Meetings are not in and of themselves problematic. They are essential to teams and organizations. Without meetings, organizational democracy, inclusion, participation, buy-in, communication, attachment, teamwork, coordination and cohesion would all be compromised. What we need to rid ourselves of are unnecessary or unproductive meetings that waste time. Sadly, most companies and most leaders view poor meetings as inevitable, because they don't know of better ways to conduct them, or they try new methods that don't stick, as they really are not founded on any scientific evidence of success. Also, bad meetings beget more bad meetings, as dysfunctional practices become normative across the organization. Taken together, poor meetings become accepted as a way of life and a natural cost of doing business, like rain is a way of life in London. But, unlike the weather, meetings can indeed be improved. Drawing on more than 15 years of original research I have conducted on the topic of meetings with my team, surveying and interviewing thousands of employees from hundreds of organizations, as well as drawing from a large number of evidence-based sources, my goal is to translate the science to bring direction, guidance and relief to those leading and participating in meetings. While many people I meet are surprised to hear that there are social and organizational scientists who study meetings, this research has produced large numbers of scientific publications, conference presentations, book chapters, dissertations, and extensive media coverage. And, of most relevance here, this science has produced insights and practical applications that can directly benefit executives and organizations by promoting efficiency, productivity, increased innovation and employee engagement, superior decisions, enhanced commitment to initiatives, better communication, and a greater sense of camaraderie across the workforce. Bad meetings can drain the life out of individuals and organizations. But meetings done well, leveraging evidence-based solutions, can be transformative and hugely positive. There are several tools a manager can use right away to re-think their meeting approach as well as to get buy-in from their team, like the facilitation checklist below.
Good meeting facilitation checklist
- Model active listening as others speak (e.g., really understand what others are saying). Ask excellent questions so that ideas are truly understood.
- Keep clarifying and summarizing where things are and people's input so that everyone understands the process and the discussion at hand.
- Listen carefully for underlying concerns and help bring them out so that they can be dealt with constructively.
- Keep engaged with the note-taker so that issues, actions and takeaways are recorded and not lost. Confirm with the attendees that all is correct.
- Encourage conflict around ideas (e.g., any concerns with this idea), and then actively embrace and manage the conflict so that it benefits performance and decision making (e.g., here is where folks are aligned, here is an issue that we should speak more about). Immediately stomp out negative personal attacks and bring the group back to the need for constructive discussion of ideas.
- Maintain an environment where people are comfortable disagreeing (e.g., thank people for sharing divergent points of view). Invite debate.
- Deal with disrespectful behavior quickly through redirection, comments about staying constructive, and reminding attendees of the meeting ground rules.
Ensuring active participation
- Actively draw out input from others (e.g., asking those who have not yet contributed to share their thoughts). Keep mental track of who wants to speak and come back to them.
- To keep an attendee from dominating the conversation, use body language (e.g., a subtle and small hand movement to indicate the need to stop speaking) and transition statements (e.g., "thank you for that").
- Keep side conversations at bay.
- Keep track of time and pace the meeting effectively for the big picture of the agenda. Be willing to call a break, if needed, to regroup or if energy is waning.
- Do not rush through an emergent issue that truly needs to be discussed. Be able to recognize if an issue raised is best addressed at a subsequent meeting.
- Keep conversation flowing (e.g., recognize a tangent and pull it back into what needs to be discussed).
Pushing for consensus
- Test for agreement and consensus to get a sense of where attendees are, but do not unduly and unnecessarily pressure others to reach a conclusion when not ready (unless there is a time constraint).
- Be willing to take the pulse of the attendees to be sure the process is working and leading to excellent decision-making.
- Know when to intervene assertively in the meeting process and provide direction (e.g., the group lacks focus and is talking over one another) and when to let the process run as it is.
- Be an honest broker of the conversation at hand, not privileging your viewpoint or ideas in the discussion. Work to remain impartial. Make it clear that your opinion is just one opinion to be discussed.
I like to cite Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, who likened stolen time to stolen office equipment. I would hazard to say that there is no single investment that organizations treat so carelessly, with so little evaluation or drive to improve, than meetings. Successful organizations, and successful leaders, understand that small, positive changes---say, one meeting every week---can lead to tangible gains for the organization and the health, motivation, and engagement of its employees.