There's an interesting article in Forbes called, "Leadership Style: If You're Going to be a Jerk, Be One All the Time," that explores how even a predictably bad situation can make people feel more secure and happy than one where people don't know what to expect. According to author Steven Meyer,
"One of the ways that the brain improves its predictions is through physiological rewards and consequences. Research shows that when a predictive model is accurate, the brain releases chemicals that make us feel good. When the model is wrong, the opposite happens – we feel angry and upset."
He even cites research that animals are less anxious when they receive shocks on a predictable schedule than randomly. Which all makes sense to me—even happy surprises can be stressful.
And yet meeting planners are being told that "because we've always done it that way" is no longer a valid reason to follow a predictable pattern to their event, that we need to shake up meeting formats, physical settings, presentation types, the types of speakers/facilitators we use—pretty much everything—if we want people to really learn at our events. As Velvet Chainsaw Consulting's Jeff Hurt says, "Confusion and brain strain are freakish factors required to learn."
So how do we balance the need to keep people unbalanced with their inherent need to be able to predict what the experience will be like? I think we can glean a few things from Meyer's suggestions for leaders:
Make sure the meeting environment is safe and predictable. Meyer says that "Employees are happiest, and most productive, when they come to a workplace that’s safe and predictable." The same holds for your meeting space. Make sure the only ladies room near your sessions doesn't run out of TP during morning breaks. Make sure your signage is clear and easy to follow. Provide food that is nourishing and tasty, and give them somewhere comfortable to eat it. Make sure there are no cables people can trip over in your general session room. Let them know that you are constantly monitoring (via Twitter, app, a help desk, whatever) for any potential issues, and that you have a plan to resolve them as quickly as is humanly possible.
Don’t overpredict. Don't tell people that all your new formats and setups are going to make this the best conference ever, when in fact you don't know how they'll feel about it. Instead, let them know that they're participating in a new way of learning, and that they may in fact find it uncomfortable. Or they may love it. As Meyer says, "If you’re only 70% sure that your new initiative will succeed, just say so."
Don’t oversell positive news. You may want to shout from the rooftops that you've signed the best keynote ever, when in fact you're actually just this close to signing her. But don't put it out there with your marketing materials, with a cheaty little (invited) disclaimer buried somewhere in the small type. Instead, say that this is the type of keynote you're going after, and you'll let people know as soon as she's on board.
Don’t hide bad news. OK, so the keynote bombed. There weren't enough boxed lunches because some people took extra to bring back to their families to eat in their rooms. That great AV stunt didn't quite come off as planned. Bad stuff happens. We all get that. What doesn't sit so well is if we ignore it, leaving attendees to wonder what else is going wrong that they just haven't noticed yet. Don't ignore the bad stuff—trust me, they noticed. Just acknowledge it, say what, if anything, you're doing to rectify matters/avoid the situation in the future, and move on. Let people know they can trust you to be honest.
His last point is to "Be careful about “pleasant surprises,” but I don't see as too relevent to the meetings arena. Unlike an unexpected bonus check after someone already bought the cheaper TV not knowing the check was coming (Meyer's example), I see no downside in pleasant surprises at meetings. As long as you've thought through all the potential ramifications, that is. One recent example was a truly fabulous gift, but it was much too big to fit in my carrry-on bag. It would have cost me more to bring home on the plane as checked luggage than it would have cost to buy. Wonderful surprise, but ultimately backfired as I had to leave it behind, with no time to find a good local home for it.
How do you keep the balance between keeping people off-balance and maintaining enough predictability to keep stress levels down and trust levels high?
(Thanks to PCMA for the pointer!)