On the way up - The meeting game and how to win - No serious player would dream of starting a match without strategic forethought. Learn how to use the Seven Deadly Skills of meeting manipulation.
Meetings are an unavoidable fact of life - it's no use trying to escape. A Harvard Business Review study showed that the average executive spends three and a half hours weekly in formal committees; and that the average committee comprises eight people, each of whom wishes three of the other seven weren't on it. The same average executive will spend at least a day each week in informal meetings and consultations.
Worse, as you climb the ladder of success meetings become more frequent and go on longer. When asked what British cabinet ministers do all day, the late prime minister Harold Wilson answered: 'They go to meetings'.
So you had better learn to use meetings to your best advantage. You'll have to stop doodling and daydreaming. You must keep awake, alert, and be ready to make your mark.
'Be prepared' is probably the least exciting advice known to humanity.
But meetings are the management equivalent of games. And no serious player would dream of going into a tennis, chess or football match without prior strategic thought.
First, deal with practical matters. Carefully read the agenda and papers, if any. Obtain additional information on any points upon which you may want to contribute. Most people rush from meeting to meeting without preparing at all, so if you do a little homework you'll start off well ahead of the field.
Second, try to discover who else will be present, and especially who will be in charge. This may be difficult. But to return to the games analogy, nobody would play an important match without first sizing up the opposition.
Third, and most important of all, identify one or two particular benefits you can personally take away from the meeting. It will be hard, if it is not 'your' meeting, to gain more than that. But if you focus on a small number of victories you will probably manage to win them. If, that is, you manipulate the relevant parts of the meeting masterfully.
To do so you will need to deploy the 'Seven Deadly Skills' of meeting manipulation. In alphabetical order: aggression, conciliation, enthusiasm, interrogation, patience, sulks and withdrawal. Let's briefly consider each in turn.
Aggression. Psychologists differentiate between angry aggression and instrumental aggression (aggression designed to achieve a specific goal).
In meetings angry aggression is strictly verboten; instrumental aggression should be employed sparely but forcefully. Tone of voice and body language will suffice. If you sound furious, people will believe you are furious. But never lose your rag completely - you'll regret it.
Conciliation. Conciliation is usually the best way to defuse aggression.
The great animal psychologist Konrad Lorenz has shown that an aggressive creature can be pacified with appeasement signals and submissive gestures. As with aggression, conciliation must be used sparingly. But if you have been wrong about something, admit it. It's a mark of strength, not weakness. And a well-timed apology can take all the wind from even the most abusive attacker's sails.
Enthusiasm. Unlike aggression and conciliation, you can hardly have too much enthusiasm. Anyone with the resilience to stay perky in meetings will frequently be able to put one over on other participants who are comatose or even asleep. But enthusiasm must never be confused with sheer loquacity. Windbags are universally unpopular, and equally universally ignored.
Interrogation. Most meeting-goers make statements when it would be far cleverer to ask pointed questions. Have you forgotten that barristers and parliamentary commissions almost always succeed by carrying out skilful interrogations? Shouldn't you do the same?
Patience. 'How poor are they that have not patience' says Shakespeare in Othello. Though not himself, as far as is known, a dedicated meetings man, the Bard was spot-on as always.
Patience allows you to listen to the arguments advanced by both sides, see how the land lies, prepare your own case and pick your moment to strike.
Sulks. Even more than aggression and conciliation, sulks must be rationed rigorously, otherwise you will get known as a moaning Minnie. Sulking works far better in small meetings than in large ones, and must never be self-piteous. It is a way of eliciting sympathy and thus - just occasionally - getting your own way against otherwise insuperable odds.
Withdrawal. Or committeus interruptus as it might be called. This tactic must be used most rarely of all, and then only when your exodus (usually combined with a morsel of aggression) will leave the remaining participants in disarray. It is a high-risk strategy, as the meeting may go against you once you have left. But used skilfully it can be immensely powerful, as you will see if you watch masters of the art at work.
Learn to deploy the Seven Deadly Skills and you may even get to enjoy going to meetings or - if that is too much to hope for - at least enjoy the results.