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How to hold informal meetings

Funny to say it, but there's almost nothing so difficult as holding informal meetings. Let's take an example. Let's say a manager of a small manufacturing company, Cleopatra, wants to call together her employees to discuss something of vital importance, a change to the company that will impact the lives of all of the employees. Cleopatra is in a difficult situation here. Why is she in a difficult situation?

1. Cleopatra has an important announcement to make. A change has been made in the company, one that will affect the employees. Now, in the long run this change will be to the good of the employees; but in the short run it will present difficulties for them. Therefore, Cleopatra has decided on an informal meeting as the best process for making the announcement. Why an informal meeting?

2. An informal meeting is a great way of giving of a spirit of ease and comfort, even though something serious may be underway. An informal meeting can be fun; you can bring food, for example, to a formal meeting; employees can lounge about where they like; speak up when they like; make their voices heard. They have, so to speak, joined in with the management; it's not a master-disciple relationship any longer. This makes an informal meeting ideal, paradoxically, for serious announcements. Employees don't feel as though something vitally affecting their future is being rammed down their throats; they feel as though they have a say in what's going on; and they should have that feeling, because in a formal meeting they do have such a say.

3. However! Nothing is more liable to make an employee smell a rat than to hear about an informal meeting and at the same time hear a rumor of a major change potentially taking place. The employee in this situation feels as though he or she is being softened for the kill, as it were. Therefore, the manager trying to hold the informal meeting is in a very delicate position, as indicated above. Cleopatra must (a) announce the informal meeting knowing what's going on inside the employees heads, and (b) let the employees know that she takes them seriously, that is, that she's not trying to throw them a few scraps to placate their worry.

How, then, should one in this situation (and many informal meetings feature just such a situation) call and hold a successful formal meeting?

First of all, one should be direct and honest when calling an informal meeting. One should say something such as: "I know you've all heard the rumors about the changes about to take place in the company; and I want to discuss those rumors with you. What do you say we cut off early and meet at four, and I'll order pizza and drinks to make the event a little less miserable for all of us?" Humor can be used in that way. Also, one's letting the employees know that one knows that difficulties may be arising and that one isn't trying to mollify the employees by throwing some greasy slices of pizza at them.

Once the informal meeting starts, it may be a good idea to actually give the employees the floor to begin with. Cleopatra might say: "John, why don't you start us off? What have you heard about the possible reasons for this meeting?" And so on, down the line. That way Cleopatra knows exactly what the employees know, and hopefully she can give them information that's a little less scary or stringent. Also, the employees feel as though they're part of the process, and that their opinions are valuable and needed.

Informal meetings should be fun, light, filled with humor, and it's not a bad idea to introduce some sort of treat into the process to make things less heavy going.

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