Understanding Meeting Dynamics: An Introduction to Meeting Maturity Levels.

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Meetings are much maligned. We’ve seen companies outlaw them and a number of high-profile people regularly speak about their disdain for any form of recurring meeting.

I have little patience for poorly run meetings, but I also respect how important they are. My experience has also shown that a small set of carefully-crafted, recurrings meetings can vastly reduce the overall meeting load for a team.

All that being said, this post isn’t actually going to be about how to run better meetings — my team at Range wrote enough about that already. Instead, the aim of this post is to present a model which will help you diagnose existing meetings based on observable phenomena. My hope is that this will break through some of the process-oriented theater, which characterizes meeting maturity in terms of the practices used, rather than outcomes, and in turn overlooks the root causes of what’s making your meetings suck.

This theory draws from Kegan’s model of adult cognitive development, which I was introduced to by Pathwise Leadership. The theory emphasizes the evolution of how individuals understand reality, moving from an egocentric view to a more integrated and complex understanding of the self in relation to the wider society and multiple perspectives. There are obviously strong correlations here with meeting dynamics.

Level 1: The Conflict Zone

Marked by an environment rife with hostility, high emotion, and conflict, this setting is unfortunately not uncommon in high-stress situations or in teams lacking strong leadership and communication skills. In these meetings, conversations can quickly escalate into heated arguments or passive withdrawal, creating an atmosphere where rational discourse is sidelined in lieu of emotional reactions. The prevailing mood is one of defensiveness and antagonism, as participants are more likely to engage in verbal battles than constructive dialogue. This adversarial nature makes any form of decision-making feel unilateral and dictatorial, as if decisions are imposed rather than agreed upon.

The experience of attending a meeting at this level is unsettling. Participants may enter the space with a sense of dread, anticipating the inevitable clash of personalities and ideas. The air is thick with tension, and exchanges are often laced with accusations, raised voices, and palpable frustration. Such an environment stifles any possibility of positive interaction or productive outcome, as individuals are more focused on defending their stance or attacking others’ positions rather than seeking common ground.

It’s universally acknowledged that this type of meeting dynamic is detrimental and should never be deemed acceptable within a professional setting. The consequences of perpetuating such an environment extend beyond the meeting room, potentially causing long-term damage to relationships, team morale, and overall productivity. The aftermath of these meetings can lead to an enduring sense of resentment and distrust among colleagues, making any form of collaboration or teamwork exceedingly difficult.


Level 2: The Disconnected Assembly

Typical of larger group meetings, there will be a sense of disconnection among participants. The meeting may resemble more of a lecture than a collaborative discussion, where a single person’s voice dominates the conversation, leaving little room for interactive dialogue. This inherently creates a barrier to a sense of community or teamwork, as attendees may feel more like an audience than active participants.

The atmosphere will often be cautious and reserved. Participants might be hesitant to voice their opinions or ideas, fearing that their contributions will either be ignored or viewed as an unwelcome disruption. This leads to a scenario where debates emerge not as a healthy exchange of ideas but as attempts to have one’s voice heard, often with the loudest or most senior members of the group prevailing. The interaction—or lack thereof—between participants is marked by a minimal exchange of feedback, creating an environment that feels distinctly uncollaborative. Interruptions, when they do occur, are often met with discomfort or outright hostility, further discouraging participation.

While this type of meeting structure might be acceptable or even preferred for certain types of gatherings—such as all-hands meetings or large-scale announcements where the goal is to disseminate information rather than solicit feedback—it comes with significant downsides. The primary issue is that it severely limits the opportunity for genuine collaboration and feedback. Without the exchange of ideas and constructive debate, the meeting’s potential to drive meaningful outcomes is compromised. This lack of engagement not only diminishes the immediate effectiveness of the meeting but can also have longer-term implications for team dynamics and morale, as participants may feel undervalued or overlooked.


Level 3: The Collaborative Team

Epitomizes the essence of teamwork and mutual respect, predominantly found within small, tightly-knit groups or larger teams that have a strong sense of psychological safety. This level thrives on the collective feeling of belonging and inclusivity, fostering an environment where every member feels valued and integral to the team’s success. The fear of missing out (FOMO) on these meetings is genuine, not because of a mandate but due to the value and connection these gatherings bring. Participants often leave feeling more connected and aligned with their team’s goals and values.

Meetings at this level exude the warmth and comfort of friend gatherings, where open laughter and seamless, fluid interactions are the norm. This atmosphere encourages participants to be themselves, share openly, and engage deeply with the subject matter and each other. The tone is one of positivity and encouragement, where every voice is heard and valued.

