“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.” -Capt. James T. Kirk (Starship Enterprise)
Have you ever heard someone say, “I wish this meeting was over so I could get some real work done”?
Most people see meetings as a either an interruption of “meaningful” work or an excuse to get away from the tedium of transactional tasks. However, what you rarely hear is, “I can’t wait to attend this afternoon’s team meeting. Should be fascinating!”
Most meetings suck because they are treated as necessary evils to communicate information from a leader to a group of direct reports. It’s a one-way dynamic, usually perpetuated by a corporate entity, that leaves its victims longing to scoop their eyeballs out with a spoon.
Was There a Meeting to Review the Research?
The research results on this topic are what you’d expect. For starters, leaders in various surveys say that the amount of meeting time that is wasted ranges anywhere from 30-50%. In one survey, 45% of senior executives said that their employees would be much more productive simply by implementing one meeting-free day per week.
In another poll, almost one-third of employees spent 30-70% of their time in recurring meetings. They took the results a step further and, by using compensation data, calculated that
a typical company’s monthly leadership meeting was costing the company over $180,000 per year!
However, the most interesting research by far was conducted by the University of Minnesota on the impact of meetings on the cognitive skills of participants. They confirmed other research that showed that we do not have endless mental resources to expend without renourishment.
In fact, those all-day corporate meetings and breakout sessions that require constant focus and commitment are counterproductive to sound decision-making.
Yet, in the name of efficiency, we continue to pull groups of people together for soulless staff meetings, multi-day retreats and regional conferences and wonder why the participants are staring at the floor like cattle at the slaughterhouse.
But You Already Knew That
I’m not going to focus on the standard meeting facilitation checklist but here’s a quick summary in case you need a refresher or summary to evaluate yourself (some items might be new to you):
- Start and end on time. Non-negotiable.
- Meetings shouldn’t last more than 90 consecutive minutes without a 10-15 minute break that involves getting up and moving around.
- People lose focus in the last 5-10 minutes of every meeting in anticipation of it ending and moving on to the next commitment. To not lose their attention, plan the agenda so that hour-long meetings end after 50 minutes.
- No phones. If necessary, put a basket near the door for attendees to deposit their phones in as they walk into the room.
- No interrupting each other. It’s the #1 sign of disrespect (yes, even in New York).
- Review the agenda with everyone prior to starting. When possible, distribute the agenda in advance of the meeting.
- For routine meetings, give others the opportunity to facilitate after training them in how to do it successfully.
- Limit the agenda to items that cannot be simply shared via email.
- Make sure everyone can restate their newly-assigned responsibilities and delivery dates prior to ending the meeting.
- Routinely ask for feedback on how the meeting could be improved and what is going well.
A Mindful Pig Makes Better Bacon
Let’s be realistic. You can’t put lipstick on a pig and fool many people but there are ways to make the pig stink a little less. Here are some mindfulness-based suggestions for making your meetings more interesting and productive:
As leaders, we often walk into meetings with real purpose. We have important information to convey and we’ve chosen this format to pass it along. Other times, we are holding a routinely scheduled meeting that rarely runs seamlessly for a variety of reasons.
The first thing we have to do is recognize that everyone in the meeting is going to be in a different place, emotionally.
Some may be genuinely happy to see others in the room because it’s the only time during the busy day that they get to interact. Others will be frustrated that the meeting is interrupting the flow of their “real work”. And, of course, you’ll get at least one Debbie Downer who’s either sick and horking up a lung on everyone else or having some kind of personal issue that she feels inclined to share with everyone.
Regardless, it’s inevitable that we will be in a different place in our minds than others in the room. We need to recognize that in advance and think through how we want to handle it. Look at your agenda to get a quick sense of how the meeting’s participants are going to react to the items on it. What can you do to maximize their interest?
Determine the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) for each part of the agenda to better prepare for the concerns and questions that attendees might have.
Understand that different issues have different levels of interest for the meeting’s participants. I may be really interested in talking about the process changes we’re going to make to assure we meet the third quarter’s goals but it’s a sure bet that most will not share my excitement. How do I handle that? That battle is oftentimes won prior to the meeting by thinking through possible scenarios. Too often, leaders view meetings as an opportunity to get things off their desks and onto the desks of others without thinking through the potential reactions, risks and consequences.
One of the easiest things for me to forget is the degree to which others judge my mood, based on my non-verbal communication.
If we enter a room quickly with our hair seemingly on fire, those around the table will get nervous that there might be bad news pending or that we’re distracted and, therefore, it’s ok for them to be as well. If we drag in late with slumping shoulders and collapse into a chair, that might communicate that we’re particularly hassled and exhausted (the reasons for which are up to each participant to theorize).
As we consider our agenda through the lenses of our attendees, we can take a minute to do some deep breathing to get ourselves settled in the present moment. This is a great technique to block out the craziness of our day so far and what may come up after the meeting is over. We can then commit to doing the best job possible in this moment. By doing so, our non-verbal signals will naturally let people know that you’re not distracted and are fully present for the meeting.
