The HR department is often the first to extoll the virtues of a conference or out-of-office event in helping to motivate employees and encourage career development and learning. In fact, many of us within the industry have referred to conferences for years as a ‘third place’, a space between the desk and the meeting rooms where delegates can liaise face-to-face and concentrate on the task at hand away from the day-to-day distractions of email and phone calls.
Here at Keele University, we’ve been working with academics in our management school to learn more about the psychology behind why conferencing is effective as a learning tool. Working alongside Emma Bell, Professor of Management and Organisation Studies, we’ve found that the traditional method of conferencing – consecutive powerpoints presented in front of colleagues – doesn’t always help organisations get the most from delegates, because it is geared towards ‘corporate peacocks’.
Research by Professor Bell determines that this standard presentation format often discourages active participation by creating a masculine environment dominated by senior and more extrovert team members. These ‘corporate peacocks’ thrive in the space-grabbing environment of the traditional ‘show and tell’, while quieter, more analytical colleagues, or junior staff, risk being side-lined or overshadowed by their aggressive associates.
So how can you use this knowledge to get more from your delegates at conferences? Well for us, it is about understanding the vast array of personalities within your business and then better tailoring events to help all of these individuals shine at some point during the event. Of course, not everyone fits a definitive ‘personality type’, but here are just a selection of personalities you may find within your business, alongside advice on how to better cater for these individuals.
Modest analysts are often the brain power behind a successful business. They thrive in an environment surrounded by facts, figures and statistics and relish in financial or planning roles. Placed in large groups, these ‘thinkers’ can become quiet and withdrawn, allowing empty extroverts to overshadow their opinions. To get the most out of these employees, ensure to plan in breakout or seminar sessions where smaller groups are assigned tasks in adjoining rooms. This will give your modest analysts the opportunity to contribute valuable insight to the discussion, even if a more gregarious member of the team chooses to present those findings back to the larger group.
Rising stars/future leaders
Almost every business has young talent they have identified as ‘rising stars’, but however competent these individuals are back in the office, they can lack confidence in a larger conference environment. As potential future leaders of the business, it’s important to find a way to enable these younger team members to practice their presentation and networking skills to build confidence and experience and the best way to do this is to employ the method of ‘unconferencing’.
Essentially, unconferencing is a trendy word for disrupting the traditional format of a conference. Scrap formal agendas and make presentations much more informal so that more junior members of the team can help shape the day and learn to shine.
Weaving in team building exercises or quizzes is also a great way to nurture the leadership skills of rising stars. It will encourage them to embrace a leadership role during a ‘fun’ task, without the more formal responsibilities associated with leading a business focused assignment.
HR professionals will know the potential awkward atmosphere of a forced networking event, when even the most natural communicators clam up and struggle to make conversation. Another risk is that corporate peacocks dominate the conversation, or form cliques leaving other delegates shuffling around, glued to their smartphones for fear of looking lost.
To prevent the smartphone shuffle, consider investing in an exhibition area at the entrance to your conference. This will create a natural networking environment where delegates can converse, while less confident individuals or early arrivals can comfortably admire the displays and engage with the literature between conversations.
Conferences can be intimidating environments for any employee. It’s essentially a stage on which they are expected to perform and demonstrate their proficiency at work in a formal and often very corporate environment. This can cause all sorts of problems from stage fright, through to mumbled presentations, severely knocking delegate confidence.
It’s been proven that taking these anxious contributors outside of the meeting room and into the great outdoors, where they can look at greenery and take in some fresh air, can genuinely have an impact on their levels of stress and anxiety and help the rest of your day run more smoothly.
Shrinking violets are the employees that keep themselves to themselves during the day and rarely come out for Christmas parties or leaving dos. These people don’t get anxious in conference environments, but are likely to blend into the background and very rarely contribute to discussions or group tasks. To get more from these employees, take time to speak to them one-on-one during downtime sessions either outdoors or in an adjoining bistro or café to canvas their opinion and make them feel involved. This downtime will also enable them to take a break from the formal conference and engage with their colleagues on a more informal basis outside of work, something they will not be familiar with doing.