Meetings, Influence, and the Bonsai Tree

An search for books on “meetings” returns 59,664 results. This is a pretty good indication of how we’re trying to get work done in organizations today. Some of the more colorful titles include Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting, Boring Meetings Suck by Jon Petz and Don Snyder, and Stop the Meeting I Want to Get Off! by Scott Snair. Although meetings can serve many valuable purposes in business, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Petz, they suck as a forum for influencing groups.

The inherent flaw in trying to use meetings as an arena for influencing groups is the notion that a group can be influenced. A group is made up of individuals. Though they may operate under a common moniker, these individuals do not share a singular consciousness. Each person comes to the group with his/her own agenda. Sometimes the agendas of meeting participants clash and at other times they will overlap ven diagram style. It is highly unlikely that a group of individuals will come to the table with a single perfectly synchronized objective.

No matter how efficient, engaging, or energetic, a meeting is one of the least effective ways to influence people. Motivating a group to cooperate toward the achievement of a particular objective can only be accomplished by earning trust, demonstrating what’s in it for him/her and inspiring each person within the group to commit to the cause.

It seems obvious that categorizing people under a particular label, such as “staff” or “marketing department” won’t turn them into a single-minded Borg. Yet, time and again leaders make the mistake of treating groups as if they are an independent entity not a collection of separate personalities.

For example:

Attendees are rarely given the time and opportunity to review and contribute to a meeting agenda. Without regard for variances in learning and information processing styles, important issues are often initially raised during the very same meeting in which they are to be resolved. This is just right for the “driver” running the meeting at the same time that it is highly frustrating for the more analytical methodical participants in the room.

Sound Familiar?

During our Influence without Authority program, my business partner and I describe a typical meeting situation and ask people if the story sounds familiar. Inevitably, our participants smile and nod. We get comments such as, “Were you a fly on the wall last week or something?”

What do you think, does this story sound familiar to you?

Here you are opening up what you hope will be a productive meeting. Adhering to good meeting etiquette, you review the agenda with the group. As you look up from your notes expecting to see smiling faces and nodding heads, you are confronted instead with blank stares and furrowed brows. Rallying your courage you plow forward confident that by the end of the meeting the group will see that what you are proposing is really the only logical way to address the challenge at hand. As the meeting draws to a close, your participants scuttle out heads bowed over Blackberries trying to avoid your disappointed gaze.

Moments later, the meetings after the meeting begin. Small clusters of meeting attendees congregate throughout the office to debrief your meeting. A palpable nervous tension fills the break-room as you walk-in on one such post mortem pow-wow.

The reality that your message did not come across well and that your objective is no closer to being achieved sinks in. In hindsight, the meeting seems to have been a colossal waste of time. You invest hours speaking privately with each participant in a valiant effort to influence their opinions and earn their buy-in. Thinking all the while, there’s got to be a better way to get results!

Mr. Miyagi Can Help

Despite the reincarnation of the Karate Kid by the adorable progeny of Will and Jada, for Gen X, the Karate Kid is and will always be Ralph Macchio and his infamous crane stance. Though Jackie Chan will inevitably bring humor and pathos to the role of the wise mentor, it will be difficult to unseat Pat Morita’s sage words “wax on, wax off” from their 26 year reign in the echo chambers of our minds. I bring this up not to open an argument over the pros and cons of movie remakes (and don’t even get me started on sequels), but rather to use a scene from the original movie to make a point about influencing groups of people.

In the 1984 version of The Karate Kid, Daniel Russo finds Mr. Miyagi trimming a Bonsai tree. After a philosophical lesson on tree trimming, Miyagi leaves Daniel to sculpt his own Bonsai. If Miyagi caught Daniel trying to move the tree into a new planter by cutting a large swath of dirt around the base, he would scold Daniel. Unlike other trees, a Bonsai cannot be yanked out of one place and plopped into another. When changing the Bonsai’s location the roots are carefully separated from one another and smoothed out one by one. Once each root has been individually cleaned off, the whole tree can then be lifted out and transferred into the new location. This process is called Nemawashi. It is an ancient practice that holds the secret to influencing groups.

Smoothing the Roots

Influencing people is the organizational equivalent of transplanting a Bonsai tree. Like the delicate flora, people don’t adapt well when they are yanked from one belief system and forced to adapt to the unfamiliar ground of new views. Changing minds and winning hearts requires carefully separating deeply rooted beliefs from the comfortable soil in which they are currently embedded.

Let’s return to our meeting story from earlier. This time, begin by smoothing the roots. Imagine that you schedule time to speak with as many of the attendees as possible in advance of the meeting. You focus your efforts on those who have the most to gain or lose relative to the situation at hand or those who have the most influence within the group involved. During your discussions, you present the agenda giving each person time to comment and give you input. Though you use the time to present the meeting’s agenda, you do not spoil it by pushing your personal agenda. You encourage each person to discuss their objectives and where they stand on the issues. Being a good listener helps earn their trust. It’s a collaborative time. At Starbucks, the process is called “Socializing Ideas.”