In the room, before getting started…
Our days are filled with putting out fires and rushing from one thing to the next so, for many, coming into a meeting is an opportunity to check in with others in the room, “Did you hear what happened in the break room this morning?” or “Is Sherrie going to be here? I need to talk to her.”
It can be counter-productive to expect that everyone can flip a mind-switch and become fully present upon request.
It’s better to build into our agenda a few minutes for us all to get on the same page. Remember, that can look different each time depending on the circumstances or the participants.
Sometimes, it’s just letting the natural conversation go for five minutes to let everyone get it out of their system. Other times, we can simply go around the room and ask each person what distractions they’re trying to manage. Just having the opportunity to become consciously aware of those concerns is enough to allow them to be shelved, at least for the duration of the meeting.
More and more, leaders now begin meetings with some deep breathing or silent reflection to help bring about present moment attention. Again, there’s no perfect solution and we each need to be able to take the temperature of the moment to know what might work best.
Tracking engagement factors…
Does each meeting participant feel that they have the “psychological safety” to professionally share their opinions without fear of reprisal? It takes more than saying, “it’s ok to speak your mind”. It’s also an ongoing, offline one-on-one conversation to help those with reservations (esp. introverts) feel more comfortable.
Is it permissible to share mistakes that you’ve made in front of others? Transparency is an important piece of building trust among groups. If someone can say, “I screwed up” and that can be used as a teachable moment, teams can learn how to use mistakes as an opportunity to improve.
Sharing personal information without fear of it leaving the room also helps to build team trust.
Leaders tend to believe that being vulnerable equates to being weak but it can be a powerful tool in building team cohesion.
By sending out the agenda in advance, ask attendees to bring potential solutions to problems. Introverts thrive when given the opportunity to do work in advance so that they don’t feel put on the spot in front of others.
Give extra kudos to those who take risks by making innovative suggestions, regardless of whether or not they are implemented. This will encourage creativity in others and it only takes one out-of-the-box idea to separate your organization from its competitors.
Unclench your butt cheeks and have some fun!
Meetings don’t have to follow the same dry format every time. You can still cover important topics by jazzing it up with games, skits or just humor in general. The perceived risk is that the material won’t be taken seriously but humor actually helps bring more focused attention to the subject. Lighten up a little!
While others are speaking, monitor each participant’s attention. By knowing your team members, you can make decisions as to whether or not it’s appropriate to draw someone out in that moment or to check in with him or her after the meeting to make sure they’re ok.
Also, pay attention to how team members interact with each other.
Do one or two people dominate the discussion and create an atmosphere that shuts others out?
Are others passive-aggressive when talking or referring to specific people? Check how body language changes based on the topic, who’s speaking and the level of stress in the room. There’s a ton of information to be processed about your team simply by monitoring the non-verbal cues and tone of voice.
Some leaders feel they must stay on track with the agenda regardless of circumstance. They are the ones that assign timekeepers who are responsible for keeping things moving along. That can be important in specific situations such as meetings with external customers.
However, mindful leaders are adept at knowing when there is value to be gained by going off-script or allowing discussion to linger beyond the allotted time. Obviously, this varies by circumstance but to strictly adhere to predesigned rules can potentially shut down creativity and great ideas.
Find time in meetings to draw out and recognize achievement.
It can be personal (“I’ve gone three weeks without a cigarette!”) or work-related (“our presentation to the Executive Committee was well-received!”). People appreciate the opportunity to shine and strive harder to have the chance to do it again.
We often focus on what we need to get better at to the exclusion of recognizing what we need to keep doing well, including supporting our peers engaged in challenging personal battles!
Keep tabs on each participant’s ability to distinguish between personal and professional. Oftentimes, suggestions for improvement can be internalized as personal attacks. Obviously, trust-building and rewarding strengths goes a long way in helping people keep those separate but don’t shy away from one-off meetings with those who may need assurance that lack of support for someone’s idea doesn’t label that person as a loser.
A two-minute conversation like that can keep some people from shutting down completely.
Finally, check in with your team on their stress levels. Sometimes, it can be more beneficial to scrub a meeting’s agenda just to talk about the pressures being felt at that particular moment. Knowing your boss recognizes when you or the whole team is struggling to cope with an unusually high number of stressors can be extremely reassuring, even if magic wands aren’t forthcoming.
Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional
To think that our meetings will be the equivalent of attending a movie premiere is delusional but they don’t have to be the suckiest part of the workday. Mindfully preparing, facilitating and following-up can make the experience more productive and fun (dare to dream, right?)!
Like all leadership skills, mindfully facilitating meetings takes a lot of practice. Don’t be afraid to coach others on your team to try it also. When you have the opportunity to frame meetings more as a collaborative discussion and less as an information dump, you’ll find your team members more likely to participate and add value.
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
- Do you have meetings that feel less collaborative and more like an information dump? Do you facilitate any of them?
- How do you prepare for meetings? What opportunities do you have to focus your mind before walking into meetings?
- What ideas from this post can you implement in the short- and long-run?
- What mechanism do you have for routinely gaining feedback about the meetings you facilitate?
- How often do you recognize personal and professional achievements as part of your meetings’ agendas?