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Gatherings Should Be Personal, Productive and Powerful

This article was based on episode 70 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.

When was the last time you felt truly engaged in a meeting? Where the room was full of energy and real productive conversation took place? Sadly, it seems rare these days to be in that kind of group setting. And it’s not just meetings.

We gather to share messages, make meaning, and more. A gathering can take many forms including:

  • training classes;

  • a town hall;

  • a one-on-one between an employee and their manager; and

  • any time you collect people into a room and try to connect the material to the moment.

A gathering is not a euphemism for ‘meeting.’ According to Lindsey Caplan, It’s much more.

Lindsey is the Senior Director of Learning and Organizational Development at Flexport. She shares her approach to bringing people and companies together around common goals, and to leading teams in ways that promote engagement, innovation and success.


Gatherings are one of the critical tools that managers use to complete their work. There is even a humorous saying that a manager’s job is to go to meetings.

According to Lindsey, the role of a manager is “to help people and groups move from A to B.” This is unique from many other roles because it involves leading the people more than working with a set of products or services. It involves making sure that their team is on track and successful. One of the crucial yet more difficult challenges of this role entails helping groups of people move through change from being:

  • unengaged to engaged;

  • underperformers to a rockstar performers; and

  • on one level to a new level.

Managers frequently use gatherings to accomplish this goal.


Many of us grew up with the classroom as the primary gathering experience during our formative years. We were instructed to sit quietly and listen to the information. This predominant paradigm created a widespread expectation; the role of a participant is to learn by being a consumer of information. Leaders who expect more than this level of participation from their gatherings will need to disrupt that paradigm.

Consider this: The manager’s role shifts from being an information broker to one of a connection builder. Rather than creating something for our audience, we create something with them.

Focus on Conditions, Not Content

Managers must create safe, trustworthy spaces which facilitate participant engagement. Some tactics for promoting the conditions of safety and trust include:

  • Autobiographical disclosure. When the leader shares a little bit of herself and an experience she’s had, the other participants see the leader as a real person, and not just someone who is asking them to do something.

  • Reducing differences in status. Clearly convey that you are not the expert who has it all figured out. In fact, this is why you’ve gathered this group of people: You’re relying on them to add helpful information and context. This signals to people that your intent is to hear from them which helps them feel safer when contributing.

  • Increasing Transparency. Managers often get included in meetings apart from their team members. When important information is disseminated through the hierarchy, proactively share relevant information with your team members. Invite them to do the same. The open process pulls everyone into alignment and increases trust.


The first step in designing an excellent gathering involves setting clear outcomes from the very start. Lindsey categorizes gatherings into four groups:

  • Compliance (ensure specific actions are taken)

  • Engagement (generate new thinking, buy-in, ongoing ownership)

  • Informing (ensure information is internalized)

  • Entertainment (bring about a sense of delight)

In the workplace, we generally have an over-reliance on compliance and informing meetings, and lack enough engagement meetings. (Entertainment meetings are virtually non existent, unfortunately.)

Attend to the People

When designing a gathering, there are four elements that can help you strike the right balance between providing information and promoting interaction and engagement:

  1. Make it relevant. Take the time to understand what is relevant to the people in the group. Ask questions to discover what they really care about.

  2. Involve each person. Decide how to involve the people in the gathering beyond the discussion. Involvement leads to commitment, so give participants a role, such as keeping track of time or listening for something specific in the conversation.

  3. Set the stage empathetically. Invite people in and spend more time with those who may not feel comfortable. Speak with people before the meeting about what value they bring and why you’re looking forward to hearing their thoughts. Create safe conditions that will increase the likelihood of their participation.

  4. Give people time to digest the material. There is a limit to what the human brain can process and use. Allow time for people to consume the information, digest it, and respond. For example, imagine how you might use prework, quiet time in the meeting for processing, or follow-up post-meeting to ensure understanding and retention.

Conclude With Impact

The last few minutes of a gathering can be the most powerful. Preserve five minutes at the end of the gathering for synthesis, processing and sharing. You may want to invite participants to explore what stood out for them, excited them, or just didn’t make sense. If this process is new to your team, consider the following to help avoid hesitant and awkward responses:

  • Explain why you’re asking. Create a greater sense of safety by letting the group know why you introducing this new closure question.

  • Go first. Demonstrate that the activity is safe by role modeling and sharing first.

  • Treat participants like adults. Offer people a choice as much as possible. Make it optional or provide two questions so they can choose which they’d like to answer.

However you gather, be intentional around engagement and everyone will experience the benefits.


Get a chance to win a free coaching session with Lindsey. To enter, join The Modern Manager community by Friday October 18, 2019. Learn more and join at

This article was based on episode 70 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart




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