outside sources and they challenge the group to think through objections and questions.

7. Group discussions devolve into debating societies without proceeding towards resolution and action.

Good Discussion Guides are resolute in leading  teams through the stormy seas of egos, emotions and traps towards ideas, assessment and then actions. They connect approaches and actions to execution, allowing the discussion to end only when clear accountability for next steps

The Bottom-Line for Now

Group work is inevitable and all too often wasteful. The best leaders understand the pure raw potential that groups offer, as well as the traps that stand in the way of productive outcomes. They take on a “Guide” persona, and deliberately develop approaches that steer around or over the traps towards effective outcomes.

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.

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