When meeting time comes, most if not all of the participants have had a hand in shaping the content and context for the session. Everyone has had time to absorb the issues, consider the possibilities, and determine how they can contribute to a successful resolution. As the meeting leader, your role is to shed light on the common themes shared by the majority, introduce novel ideas held by the minority, and facilitate a collaborative atmosphere. The meeting time is spent pulling together the concepts with the most promise; molding them into new ideas that represent the best solutions. Not everyone’s ideas will be used, but everyone can feel good about being heard and treated fairly.

The meeting ends with a summary of key points and review of the action items assigned to various participants. People leave the meeting with a clear mandate for next steps.

Nemawashi requires an upfront investment of effort for the meeting leader but the ROI in terms of time savings and productivity increases is dramatic.

Influence Is a 1 to 1 Proposition

 Influence is about connecting what’s important to the other person with the objective to be achieved. Whether or not that connection exists, and can be made, has to be determined through direct interaction with the individual. Talented motivational speakers, politicians, and charismatic leaders can strike a responsive chord with individuals in a group setting. Their means and message has enough magnetism to attract and inspire many different people. This one-to-many model is far less effective in business settings. Influence among people working within the same organization is best accomplished one-on-one.



Filed under Business, Change, Influence, Leadership, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Meetings, Influence, and the Bonsai Tree

  1. Liz


    Great information and beautifully written. The concept is so simple, you have to wonder why it’s not a more prevalent practice.

    Thanks for sharing!

    We shall have to discuss sequels someday 🙂

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Liz, it is a simple concept. I don’t think it’s as a common a practice as it should be because people believe they are “too busy” to put in the time with attendees prior to a meeting. Realistically, taking the time up front ends up saving a lot of time on the back end–not to mention the productivity gains in the meeting itself. Of course, there’s the benefit of building strong relationships that provide you a solid support network–making it easier to gain access to resources down the line.

      When you look at all the benefits of Nemawashi, the “too busy” excuse loses its legitimacy!

      So, or con?

  2. Nicole,

    Great post! I’m glad I found your blog.

    ” Influence is about connecting what’s important to the other person with the objective to be achieved.”

    This is a great point. Often times as leaders we forget that ‘self interest’ is the present reality, and ‘team interest’ might be a future reality.

    Thanks again, looking forward to reading more!

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Jon, important truth is that the more we focus on ‘self interest’ the less likely we are to ever achieve that future reality!

      Thanks for joining in the conversation.

  3. This is so insightful. I can think of meetings I’ve run with great enthusiasm and left wondering why everyone else doesn’t seem to “get it”. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why a group doesn’t have the same line of thinking, but looking at it this way the group concept is the problem.

    There are members of a current group I’m involved in, who I think I’ll make an extra effort to contact outside after reading your article. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge once again!

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Dawna, thank you for your loyal readership! When you contact the group members individually, use the time to learn about their objectives. Help them connect participating in the group’s mission with the achievement of their own objectives. You are by far one of the best listeners I know. Nemawashi is a perfect strategy for you!

      Should I be expecting a call 😉

  4. So many great points here.

    Of course meetings can be a great way (if done well) to get a conversation started, but far too many people think their work is done because they had a meeting. As you point out they may not have even begun the real work of including, influencing and enrolling others so something meaningful will result.

    On another note I love how you present your blog and yourself under Welcome!

  5. Nicole, this is a great, well thought out article. You make a great analogy. One other thought I had was how we need to be building individual relationships of understanding within the organization so that a trust relationship exists with as many people as possible even before we begin to try to influence the group. That way our “pre-work” is more confirming our understanding rather than establishing it.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Mike, “pre-work” is the key! In the absence of a trusting relationship between the parties, influence tactics devolve into blatant attempts at self-serving manipulation. Fine wine and trust are the two things we can’t fast track! They just take time.

  6. Fantastic article, Nicole. A very elegant way to remind us all that people are first individuals. It is vital that as leaders we treat every member of our staff, team, etc. as individuals first. The only way in which to influence the group is by first influencing the individuals within the group. We must learn to see our followers as individuals and to understand what is necessary for each individual to embrace whatever change we are attempting to implement.

    Keep them coming. Gordon

    • nicoledefalco

      Hello Gordon, you make an excellent point about the need to understand what is important to each individual. Our tendency is to believe others should want what we want for the same reasons we want it. A group of ten people can all see the value in a single objective but for ten different reasons. Taking the time to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes is vital to being a trustworthy high integrity influencer.

      Thank you for your eloquent input!