3 Ways to Grow your Happiness in Meetings

(This is excerpted from my talk at calibratesf.com on Sept 30, 2016.  View slide deck! Calibrate 2016: How to Grow Your Happiness In Meetings

If you’re interested in a class on engineering leadership, click here!

As a leader, you’ll be both hosting and going to a lots of meetings. If it’s something you get great at, it will have a huge impact on both your happiness, and the happiness of those you work with.

Here’s what I’m going to be covering in this blog post:

  1. plan for success
  2. create psychological safety
  3. ask for feedback on facilitation

Let’s jump in… I often end up talking to clients about upcoming meetings that they are nervous about. Here are the questions I typically ask that help them host a successful meeting:


The first question really forces them to think about what outcome they want. Will the group arrive at a decision? Will people give their feedback? Will everyone be more informed about something?

Are the right people going to be in the room? If the meeting is about making a decision, you will likely need to include all the stakeholders. If more people tend to show up than are truly necessary, you may need to un-invite some of the attendees to create a more manageable group.  When I’m thinking about who to invite and how big to make it, I like to keep in mind that a group of 10 engineers for an hour costs about $1000 in salary.

Is the decision maker clear? Are you asking for the group to reach consensus? Or give you opinions that you or someone else will use to decide?

I love thinking about who your allies might be…
Who would stand to gain if what you want ends up happening?
If you talk to them beforehand, might you increase your chances of success?

Finally, think about what the cause would be if this meeting completely failed…

What went wrong? How would you prevent it?

So, those are some of the logistics I like to consider.

The next thing that has a huge impact on meetings is psychological safety. This might sound touchy-feeling, but it’s grounded in scientific research:

In 2012, Google did a research project called Project Aristotle. A manager in the People Analytics dept studied 180 of Google’s most successful teams, to try to figure out what makes them tick. He was thinking that maybe the most successful teams would be all introverts, or have a particular style of meeting, but the research showed that the most successful teams really came down to only two things:


Conversational turn-taking is the when everyone on the team speaks roughly the same amount (not that everyone goes in a circle and gets 3m each to speak, but on average, everyone talks the same amount over time). High social sensitivity is the ability to read how other people are feeling based on their tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues.

Psychology researchers refer to conversational turn-taking and high social sensitivity as aspects of Psychological safety, which is a fancy way of saying that you won’t get embarrassed or rejected for saying wrong thing. So, Google’s research indicates that psychological safety, more than anything else, is critical to making a team work.

Here is another fascinating piece of research from UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in 2008, from Matthew Liberman & Naomi Eisenberg.  The same part of your brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) registers signals for both physical pain & social pain.

So when someone says “my arm hurts” and “my feelings are hurt”, it is literally the same place in their brain that is registering that information.

So what does this research suggest? That the workplace is a SOCIAL SYSTEM, even for engineers.

Think back to the last time you were humiliated in a meeting. Most of us remember things like this really well. How did it feel in your body? How nice would it have been for someone to speak up for you?

What I find fascinating (and a bit terrifying), is that most engineering cultures of full of small microagressions related to ignorance. I’m not even talking about race or gender-based micro aggressions. Here are some of the things I have personally witnessed:


Essentially, they communicate to people in a meeting that you’d better watch your step, because not knowing something can be dangerous.  As a leader, you can (and should) stop this; here’s how:


First, you can share the results of the Google and UCLA studies with your team. I am often surprised by the pushback I get after sharing these; leaders say things like “well how am I going to work with people who are incompetent?!?” Of course you should insist that people learn things that are critical for their work; the point of psychological safety is that is OK to not know now as long as you are willing to learn.

Other things you can do are to reframe things you hear in meetings (whether you are a facilitator or a participant!), or speak for people who might not speak up for themselves. You could say “if I were Steve, I would feel put down by what you just said”. I want all of us to be able to be honest if we don’t know something.  You can also include mentoring and teaching in your career ladder, so that it’s clear it’s a skill that is valued. Finally, you can model not knowing yourself, by asking people on your team to explain things to you that you don’t know, rather than just faking it or asking in private. Seeing a powerful example of a leader asking for help or more information makes it safe for others to do so!

My final tip about more happiness in meetings is regularly asking for feedback. Have you ever sat in a really boring meeting, agonizingly waiting for it to be over? How would your experience change if you knew the facilitator would ask for feedback at the end, and be willing to change based on your suggestions? Asking for regular feedback in meetings unlocks the wisdom of the participants, so that they don’t feel trapped, AND it’s likely you’ll hear some great ways that you can improve as a faciliator. It might feel risky at first, but it’s amazing how quickly you can learn with regular feedback.

Finally, be unfailingly kind (h/t to Michael Lopp for this). You have no idea who in your next meeting might be going through a divorce, struggling with a difficult child or parent, suffering from an illness that you can’t see, or just having a bad day. If doing it for other people isn’t sufficient motivation, kindness and generosity have been linked to greater life satisfaction, stronger relationships, better mental and physical health, and generous people even live longer.

I hope you can use these tips to create one of the most successful and happy teams at your company!

If you’re interested in a class on engineering leadership, click here!

