Are You Sick of Time-Wasting Meetings at Work?

In any business environment, meetings are probably an inescapable fact. While not bad in and of themselves, they create a hugely negative impact when they aren’t well-organized and managed. The sad fact is that this happens much more often than it should–and it can be avoided (at least for the most part).

Way back when I used to organize meetings, I would become very frustrated at the lack of cooperation from people who were supposed to attend those meetings. Sometimes I felt as if it would take a miracle to get them to the meeting on time! Those people were all department managers who reported to the VP, not lower-level workers, but they seemed unable or unwilling to get their act together. The result was that other attendees would give up, say “let me know when you’re ready to start,” and leave.

If you hold a position that requires you to be the meeting leader, you have both the opportunity and the responsibility to set expectations and then communicate those expectations clearly to your team–with some consequences if they don’t follow the plan.

Ways to Avoid Time-Wasting Meetings

Since we’re dealing with human beings, there might not be a perfect solution, but you can do some things to move in that direction. I just read a short article titled “Effective Meetings: The Top Three Challenges,” which gives a few useful tips on dealing with ineffective meetings. These are the three issues the article mentions:

  1. “Do you have any tips on encouraging people to be on time to meetings?”
  2. “We hold regular staff meetings but often we spend a great deal of time on nothing at all. What can we do to be more productive?”
  3. “No matter what we do, our meetings go on and on and on. What can we do to shorten our meeting?”

As I said earlier, you as the meeting leader have a responsibility in all of these areas. If the people who need to attend the meeting report to you, the situation is a little simpler than if they don’t. However, it’s up to you to do whatever is in your power to improve the situation. In my view (and that of the article’s author), that would include:

  • Start the meeting on time, even if some people show up late (if they miss something they wanted to have input on, maybe they’ll plan to be on time for the next meeting!).
  • Create an agenda ahead of time and stick to it–don’t let the discussion get sidetracked or allow someone to go on forever and monopolize the meeting.
  • Eliminate or postpone items that aren’t critical at that time (either they can be given to someone individually to do or they can be postponed to a later date).

What if You’re Not the Meeting Leader?

If you’re not in charge of the meeting, your options are more limited. For example, if your boss is the leader and allows unproductive meetings to become the norm, you might not be able to change that. In such situations, you might have two ways to go:

  1. Talk privately with your boss if he/she is receptive to getting feedback; let him/her know that you want to be a valued contributor to the meetings but are finding it difficult with the way those meetings are playing out. Be ready to offer a constructive suggestion or two that might improve the meeting process.
  2. Resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to be stuck in a few meetings you’d rather not be in and do what you can to make them productive for you in spite of the lack of good meeting leadership. For instance, is there anything you can reasonably do while the interminable discussions are going on (or even ahead of time) that will help you do your job better?

Don’t Lead Time-Wasting Meetings

If you’re not the one who leads meetings in your organization, this topic might not be for you. A better one in that case might be, “How not to Attend Time-Wasting Meetings”!

I have sat through too many long meetings that seemed to get little or nothing done, so I can sympathize with attendees who would rather be almost anywhere than the meeting they’re stuck in. However, I’ve also run a meeting or two, and some of them go better (or worse) than others for reasons that are outside the leader’s control.

Your ability to lead and contribute value to meetings might play at least some role in your success in your current job or in landing a new job, so this is a subject you might want to give some thought to.

Credible Meeting Leadership

You might hold a position of authority in your organization and ostensibly have meeting leadership as part of your management charter. However, that doesn’t mean you are automatically viewed as having credible meeting leadership. For example, if one of your direct-report managers habitually shows up late for meetings, that raises questions about your leadership. “Why can’t he/she get everyone to come on time?” might be the question other attendees are asking. It also appears that the individual in question doesn’t respect either the time of the other participants or of you as his/her manager.

If the flip-side is the case–that is, you are the one who is sabotaging the meetings by showing up late–your credibility could be called into question. How committed are you to the success of your organization? Why do you appear to put other things ahead of what your manager expects from you?

Valuable Meeting Contributor

Whether leading or attending meetings, you have some potential to be viewed as a valuable meeting contributor and help everyone get more out of the meeting than they would otherwise. Here are just a few tips to consider:

  • Know going in what the meeting focus/goal is–and, if you’re the leader, communicate that clearly and strongly when you issue the meeting “invitation.”
  • Regardless of whether or not you think others will come properly prepared, make sure you have your house in order when you arrive. You don’t want to be the one who appears to be indecisive, ill-informed, etc.
  • Try to determine the expected length of the meeting ahead of time–and build some flexibility into your schedule so you don’t get put in a bind when it runs overtime.
  • Bring work you can do while you wait for the laggard to turn up or engage other meeting attendees in meaningful dialog related to something mutually useful.
  • Make sure your emotions are under control before you join (or start to lead) a meeting. Those who visibly lose control tend also to lose the respect of people they need to engage.

Hidden Aspects of Meetings

I recently read an article titled “The Hidden Side of Meetings” by Ron Ashkenas. It makes a good point about why the problems with time-wasting meetings never seem to go away, even though most people recognize the downside of not dealing with them. Briefly, Ashkenas sees three factors that can have a bearing on the success or failure of a meeting:

  1. “…when people show up at meetings, they come with different perspectives.”
  2. “…people have different (often-unconscious) personal agendas that may influence the character of the meeting.”
  3. “During meetings, people relate differently to leading or being led.”

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I don’t know of any magic pill that will take care of time-wasting meetings once and for all. The best I can suggest is that you think ahead and do what you can to minimize the problem!