Hard Truths About the Meeting After the Meeting

Leaders must encourage respectful debate during meetings and use related strategies to avoid toxic post-meeting dynamics.

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    A leader attempting to quash the meeting after the meeting would be like a coach trying to stop fans from opining, snarking, or rejoicing after a big game. The hard truth: Win or lose, there will be post-meeting speculations, opinions, and queries. As Dave Kievet, CEO of the Boldt Group, put it, “The meeting after the meeting is inevitable. The only question is whether you are going to participate in that conversation or not.” But leaders can minimize the mischief and mayhem that the meeting after the meeting can create, and positively influence the group’s ongoing dialogues about initiatives, performance, and work climate.

    We’ve all experienced the meeting after the meeting — when several participants informally (and often spontaneously) carry on a candid, sensemaking conversation about the meeting they just attended. These unplanned gatherings tend to be freewheeling because participants perceive the stakes to be lower than speaking up during the formal meeting. People assume minimal reputational costs and diminished accountability. So tolerance for fuzzily formed opinions/arguments becomes heightened as they seek to frame or categorize the uncertainties and unstated sentiments inherent in any formal meeting.1 For instance, if the leader made an insensitive joke, participants may ponder whether it was designed to insult or was just a poor attempt to break the ice. Checking in with others afterward may help people make sense of the unspoken and perhaps unintended motive for the leader’s remark.

    Leaders must understand that the meeting after the meeting often generates moments of clarification, grousing, or pushback. In turn, these outcomes cultivate workplace climates ranging from supportive to toxic, as in these three examples:

    • Sharing a backstory on a new initiative may produce enough clarity that others in the informal post-meeting meeting get reassured and on board. On the flip side, attacking a person’s character, questioning someone’s motives, or spreading rumors may bring clarity to some people but undermine workplace culture.
    • In the military, grousing, often punctuated with a few choice expletives, frequently enhances team solidarity. However, grousing taken to the extreme can gnaw away at the working environment by legitimizing constant grumbling and persistent disenchantment while escalating levels of disengagement.
    • In some cases, the search for clarity and a tolerance for grousing evolve into a steady stream of pushback. When a leader presents an organizational policy, directive, or decision, resistance can take many forms, ranging from voicing concerns and raising questions to active opposition and sabotage.2 Devil’s advocates can use the meeting after the meeting to spread rumors, sow doubt, and undermine leaders, unleashing demonlike waves of resistance. But leaders can also skillfully use a devil’s advocate’s pushback to tweak policies for the better and ease implementation of the decision at hand.

    Through decades of C-suite observations, executive interviews, and research, I’ve identified the most common ways leaders push team dynamics and culture in a toxic direction. Let’s explore five strategies to help leaders transform these post-meeting dynamics in a positive way.

    How Leaders Leave the Meeting Room Door Open to Trouble

    Leaders may unwittingly contribute to toxic post-meeting undercurrents. Consider whether any of the following meeting behaviors sound familiar.

    Spraying and praying. The “spray and pray” approach in a meeting rests on the flawed notion that sharing more information is better. The problem: People can connect the information dots in any number of ways, which can set off multiple discussions outside the meeting. In contrast, effective leaders share information and connect the dots to help people make sense of it.

    At one construction firm, an extensive study of regular meetings among executives, division heads, and team leaders prompted a big change. Their responses to one question proved revealing: “What three words best describe meetings at the company?” The winner, by a landslide, was “informative,” followed by “repetitive” and “redundant.” This sparked a discussion: Was the primary role of most meetings to be merely informative? The executive team decided that meetings should instead be used to seek clarification, facilitate sensemaking, and encourage respectful debate. Otherwise, the leaders would inadvertently relegate those discussions to the meetings after the meeting.

    Ignoring aspirational differences. Leaders often bring together a group of participants with diverse historical, technical, and aspirational backgrounds, hoping to integrate various perspectives into a decision. Yet leaders must remember that these differing backgrounds mean people will have different concerns about a proposal. In one university meeting, a new policy about limiting ad hoc hiring was briefly announced as a “cost-saving effort.” Senior faculty members took the news at face value. But in subsequent meetings after the meeting, junior faculty members turned to senior faculty members and asked, “What’s really going on here? Do I have to be concerned about my position, too?” The junior faculty members were attempting to make sense of the initiative by tapping into historical background and their own job security anxieties.

    Normalizing faux queries. Leaders can easily overestimate the degree of understanding, alignment, and buy-in to a decision when they simultaneously solicit and limit questions, as in these examples:

    • A manager rolled out a departmental reorganization during a 30-minute meeting. They spent 25 minutes outlining the plan and rationale and wrapped up with this: “I have only five minutes for any of your questions.”
    • A division leader shared a new work-at-home policy with their team. They ended the discussion with, “I think you’ll all agree that this new approach that I developed with HR makes the most sense for our team, right?”
    • A senior executive outlined a new product line to employees who were tasked with marketing it. The executive ended the presentation with, “If you have any questions or suggestions, please email me. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

    These are all faux queries — ones that limit questioning by constricting the input time frame, asking leading questions, and restricting the communication channel, respectively.

