Hidden Agendas in Meetings

When you hear the words “hidden agendas,” what comes to mind? Clandestine plots? Power games? Conspiracies lurking in the meeting room?

What if, in the planning phase of a meeting, the group leader tells you that some participants have a hidden agenda and intend to manipulate the meeting outcome to serve their personal interests?

Even though these concerns may arise from the leader´s own insecurities rather from a real threat from within the group, facilitators need to be prepared to detect and deal with hidden agendas. Fortunately, we have the perfect tool: THE FACILITATOR´S FLASHLIGHT!

Like cockroaches, hidden agendas tend to scatter when exposed to light. And if a participant´s resistance to a proposal is based not on a conspiracy but rather on a lack of information or a simple misunderstanding about the issue, then light may dissolve their opposition.

Here are opportunities to use your flashlight:

1. At the beginning of the meeting. Clarify the purpose and expected results of the session. For example, “Our primary focus today is on the site for the upcoming staff retreat. By the end of this meeting we will have established criteria for the site selection and generated a list of possible locations. Are there any questions about our task? “

If a meeting participant believes that the group should not have a staff retreat or that some other issue is more important to discuss, you have provided an opportunity for him/her to express their difference of opinion. Even if the person says nothing at this this moment, you have established a clear point of reference that can help maintain the focus if later in the session someone tries to drive the conversation in a different direction.

On the other hand, leaving participants in the dark about the purpose of a meeting creates uncertainty, breeds mistrust and practically invites people to insert their own agendas.

2. Set ground rules. The nine ground rules for effective groups described by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator are excellent examples of agreements that, properly used, can serve as powerful tools to shine light on hidden agendas. Imagine the possibilities for transparency and mutual understanding that agreements like these can promote:

  • Test assumptions and inferences
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  • Explain your reasoning and intent

Do you propose ground rules that have the strength to illuminate power dynamics and improve communication in meetings?

3. Have a personal conversation. Find a time outside of the meeting to talk with the person suspected of having a hidden agenda. Share the behaviors you observed in the meeting and your assumptions about the meaning of those actions. Ask the person if he/she has a different interpretation about what happened. Be genuinely curious, not accusatory. You may be surprised by what you learn!