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Meet me in the middle: the guide to better meetings

We’ve all been there. The meeting that ruins all hope of productivity for the day and leaves you wanting to claw your eyes out. Some weeks we spend the bulk of our days jostling from one stuffy conference room to another, noshing on bagels and sweaty cream cheese, jacking up on caffeine just to make it through the next 45 minutes. And, far too often, we walk out of the room without a clear idea of what just happened or, even more importantly, what should happen next.

Companies have flirted for years with alternatives to traditional, in-person meetings. Some have found success in the form of collaboration apps, project management tools, instant messaging, and teleconferencing. But the fact remains that face-to-face gatherings of two or more employees are still the norm for most organizations. Meetings–like death and taxes–are inevitable. This being the case, it would make sense for meeting well to be a top priority for all organizations. Yet as anyone who’s ever languished in a room with a dozen other dozing souls can attest: all meetings are not created equal.

The price of poor meetings

The cost of poorly planned and executed meetings is hard to estimate. A company invests time and resources putting a group of employees in a room together to brainstorm, plan, bond, or problem solve. (Then, too, there’s an opportunity cost associated with the work that isn’t getting done because everyone’s in a meeting.) Whether workers accomplish their mission well—or even at all—depends on a variety of factors. Why is running an effective meeting so challenging, and what can we learn to do better, as meeting organizers and participants?

Richard Morse, Director of Learning and Development at Gilead Sciences, believes, “It’s about setting expectations up front. Anyone who finds himself in a meeting where they aren’t contributing needs to ask if they really belong there.

Leadership responsibility

Morse shared his rules for better meetings, implying that strong leadership on the part of meeting organizers is key to success:

  • Make sure the purpose for the meeting is clear

  • Provide an agenda well in advance (“shockingly infrequent”)

  • Make sure people know why they are there and what you need from them.

Morse also notes the importance of establishing and communicating a meeting’s decision-making structure up front. He cites misunderstandings about how decisions will be made as the fatal flaw of many meetings. “Problems arise in many organizations when people assume that because they are invited to a meeting they have decision-making responsibility. That’s not always the case: often they are being consulted, but decision-making authority lies elsewhere. Meeting organizers need to make that clear.”

“People assume that because they are invited to a meeting they have decision-making responsibility. That’s not always the case: often they are being consulted, but decision-making authority lies elsewhere.” - Richard Morse

Another problem: in large companies, people may attend meetings for fear of missing out on important information or not being present in front of more senior leaders. Yet their time—a precious (and expensive!) resource in any company—is essentially wasted when the meeting has little or nothing to do with them.

Manners matter

Few companies train employees to host an effective meeting. Employee handbooks may note the importance of sharing agendas ahead of time, but senior leaders may be the worst offenders rendering enforcement useless. Perhaps even more importantly, Running a meeting off of an overly ambitious agenda results in wasted time, frustrated colleagues, and missed opportunities.

Employees feel the difference when a company establishes meeting etiquette and invests in training executives on meeting leadership. One success story came from a former manager at Wal-Mart eCommerce who cited two corporate policies that supported better, more productive meetings: “One, if you didn’t have an agenda in the meeting invite, you were to decline the meeting and two, meetings were forbidden between the hours of 3-4pm, every day.” When workers declined meetings due to the lack of an agenda in the invitation, it forced organizers to get serious about planning and it eliminated generic “connect” meetings. “People could also properly prepare for the meeting or send someone from their team who was more knowledgeable on the topic.”

Employees feel the difference when a company establishes meeting etiquette and invests in training executives on meeting leadership.

Meeting in the middle

It takes skill and leadership on the part of the organizer and there’s also an onus on the participants.

When I asked professionals to chime in about workplace meetings, I was surprised by how many mentioned a lack of manners as their number one complaint. Pet peeves included loud jewelry, gum chewing, checking one’s phone, texting during a meeting, and talking with one’s mouth full. It’s clear that common courtesies like showing up on time and staying engaged are not a given. This may have something to do with today’s looser corporate hierarchies. Or, perhaps, as Elizabeth Pierce, Director of Training at Zenefits suggests, “Employees aren't learning manners or common social skills at home and it's bleeding into the workplace.”

“Employees aren't learning manners or common social skills at home and it's bleeding into the workplace.” - Elizabeth Pierce

Maggie Zeman, Managing Director of The Barn Group at Double Forte, believes meeting invitees have just as much of a responsibility for the success of a meeting as the organizer.

Rules born out of real world meeting debacles

Zeman's firm puts a strong emphasis on training new hires on proper meeting etiquette.

  • Arrive five minutes before the meeting begins so your host can start on time

  • Be present—sit up straight and engage with the group

  • No phones or laptops unless requested. If you bring your laptop, this is not an invitation to review email during the meeting

  • Don’t distract: Don’t wear loud jewelry, don’t swivel in your chair, tap your fingers or pen on the table—no side talking and don’t pick at your nails

  • Dress appropriately. If you don’t know what this means, ask

  • Take notes

  • Bring your calendar with you—the host or lead may want to schedule a second meeting.

The best that we can be

Meetings can and should bring out the best in workplace relations. At their worst, meetings are distressingly enervating, sucking the creativity out of our workday, leaving us depleted and frustratingly behind on our to-do lists. On the other hand, a successful meeting can leave participants feeling energized, valued, and part of an effective team. With a renewed commitment to meeting well, there’s hope for the future of meetings—and it’s on each of us to do our part. So send out those agendas early, put away your phones and, please, for goodness sake, wipe that cream cheese off your chin.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.

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