Ben Nesvig

One Question You Should Ask at Every Meeting

“True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”
― Confucius

If upon retiring from a company, an employee walked out the front door carrying the conference room TV, there’s a good chance he’d be stopped or tackled by security. If that same employee walked out of a meeting without sharing valuable information that only he knew, the group’s bad decision could be far more expensive than the TV.

But why would an employee not share valuable information in a meeting? It happens more than you think.

To see how information sharing happens in the real world, researchers studied a group of high-level executives as they were in the process of hiring new employees. After reviewing resumes, the high-level executives gathered at a meeting to discuss who they believed was the best candidate.

Prior to the meeting, each executive had researched potential candidates independent of the others. When they discussed the candidates, one would assume that these smart people would piece together their collective knowledge to reveal the best choice. That didn’t happen.

employee collaboration

Instead, the high-level executives focused on the information they all shared, giving little consideration to valuable information that one or a few people held. In the end, the executives made bad decisions. Despite having all the pieces of the puzzle, they couldn’t piece it together.

puzzle pieces

What prevents people from sharing valuable and unique information at meetings?

It seems irrational that people would sit on valuable information. Wouldn’t sharing the valuable information make them look smart? It’s not until you examine the rewards and costs that it starts to make sense.

SHARED INFORMATION EARNS SOCIAL REWARDS

Studies show that after someone shares information that you already know, you like them and yourself more than before. You assume that you must be smart if you already knew the information that they shared, and you like them more for making you feel smart.

When two people meet for the first time, whether at work or at a networking event, the conversation usually bounces from topic to topic until the two find a common interest. We’re wired to make connections with people and shared interests are the easiest way to do so.

SOCIAL RISK FOR UNIQUE INFORMATION

Group members who share unique information that challenges the dominant view of the group risk the disapproval of their peers. Ideally, everyone would be open to diverse viewpoints, but we don’t live in an ideal world. The pressure to keep a good standing within the group often silences tiny, yet significant kernels of doubt. One way to reduce social pressure is by leveraging the power of anonymity at meetings.

COGNITIVELY CENTRAL LEADERS

People who lead meetings or set the agenda generally have the most influence at the meeting while also possessing the least amount of unique knowledge. Meeting leaders tend to be cognitively central which leads them to place more focus and importance on the knowledge that is common to everyone. To be fair, it’s hard for a leader to discuss something if they don’t know it exists. That’s why it’s important for meeting leaders to ask questions that reveal what they don’t know.

THE QUESTION EVERY MEETING LEADER SHOULD ASK

If you want to make meetings more productive, you should ask a version of this question: Is there anything important about this topic that we haven’t discussed?

You want to uncover information that’s unique and valuable. One way to do this is to perform counterfactual simulations where you have people imagine scenarios in the future. For example, a leader who is working towards a product launch could ask:

Pretend it’s six months from now and the product launch failed, why did it fail? Now imagine that the product launch succeeded. Why was it successful?

Asking questions that seek out hidden information will help you make more informed and ultimately better decisions. To adapt what Confucius once said, wise leaders aren’t defined by what they know but by their ability to discover what they don’t know.