Meetings Affect Workplace Culture (And Vice Versa)


When I was on vacation, a friend messaged me, I dreamed about you last night.

If I wanted to know the dream, she wrote that I should give her a call. Yesterday we connected. I asked about the dream. She started with a question. “How much of what you do is about company culture?”

“It’s all about culture,” I replied. “But I don’t talk about it. Clients usually want to discuss a specific teamwork issue or are concerned about an upcoming meeting.”

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She continued, “A meeting has a huge influence on culture.” And then she proceeded to convince me I ought to talk more about it with my clients.

It’s a two-way street

She was right. I realized it goes both ways. Meetings affect culture and culture affects meetings.

Meetings are where coworkers hash things out. They make decisions. Those decisions reflect and reinforce the values that are at the heart of your organization’s culture.

Not only does what you decide have an impact. How you go about it also shapes culture. After all, culture is nothing more than how people behave in your workplace. Because a meeting is a collaborative activity, those behaviors become visible to all who attend.

They notice

Think about a tough problem that came up in a recent meeting and answer these questions:

  • How much candor was demonstrated?
  • How broad was the participation?
  • Whose voice seemed to carry the most weight?
  • What kinds of opinions were heard and what kinds were ignored?
  • How much patience did people have for out-of-the-box thinking?

The answers to questions like these and many others say a lot about your culture. Your coworkers walk away with a more refined idea about what’s important around there.

If the behaviors were particularly noteworthy, those coworkers tell the story of what happened to others who weren’t there. With each meeting and each time the story of that meeting is shared, the culture becomes more clear.

Note, I’m not suggesting it becomes better, just more clear and a whole lot tougher to change if it’s not the culture you want.

Meeting success depends on culture

Culture also affects whether your meeting will be successful. Once I booked a training session on a Friday afternoon in late spring. I thought it was an unusual time to do a meeting, but the organizer checked everyone’s calendar and discovered all the people she needed were free.

A couple days before the session, she called to tell me they needed to reschedule the session. She learned that most of the participants planned on being out of the office that afternoon. In Minnesota, this can be a common phenomenon on Friday afternoons from May through September.

The problem was that nobody updated their calendar status with their plans. And, up to that point, that was an acceptable behavior in the organization’s culture.

Ironically the training was on how to run a good meeting. During the rescheduled session, I made the point that sometimes meeting problems can’t be addressed in a meeting. They need to be addressed at a cultural level. I suspect that element of the culture may have changed because of what happened.

Another example of culture affecting meetings is when clients tell me we should give late-comers another few minutes. They tell me that they run on “[INSERT ORG NAME] Time.” That propensity to start late is part of the culture.

Let’s talk about culture

As our conversation continued, my friend asked, “What if meetings enhanced an organization’s culture?”

As opposed to wrecking it, I thought.

Great question. Can you answer it? What effect do meetings have on your culture?

  • Do people feel more or less valued?
  • Are people taught to speak up or shut up?
  • Is it about challenging the status quo or going with the flow?
  • Does trust grow or diminish?

Ultimately, I ended the conversation with three new ideas:

  1. Meetings affect culture.
  2. Culture affects meetings.
  3. My conversations about meetings ought to emphasize culture.

It’s time to put those lessons into practice. Are you ready to talk culture? I am.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce helps companies change by creating stronger teams, more effective leaders, and better processes. To discuss a challenge you're facing, use this link to schedule a free discovery call.