We have to stop meeting like this!

Ever been sat in a meeting as an attendee or the host and thought any of the following:

‘What is this meeting about?’
‘Why are people speaking over each other?’
‘Everyone can see this meeting going sideways, but no one is helping get it back on track’
‘Why did people turn up unprepared when I clearly sent them pre-reading?’
What exactly am I doing here?’

Meeting effectiveness has been a workplace concern for as long as meetings have existed (one can only imagine the chaotic cross-talk in the Roman forum), so much so that academic papers, theses and think tanks have been dedicated to solving the hurdles and inefficiencies of the modern meeting. Of course, the pandemic certainly didn’t help. Without the benefit of organic communications in and around the office, the meeting gained new significance as that rare opportunity to impart essential information – so much so that Microsoft Teams’ analytics show an increase in ‘time spent in meetings’ of over 250%, with the average meeting time growing by 10 minutes (from 35-45). And this is before you even consider the growing list of technical barriers to overcome to effectively connect people at a distance (lord only knows how many minutes of meeting time have been sacrificed to the cries of ‘you’re on mute!’).

Now, as workplaces continue to explore flexible, hybrid ways of working, the conversation has picked up noise again.

So we asked ourselves and our community a loaded question:

“As leaders, researchers, teams and individuals, we’ve been talking about meeting etiquette and proposing solutions for it for a long time – so why is it still such a problem?”

It’s in the things we don’t talk about.

We’re very good at focussing on the rational – the pre-reads, the agendas, the loudest voice speaking last, the ability to listen, the critical decisions to be made. And yes, these are all certainly important considerations can improve your overall meeting experience and productivity.

But these solutions in isolation overlook one of the most important elements of any meeting – people. More specifically, the subconscious mindsets and unconscious behaviours that are putting us at odds with each other without us even realising it.

So what are some of these things that don’t we talk about?

The hidden agenda.

The Situation:

While you’re preparing that neatly typed up agenda, a few of your colleagues may have their own agenda or ideas at play.

Perhaps someone thinks the meeting is an opportunity for some much needed facetime with the CEO to pitch that new idea. Maybe someone is concerned that they have not been ‘visible enough’ lately and just wants to be seen. For those working remotely, they might just be starved for connection (and conversation).

The Solution:

These mixed motivations might be harmless enough in isolation, but without a clearly articulated agenda (or POD – Purpose, Outcome, Decision) to drive the meeting forward, they can quickly surface as distractions and detours,

As a meeting host, take the time to understand where everyone is coming from, why they are attending and what they hope to get out of the meeting. If somebody doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of purpose in the meeting, don’t be afraid to give them one.

Control issues.

The Situation:

Behind the smiling faces in the room (or on the zoom), there is often a lot more at play. Whether it’s ego, anxiety, power dynamics or otherwise, you may find one or two people responding poorly to direction or trying to seize control. This might materialise as few too many questions, weird tangents, fixating on unimportant details – all without a sense of the bigger picture.

The Solution:

As a meeting host, be ready to take control by giving control. Invite other opinions and perspectives into the conversation as a self-awareness trigger for those that may be itching to be heard. Better yet, put them in charge of ensuring everyone has a say to give them agency over the discussion while still moving it forward.

Don’t force it.

The Situation:

A lot can happen between the time you set a meeting and the time that meeting kicks off. Attendees come and go. Scopes of work change. New information gives new context to what you want to achieve. Maybe you just didn’t have the time to prepare that you really needed.

The Solution:

Don’t be afraid to pull the plug. An unclear or unprepared meeting opens the door for distractions and deviations like the ones above and is not a great use of everyone’s time. You may feel a subconscious obligation to commit to the think you’ve already invested your time (and others participation) in, but a meeting for meetings sake helps no one. Besides – your team will likely appreciate the extra minutes back.

Making your meetings matter.

As a host, the effectiveness of a meeting ultimately depends on your preparedness and your people’s engagement. Use our POD and EGO models below to help you set your meetings up for success.

Practical and rationale tips for meeting effectiveness. Consider before scheduling a meeting.

Purpose of collaboration is clearly defined (add to calendar invite or agenda)
Objectives are clearly articulated (visibly write objectives on whiteboard or have ready to bring up in a digital format if meeting online)
Decisions made are tracked to fuel meeting productivity reporting (set up a critical decisions tracker and assess the number of conversations required to reach the outcome or solution)
Challenging your unconscious whilst preparing for and hosting a meeting.

Everyone isn’t where you are (take time to understand people’s mindsets and agendas as they join the meeting)
Give people a clear role (if you don’t know why they are there, how should they know why they are there?)
Open yourself to pivoting to achieve desired outcome (don’t be wedded to the agenda, be wedded to the outcome)

Participation requires preparation too.

An effective meeting requires more than just a prepared host, and everyone should come into a meeting prepared and decision-ready. Before accepting the invitation and ask yourself the following questions to determine what you need to be productive in the meeting

What’s my role / purpose in the meeting?
What do I need to do to prepare?
Can I contribute to this conversation in a meaningful way?
Can I go into this with an open and positive mindset?

No one likes wasting their own, or other’s time – it is precious after all. But better meetings are not that hard to achieve. Whether you’re running a meeting or joining one, be prepared, be engaged and be present. You and your team will feel the difference.

Have any tips of your own to keep meetings focussed and productive? Join us in the comments on linkedin and have your say. If you’d like to discuss meeting effectiveness in this new hybrid world of work or have any thoughts on what you’d like to hear more of from us, get in touch with Nat Cagilaba for what promises to be a highly effective virtual intro meeting!

We are Unity is a consulting agency that unites data-driven insights with behavioural science, strategy and creative, to close the gap between organisations’ commercial aspirations and the ability to deliver on them..