    Five Ways to Better Handle Post-Meeting Meetings

    What leaders do before, during, and after the formal meeting greatly influences the dynamics of later gatherings. The five strategies below can help leaders put the brakes on — rather than accelerate — the more toxic features of many meetings after the meeting.

    1. Improve meeting choreography. Choreographers carefully consider the number of dancers on the stage, the sequence of movements, and the set. Just as dance integrates these elements, so, too, does meeting choreography: A leader can shape the conversational space before, during, and after a discussion, thereby influencing the acceptance of key decisions, the performance of critical personnel, and team spirit.

    My research suggests that to enhance meeting choreography, leaders should focus attention on why (why are we having the meeting?), who (who should attend?), what (what should we discuss?), when (when should the discussion take place?), where (where should the meeting be held?), and how (how should the meeting be conducted?). When you address all six critical dynamics, the likelihood of a post-meeting kerfuffle dramatically decreases. Leaders often struggle with three of these factors in particular: who, why, and how.

    Who should be included depends on why the meeting is being held. But politics often drives these critical choices for leaders. For example, in one company, attending a lot of meetings signaled executive status, regardless of the meeting’s purpose. This translated into inviting a lot of people to meetings simply because the meeting leaders wanted people to feel important and not left out. A better norm to encourage is decreasing the invitation list to include only those who would add the most value. One useful rule of thumb: As meeting size increases, so does the likelihood of more divisive after-meetings.

    Also, beware of organizational inertia driving the rhythm of meeting schedules. Periodically examine the purpose, effectiveness, and rhythm of leadership meetings. This not only helps eliminate idle post-meeting chatter but also comes as a welcome relief to many meeting-fatigued executives.

    How the meeting should occur — virtually or in-person — continues to drive considerable debate these days among researchers. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how to become more functionally adept at virtual meetings. But that doesn’t mean all meetings should be held in the online medium, which is prone to attention-diverting distractions, including snarky sidebars via direct messaging. Face-to-face meetings encourage speculation, collaboration, and innovation inside the meeting room rather than outside it afterward. In fact, a recent study suggests that top-notch collaborative innovation best occurs in face-to-face meetings, not virtually.3

    2. Craft routine protocols for communicating change. Organizational leaders often must announce changes, from introducing new product lines to decreeing layoffs or restructuring. Any major change, welcome or not, naturally sparks post-meeting discussions — for leaders, those can be dangerous embers. Researchers have found that only 50% of all decisions are ever implemented and sustained.4 How do leaders increase that percentage? My research identified seven key factors that leaders need to address when communicating major decisions:

    1. What was the decision?
    2. How was the decision made?
    3. Why was the decision made?
    4. What were some of the rejected alternatives to the announced decision?
    5. How does the decision fit into the organizational mission and vision?
    6. How does the decision impact the organization?
    7. How does the decision impact employees?

    If a leader addresses all seven factors, it doubles the likelihood that employees will embrace the decision or change.5

    This is not a rigid rubric: It can be adapted to all types of changes. For example, if the rationale for the decision is widely understood, leaders may make better use of people’s time by focusing on how the decision fits with the organizational mission and vision.

    One of the items leaders most frequently overlook is how a decision was made. Routinely discussing this issue, for any type of change, helps educate employees about the decision-making process and suggests how they can influence future decisions.

    Leaders who routinely address the whole set of seven factors shape employee expectations over time, head off mischievous chatter, and boost the likelihood that employees will embrace the change.

    3. Bridge gaps between differing backgrounds and experiences. If leaders do not bridge the gaps between group members during the meeting, then attendees will seek to span them outside the meeting. This causes division and disruption that the leader can’t immediately address. Post-meeting grumblings by people who were not encouraged to join the in-meeting discussion can also slow implementation of change.

    When bringing together diverse perspectives, expertise, and experiences, skilled leaders bridge the gaps in a variety of ways, including the following:

    • Sharing white papers or background reading before a meeting. (“These readings will help inform our discussion.”)
    • Acknowledging differing perspectives. (“We all have different experiences in the room. I want to make sure we consider those differences to enhance our discussion.”)
    • Encouraging participants to offer differing points of view. (“Would someone offer a different perspective on the same issue?”)
    • Soliciting input from the group about what issues might need further clarification (“Are there any issues we’ve discussed that might warrant further explanation?”)
    • Inviting a devil’s advocate to the meeting or asking someone to temporarily play that role. (“How might a devil’s advocate respond to this issue or decision?”)

