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Managers: This is why you should resist taking conversations offline

The founder of TeamCatapult says keeping pivotal conversations or dynamics private instead of a group setting is actually inviting much bigger problems down the line.

Managers: This is why you should resist taking conversations offline
[Source photo: fauxels/Pexels]

Imagine you’re in a meeting, and all of sudden someone says something that you strongly disagree with or that feels really off base. Immediately, the stakes begin to rise for you—maybe you feel frustrated, or angry, or anxious. But, you don’t want to push back on the person right here in front of everyone. After all, that would be rude, wouldn’t it? So, instead, you remain silent, try to refocus on what else is being said, and jot down a note to take it up with the other person in a one-on-one conversation later.

Welp, you’ve just taken this conversation “offline.”

It is not uncommon to feel like it’s the right choice to prevent difficult conversations from happening in group settings. We say things like, “praise in public and correct in private,” and we often believe things like offering a contrary point of view is unprofessional or disrespectful.

But when these widely shared beliefs keep pivotal conversations or dynamics offline—when they are held in private instead of in the group setting where they first emerge—we are actually inviting much bigger problems down the line.

What if I told you that your desire to be polite, professional, and helpful was actually capping your team’s performance?

When you withhold your point of view, you are robbing yourself and the whole group of valuable data—the kind of insight, learning, and new thinking that only comes from being able to voice (and hear) different perspectives in the moment.

I once worked with a leadership team who described their work together as “frazzled,” “disjointed,” and “fatiguing.” But they couldn’t figure out why. They respected—and even liked—each other, but meetings were stressful and created anxiety.

I could see what had happened almost immediately. Over time, they had built a cultural norm of taking almost all critical conversations “offline.” Why? Because the leader “did not like surprises” in a meeting. This leader felt strongly that things would be more productive if the agenda was rigorously adhered to.

As a result, the team would frantically connect with each other to have multiple meetings before the meeting so that when they arrived at the actual meeting, everyone could show up with their pre-formed opinions.

Instead of having a generative group conversation together in the meeting, they would just present the different ideas they had come up with in advance. Any disagreement or feedback would then wait and happen in one-on-one follow-up meetings.

It was exhausting. No one had the full picture of what the group was thinking. And, more important, they had no space to actually think together—to share different perspectives, inquire into each idea, and create space for their own thinking to shift or evolve based on hearing other people’s ideas and questions. They hadn’t set out to create this dynamic, but they had inadvertently created a lot of work for themselves with significantly less payoff and productivity.

The moral of this story is that their offline meeting style was preventing them from tapping into the collective intelligence that existed in their team—and that exists in every team. Because they had allowed critical conversations to happen offline, they were preventing themselves from reaching anywhere near their performance potential.

But the story has a happy ending. Once the team caught sight of this pattern, they adopted and started to practice a cornerstone principle of high-functioning teams: “Bring the conversation into the room.”

The switch to this kind of thinking does not happen overnight. This team spent about eighteen months shifting this behavior for themselves. But now it is a core principle that guides all of their work. They have found it invaluable. They have fewer offline meetings. People share opinions and ideas more freely. The whole team benefits from the learning and insights that emerge as they think together about new ideas and strategies.

Significantly, they no longer focus their meetings on tactical next steps. They use their time to align on the purpose and intent of their ideas so that they can move faster outside the room. One significant result is that they actually find themselves needing fewer meetings to get a lot more done.

So, the most important principle we can bring into a team is to keep the conversation in the room and develop the communicative competence in our teams to navigate difficult conversations rather than side-stepping them or saving them for later. This is a foundational skill in high-functioning teams—and essential for teams to access their collective intelligence.

So, talk about this principle with your team. Build agreements to keep the conversation going even when it gets difficult. Invest in team development around the topics of communication and self-awareness. The dividends are endless.

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Marsha Acker, CPF, CPCC, PCC, is the founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, a leadership development firm and the host of the Defining Moments of Leadership podcast. She is the author of Build Your Model for Leading Change: A Guided Workbook to Catalyze Clarity and Confidence in Leading Yourself and Others and The Art and Science of Facilitation: How to Lead Effective Collaboration with Agile Teams. More

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