Inner Game of the Startup CEO: mastering the secret challenges no one talks about (SxSW 2014)

Elite athletes must focus on more than physical training to win. Startup CEOs also have an inner game to master on the way to success.

The many hidden challenges to being a startup CEO aren’t talked about enough.

Among other things, you face repeated rejection; suffer failures small and large; complete overwhelm; deep self-doubt (if not outright depression); face seemingly impossible dilemmas, decisions and circumstances; and struggle with difficult relationships. At times you feel completely alone, like you’re the only one with these problems, and that there is no one you can talk to. You ask more than once, “am I crazy, or is this normal?”


Continue reading “Inner Game of the Startup CEO: mastering the secret challenges no one talks about (SxSW 2014)”

Why startup teams resist hiring a new leader, and what to do about it

angry mob

I’ve run across this situation with startup CxO coaching clients three times in the past week, so it felt like a good time to write about it…

Here is the scenario: You realize that you need to hire a more experienced leader for an existing team, and there is lots of resistance to making the hire: the team doesn’t see the value in bringing on someone more senior, they think it will ruin their existing freewheeling culture, or they are confused that you want to replace a leader who is well-liked (but not performing well).

Here is the deal: they often don’t know what a great leader would look, sound, or feel like, or what they would contribute to the team. Early hires tolerate uncertainty & chaos well, and value a lack of structure. To them, you are “ruining” a great thing. They have heard (or lived) the horror stories of bad managers, so they value strong individual contributors who can organize people around them reasonably well, and who primarily represent the core values & beliefs of the team. You, on the other hand, are looking for a solid people manager who will provide some more structure, accountability, & mentoring, who will contribute to a broader strategy and to the exec team, can act more autonomously, and who will balance the demands of the business with the needs of the team.

You’ve announced that the hire is underway, you’ve written a job description, and you’re bringing in candidates. The team interviews possible leaders, and because they can’t actually envision what a more skilled/senior leader would look like, they screen for what they would look for in a peer (ability to do the hands-on job of senior individual contributor is usually what they look for), and overlook the qualities that would make them a great leader: people skills, ability to lead a team in making a decision, planning, accountability, and collaboration with peers to solve complex company-wide problems. The post-interview meetings devolve into arguments about what you’re looking for, and you start questioning your sanity, especially if you haven’t hired for this role before. You feel like you’re totally wasting your time talking to the team that’s arguing about this, and you wonder if the drama will ever end…

The assumption that most drives people nuts about this one is that they dearly want it to be a collaborative process; they value getting the input & buy-in from those around them, and they can’t understand why the team won’t fall in line and help with the hire.

I can think of at least two paths to follow, both with pros and cons…

Continue reading “Why startup teams resist hiring a new leader, and what to do about it”

6 Keys to Happiness When Your Startup is Acquired

Acquisitions aren’t easy, but they don’t have to be miserable. Here’s a guide for anyone at a company being acquired (most applies to acquirers as well).

Last week James Home and Marcy Swenson hosted a core conversation at SXSW on How to Be Acquired and Stay Happy. Wonderful smart people generously participated, sharing their experiences of what worked and didn’t in both sides of dozens of acquisitions of tech startups. (In a future post, we’ll summarize the unique issues for founders and the executive team leading up to acquisition.) With the market shift in startup exits from IPOs to acquisitions, learning to do it well and happily is important to anyone at a startup.

Interestingly, the entire conversation focused not on business integration or strategy but on human integration. We think the strategy may be less important than the people and how they run with it.

Here are the six keys… Continue reading “6 Keys to Happiness When Your Startup is Acquired”

How to Be Acquired and Stay Happy (Startup Happiness at SxSW 2012)

We’re proud to have both been asked to lead sessions at SxSW 2012, and look forward to seeing you in Austin starting tomorrow! Dale had to decline his panel this year due to scheduling snafus, but Marcy’s looks like it will be standing room only again (like 2011’s Agile Self-Development)…

Come and share your happy acquisition success stories!

Often company acquisitions that seem like a great idea result in disappointment, a mass exodus, the technology being tossed aside, and hard feelings on both sides. But every once in a while, an acquisition results in the team feeling like they got a big win, not just financially, but that it moved their product and careers forward in a way that would have taken them much longer otherwise.

How to Be Acquired and Stay Happy: Marcy and friend James Home, Product Designer, Google (through its acquisition of MetaWeb), lead a Core Conversation about acquisition success stories.  The goal is to draw out what worked well, and provide those looking to be acquired with some guidelines to what to watch for and how to pull it off happily.

Get there early to get a seat and join the conversation; we look forward to seeing you in Austin this week!

Friday, March 9, 3:30-4:30pm, Courtyard Marriott, Rio Grande Ballroom

#sxsw #StayHappy

Why values? because otherwise, it’s all about money

“Values are the foot you leave on the floor when you pivot.” – Eric Ries

This was Eric Ries’ response earlier this month, when I asked him if he had any thoughts about company values. I love the mental picture this creates; of a team with one foot planted so solidly in their values that they can use that as an anchor when making a decision about where to go next when they realize that customers don’t love their product, or when their business model isn’t working.

Continue reading “Why values? because otherwise, it’s all about money”