    Those tactics aim to reveal and legitimize differing perspectives rooted in information and experiential gaps. They prime the collaborative pump — legitimizing both the unique expertise of each individual and what people can discover together.

    4. Channel emotions and depersonalize concerns. Acknowledging attendees’ concerns (whether valid or not) fosters a spirit of respect and encourages people to voice vague and perhaps politically incorrect sentiments during the formal meeting rather than afterward. By bringing down the emotion in the room, a leader can convert emotive and passionate reactions into ideas worthy of further contemplation and reasoned debate.

    Some emotions may take the form of ill-stated objections. For example, one leader announced a major organizational change involving shifts in job roles, which created unvocalized fears and vaguely stated employee anxieties. But, through skillful questioning in the meeting, she discerned the underlying source of the fear, which was moving out of personal comfort zones to learn new skills. The leader addressed the related plans for training and built employees’ confidence for their new roles. Note how dealing with a training issue is far more manageable than addressing loosely articulated fears.

    Depersonalizing concerns means that the leader separates the issue from the team member; it’s no longer “Liam’s concern” or “Donna’s problem”; instead, everyone is in it together as the emergent issues become the focal point of the conversation.

    This often overlooked leadership skill set is difficult to learn. Nonthreatening verbal inquiries, coupled with real-time meeting summaries that instantly legitimize the concerns for all to see, often set the right tone. This could be as simple as writing the concerns on a whiteboard or keeping a live-shared written record summarizing issues with member names omitted. At the very least, team members will have proof that they were heard, which can take the sting out an emotional issue. The added advantage: Fears, anxieties, and befuddlements are stripped away from one individual and “owned” by the group, which can then respond to or resolve them.

    5. Elevate the value of pushback in the formal meeting. To get the most ROI from pushback, strive to deal with it during the meeting and not in the meeting after the meeting. During the formal meeting, leaders can negotiate tweaks to policies or procedures to ease their implementation — and can even reimagine decisions. However, in post-meeting, conversational cul-de-sacs, few of these benefits can be realized.

    Skilled leaders not only encourage pushback during the meeting but also reroute pushback that may happen before and after the meetings. One executive used her regularly scheduled coaching sessions with direct reports to unearth possible concerns before group meetings. She encouraged these people to bring their concerns to the group setting, but if an employee wasn’t comfortable doing so, she would share the “possible pushback” in the formal meeting.

    Of course, some pushback surfaces after the meeting because attendees have had time to think further about the issues. Leaders can reroute these beneficial aha moments into the decision-making process or a follow-up group meeting.

    Unfortunately, some employees may have qualms about sharing contrary views in meetings. Leaders need to address such fears by educating the employee about the value of debate and everyone’s voice. The CEO of Capital Credit Union, Laurie Butz, put it this way:

    I believe that the hardest part of leadership is creating an environment where people feel like their voice matters. If they have concerns or issues about decisions, direction, or actions being taken, they need to feel like they can share those views without concern for short- or long-term backlash. It takes an intentional commitment to establish and maintain a “listening” type of environment. And listening doesn’t mean agreeing. It doesn’t mean everyone has an equal voice. It doesn’t mean that it is a vote to see how many agree and that majority rules. It does, however, mean that as a leader, we must constantly remind ourselves that we must allow discussion, open debate, dialogue, and disagreement to occur in the meeting. If we don’t, then it will happen anyway after the meeting where, as a leader, you will have less ability to influence it to move in a positive direction.6

    In short, Butz elevates the pushback during the meeting and discourages it in the meeting after the meeting. And if an issue or sentiment emerges after the meeting, she quickly reroutes it to more productive and safe spaces.

    Asking employees not to partake in post-meeting discussions can backfire because participants may view the request as anti-collaborative. Leaders may be seen as attempting to quash meaningful input, avoid clarifying issues, and discourage pushback, thereby encouraging more mischief and possible mayhem.7

    Instead, skilled leaders head off counterproductive behaviors using the strategies discussed above and champion collaboration during meetings to help the team seize opportunities and make better decisions.



    1. K.E. Weick, “Sensemaking in Organizations” (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995).

    2. P.G. Clampitt and B. DeKoch, “Five Ways Leaders Can Transform Pushback Into Progress,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Oct. 9, 2023, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

    3. D. Adam, “What Science Says About Hybrid Working — and How to Make It a Success,” Nature, March 4, 2024, www.nature.com.

    4. P. Nutt, “Surprising but True: Half the Decisions in Organizations Fail,” The Academy of Management Executive 13, no. 4 (November 1999): 75-90.

    5. P.G. Clampitt and M.L. Williams, “Decision Downloading,” MIT Sloan Management Review 48, no. 2 (winter 2007): 77-82.

    6. Laurie Butz, interview with author, July 31, 2023.

    7. S.L. Annunzio, “How Bosses Can Stop the ‘Meeting After the Meeting,’” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25, 2024, www.wsj.com.

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