Anyone who has worked in corporate America has been to one: the annual offsite meeting. For those unfamiliar, it is common for companies to host a meeting at a venue, typically a hotel conference room, hire a speaker to come in and talk to the company about something the company leaders find pertinent to, and perhaps lacking for, the company and/or the employees. It's part motivational speech, part educational lecture, sometimes part team building, and rarely very influential. Now, leaders will typically place the blame for the lack of impact squarely on the shoulders of the employees. It is assumed that folks who don't take the meeting seriously are negative influence on the environment, and sometimes there is truth to that. There are feelings that the company is doing something valuable for employees and that they should reward the employer by taking everything to heart, putting whatever the topic of discussion was into practice in the workplace, and that it should yield the desired outcome the employer had in mind when they picked the speaker.
Nothing stated above is really outlandish, and I am sure that managers and non-managers alike can think of the cancerous employees in their workplaces. They are only a small fraction of the problem, though, and I feel there is a much bigger issue that often goes lost on the company leadership. There is a reason that there is widespread disinterest and lack of enthusiasm at such events, and it is not because a cancerous few have permeated the atmosphere of the company and influenced everyone in a negative manner. Employees don't go into these meetings expecting not to get anything out of them. Quite the opposite actually; I believe most employees look forward to seeing a speaker come in to share some insight and value with the organization, and they hope to get something out of the event. The skepticism comes from the fact that the people who need to heed the words are the ones least likely to listen, and those people are the company leaders. To illustrate, I will give a couple of examples.
Take an insurance company whose profitability has suffered for several years running. The company employs at least a good number of smart, competent people who have not managed to fix the issues causing the lack of profitability, but the reason for that comes from IT resource bottlenecks and dated sophistication relative to the competition. For this offsite meeting, a speaker is brought in who speaks about Progressive Insurance and their innovation in motorcycle pricing segmentation. The speaker goes on about how they created a positive risk selection mechanism for their company and forced their competitors into an adverse selection downward spiral. The speech is very well articulated and insightful. The leaders of the company picked someone who addressed the issues at hand quite well, and the problem is not that the employees did not hear or understand the message. The management did not live into the lessons and takeaways. What message does it send to your employees when you have someone lecture on segmentation when you then turn around and tell them they can only take a flat base rate increase (in laymen's terms, the most unsophisticated, broad, across the board change you can make that only serves to throw a company further into the aforementioned adverse selection downward spiral)? What does it communicate to the pricing actuaries who developed a by-peril rating algorithm years earlier and were not allowed to implement it? The end result is you have a group of employees that feel like management not only does not trust their talents enough to solve issues by bringing in someone to highlight issues they are already aware of and have not been enabled to try to fix, but that the message that is being preached falls on deaf ears.
Further, let's look at another example. A company brings in a speaker to discuss workplace behaviors and leadership styles and meshes it with the company culture and goals. The exercise is engaging, encourages participation and contemplation. It is designed to make people fit in and make the company seem like a very employee environment-centric company. The speaker talks about how companies that succeed tend to employee a workforce whose styles and attributes align with the types of goals the company sets, and proceeds to unveil his view of the company's artifacts, that is, the explicitly communicated objectives from the company's website or other materials highlighting what the company strives to be. What does the exercise show? Well, that the work force does not align at all with their communicated objectives. Instead of learning from this and either changing the goals and external messages, or working to emphasize shifting the environment to better suit the established objectives, they continue down the path of executing on a strategy that runs contrary to the values set forth in their messaging, persist with the clash in what is asked and what is expected, and seemingly ignore everything that the speaker highlighted in his presentation. Again, what does this communicate to the employees?
At the end of the day, there is responsibility held by each individual to put in the effort to learn from and incorporate the knowledge acquired into his/her work. That much should not be disputed. To what extent an employee can do that, however, is largely dictated by factors outside of his/her control, and that is where the leadership of a company is so important. All too often, when middle and upper management demonstrate time and time again that they are blind to the damage they do to employee morale by hosting offsite meetings and not living into the message communicated. At best, it is disappointing to employees, at worst, it is patronizing. One thing is for certain, though, in order to truly get the utility desired from such meetings, companies need to have buy in at all levels of the company, and that means the leaders at the company most of all.