7 symptoms of bad meetings and what you can do about them

Everyone complains about long, time-wasting meetings. No one does anything about them. Do articulate, efficient people simply avoid them? Read on.

The door to the meeting room opens. It’s the person who called the meeting, 10 minutes late. His previous meeting ended late and he had to stop by his office to pick up notes to remind him of what this meeting was about.

The folks in the room are discussing last night’s game and wondering how long the meeting is going to last. Only one person remembers getting the last meeting’s notes. And he’s the only one who has a copy of the report they’re supposed to discuss.

Does this sound familiar? You’re not alone. One statement everyone agrees on: Meetings often waste time and money. Scary meeting statistics abound. Software company Atlassian’s infographic asserts that U.S. businesses waste $37 billion a year. Some of that likely was wasted in your organization.

It’s strange that this waste isn’t first on anyone’s list to get fixed. If we waste billions, why don’t corporations make the effort to fix it? Is it due to lack of accountability? But this is something within our control.

Some symptoms of bad meetings and what you can do to fix them.

1. Your meetings ramble on without a clear purpose. If there’s an agenda, no one follows it.

Good meeting practice says that a good agenda will almost always reduce wasted time. A poll of 471 leaders revealed that 90 percent attributed the failure of meetings to no planning or organization. Send out an agenda before your meeting. Review the agenda at the beginning of the meeting and get agreement to follow it. Important: Empower people to point out when the meeting veers off-agenda. Everyone must share the responsibility to keep things on track.

2. People do their own thing during the meeting—text, talk on the phone, respond to email, carry on unrelated conversations.

Avoid this by establishing ground rules before the meeting begins. These include setting limits on texting, email and phone conversations, and requiring people to listen without interrupting. Even if people agree to these rules, they may need to be reminded at the beginning of the meeting or during the meeting if the rule-breaking is egregious. Such reminders may come from colleagues or the meeting leader.

3. People show up unprepared. They haven’t read the report, document or spreadsheet the meeting was about, or they haven’t done the research they promised to do.

A well-run organization holds staff accountable for doing their jobs and keeping their promises. But real life often falls short of how we know it should operate. Holding people accountable should be part of meeting ground rules. When you distribute the agenda, state what is expected of each participant. Even if you reiterate expectations, there may still be people who don’t think they need to be prepared. In a separate setting, the meeting leader must re-state the obvious:

Meetings are places where people report on their work and share information. When members fail to do what they promised, they disrespect other people, who came to the meeting to participate and learn what progress has been made. Not only are they rude to co-workers, they also waste organizational resources.

4. Decisions are discussed but not decided. There’s no agreement to support decisions once they are made and people continue to fight, disavow or bad-mouth them.

A good business process gets things done with a minimum of waste. A good meeting process requires decisions or an action postponing a decision to the next meeting. Create the expectation that a decision will be made and drive for consensus. If a decision still can’t be made, it may need to be kicked upstairs or assigned to a committee. Then, after everyone has their say and decision is made, it must be supported by the entire group, even if some disagree. Otherwise disagreements move underground and undermine the work of all. There is one exception: A decision that’s illegal, immoral or dangerous. Here dissent may be far healthier than unanimous agreement.

5. A few talkers (not necessarily the leader) dominate meetings, or knowledgeable people never speak up.

Better participation from all present improves both the process and the outcome of meetings. An article in The Facilitator, Fall 2006 issue, claims that a skilled meeting facilitator increases project productivity by 25%. Of course The Facilitator may be biased, but a leader trained in meeting facilitation will improve most meetings. If that’s not possible, help the meeting leader learn facilitation skills that will spread out participation.

6. Meetings start and end late. People come late or leave before the end.

Timeliness is a matter of integrity. I’m using the word “integrity” to mean unimpaired or sound. Consider the integrity of steel beams in a building. If one beam was missing or askew, wouldn’t the building sag or fall down? Similarly, when key people miss update or decision-making meetings, they undermine the integrity of your work team; it doesn’t matter why or how. They will inevitably miss important communications, updates, reframing of the issues, and waste everyone’s time when they have to be brought up to date.

Because they missed the original discussion, they may leave an update meeting with an erroneous impression of what was discussed or agreed upon. Set a strong expectation for timeliness and then start and end your meeting on time. If you respect peoples’ schedules, they will respect the integrity of your meeting and its objectives.

7. People leave meetings tired, frustrated, angry or depressed.

Your meeting style might not be healthy for anybody. If your meetings offer donuts, coffee, soft drinks and bagels, these may spike blood sugar and cause it to crash. Are your meetings unnecessarily long or do they run without breaks? Are you are holding the wrong meeting for that time of day? Think about whether your meeting logistics help or hinder the work of your organization.

Joel D. Levitt is the author of “10 Minutes a Week to Great Meetings.”


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