The dialogue in such meetings is geared towards achieving consensus, with a strong emphasis on ensuring all decisions are made with the agreement of the group. This approach underscores the importance of unity and alignment, with discussions often circling back to how decisions impact the team and its objectives. The focus on consensus can sometimes slow down the decision-making process.

Interactions within these meetings are characterized by a high degree of inclusivity and engagement. Nods and smiles are common and contribute to a positive and affirming meeting environment. Interruptions, when they occur, are not seen as disruptive but rather as contributions that enrich the conversation, often bringing in new insights or reinforcing existing ideas.

This dynamic is particularly well-suited to brainstorming sessions and regular team meetings where fostering a collaborative atmosphere is crucial. The environment encourages creativity, supports the sharing of ideas, and promotes collective problem-solving. However, the emphasis on consensus and the desire to maintain group harmony can sometimes lead to the sidelining of innovative or unconventional ideas. The drive to agree can also make meetings longer, as the team works through each issue to ensure broad agreement.

Despite these challenges, the Level 3 dynamic creates a good foundation for strong team relationships and effective collaboration.


Level 4: The High-Performing Ensemble

Encountered most frequently within teams that not only know each other well but also have a track record of working together. These teams have developed an exceptional level of trust and understanding, enabling them to reach a state of collaboration and creativity that is both rare and highly sought after. The hallmark of this level is its ability to foster open questioning and ignite real innovation.

Meetings at this level are characterized by a seamless flow of ideas and contributions, creating an atmosphere of collective effort and creativity. Participants often leave these meetings feeling energized and satisfied, surprised at how much was accomplished while often ending the meeting ahead of schedule. This efficiency is not a product of rushing through agenda items but a natural outcome of the team’s synchronicity and focus.

The conversation in these meetings is a dynamic and dialectical exchange of ideas, where every member’s voice is valued and heard. The focus is on identifying solutions that are “safe to try” even over true consensus, which leads to a culture of experimentation and learning. This approach encourages risk-taking, allowing the team to explore new ideas without fear of failure.

Interactions within the team are supportive while embodying a culture where members are encouraged to challenge and be challenged. This openness to questioning and critical feedback ensures that ideas are not only proposed but also refined and tested through collective wisdom, thus avoiding the group-think of level 3.

Despite its many advantages, the primary challenge with Level 4 dynamics lies in their rarity and the difficulty of maintenance. Establishing such a deeply collaborative atmosphere requires ongoing effort, a strong foundation of trust, and a level of familiarity that can only be built over time. Teams operating at this level must be vigilant in nurturing their culture, as the benefits of such an environment are contingent on the consistent application of its underlying principles.


Level 5: The Aspirational Collective

The final level is rare and fleeting. Here, the essence of the meeting is not confined to immediate tasks or outcomes but is embedded in a holistic understanding of the organization’s role within the community and the wider world. Participants approach each discussion with a consciousness that extends beyond the current moment and embraces the potential of multiple futures. There may be a palpable sense of being part of something larger than oneself, a shared journey of discovery and impact.

Negative and challenging topics are explored through dialogue that is thoughtful and reflective, with contributions aligned with the group’s overarching ethical and philosophical principles. The level of trust and understanding among participants allows for a depth of discussion that goes beyond surface-level topics to explore fundamental questions about purpose, values, and impact.

For most, Level 5 is purely aspirational, perhaps touched only a few times in a career. It requires a level of openness and vulnerability that can be challenging to sustain, especially in traditional corporate environments. The shift to a Level 5 dynamic is not just about changing how meetings are conducted; it’s about transforming the very culture and ethos of the organization.


One of the insights that surfaced for me from this theory, is the importance of tailoring tactics and tools to the current dynamics of the team. If a team predominantly operates at Level 2, for instance, attempting to conduct a brainstorming session or an open design review is unlikely to produce good outcomes — at best it’ll feel awkward. Instead, it’s important to first focus on bringing the group’s dynamic up to Level 3. That said, Level 2 is not necessarily bad if expectations and structure are aligned. There are many meetings where a Level 2 dynamic may in fact be the most efficient and pragmatic level to target.

Moreover, akin to Kegan’s stages of cognitive development, these meeting maturity levels are fluid rather than fixed. It will be common for teams to experience shifts across different levels even within a single meeting. Nonetheless, aiming for Level 4 dynamics remains the ultimate goal for teams wishing to increase productivity and collaboration, while ultimately making work more enjoyable in the process.

In future posts I’ll discuss some of the team dynamics that contribute to the different meeting levels and explore how/if to try and change the level.

Copyright © 2024 Daniel Pupius.