Friday, March 18, 2011

Meetings: Who Owns The Problem?

Meetings make me ___________________ . 

A) want to call in sick on meeting days. (Be honest, how many of you have already done this on 1 or more occasion?)
B) want to stick toothpicks in my eyes.
C) understand how people can "go postal."
D) feel inspired to work hard towards our common goals and mission.

If you answered D, please leave your tips and best practices in the comments below. We all have a lot to learn from you.

If you answered A, B or C, then read on.

I've been struggling with the issue of meetings for a few years now. I've led them in different situations over my entire career and now in my new job, I'm in the position of attending even more and leading some of them again, in a new context. And so, I'm even more sensitive then ever to the body language and off-task behaviors that sometimes occurs. I'm also seeing how the Participant v Leader meeting behaviors and interactions can have a huge impact on the overall organization's dynamics. Now, on a weekly basis, I sit in on more meetings than some families in third world countries (and here in the US for that matter) have meals in a month.

For starters, I truly believe that everyone wants the same things for themselves as they relate to their school or organization. Everyone wants:

  • common goals and a mission
  • to be understood and valued
  • to be trusted as a professional
  • to be treated fairly
  • to have a chance to be heard
  • to know someone "has their backs"

And now a word from Captain Obvious: My not-at-all-scientific study over the last 26 years yields the results that many people engage in behaviors that chip away at achieving some of the above items for themselves. Say it ain't so!! Yup, it's so!

Sometimes, the very people who complain of meetings dragging on, losing focus or not running efficiently are the same people who may be guilty of these behaviors. Who hasn't sat in faculty or other meetings where people are:

  • texting 
  • using laptops to videochat or IM, check email or do other work (using your laptop for relevant purposes is another story and can actually help move the meeting along - common sense and professional judgment prevails)
  • having sidebar conversations (a quick whisper is fine, but anything that is audible to others and volleys back and forth more than twice should be taken offline - if it's really important, leave the room).  Sidenote: I'm always amazed at how many adults don't know how to really whisper.
  • loud giggling (see above sidebar conversations)
  • body language that clearly shows annoyance at another's suggestions or comments. If something bothers you, speak up. If you aren't going to speak up, then contain yourself. Everyone can see you, including the person you've aimed at. If he doesn't see you at the time, you can be sure he will hear about it. It's passive aggressive and toxic to the work environment.
  • grading papers (At a minimum, doesn't your student's work deserve your full attention?)

One of the first lessons I've learned in my new gig as a manager, is that your perspective changes immediately and enormously. So, let me be perfect clear here, I've been absolutely guilty of a few of the behaviors mentioned above. I wish I had someone take me aside and explain to me the impact of my sometimes inappropriate meeting behaviors rather than just ignore them and let me continue. I honestly believe although I would have met the discussion with initial embarrassment, I know I would have valued the input and would have changed immediately.

"What is the impact you speak of," you say? It's very difficult to feel, and be efficient in a meeting when you know many people aren't listening. Regardless of what they SAY they are doing ("I'm multitasking"). When you look around the room, you can easily see that one group is talking and laughing, and a few people are writing notes to each other and giggling, and others are grading papers, and others are texting and others are checking email and the rest are trying to listen and pay attention but are having difficulty due to the distracting behaviors of the others. Although I know "multitasking" means doing more than one task. I'm pretty sure the only way to effectively multitask is to do more than one thing but remain focused on the same task. So, you may be taking notes and looking something up and chatting with someone about a relevant idea.

Like the teacher who tries to teach with distractions in her class, she finds herself unable to focus herself. The same often happens to the meeting leader and much like the teacher who stands up in her class and can see everything, it makes you wonder if the meeting participants know if they can be seen. Or perhaps they don't care. Which raises the question of respect.

Out of respect, should you put aside your sidebar conversations, text messages and emails and focus on the meeting agenda, even if you hate it? Or is the onus on the meeting leader to be engaging just as we expect that of our teachers so the students don't go off-task?

Reading this not-so-recent-but-still-very-relevant  put into perspective some thoughts about running meetings. Here are a few items from Chris that caught my eye:

  • Schedule for Brevity
    I like the idea of scheduling for brevity. I think most brainstorming can be done offline and online. Meaning, before the meeting and using a collaborative space. Then during the meeting final decisions can be made. I believe that there should be no surprise questions at meetings. If a decision will need to be made, then folks should have advance notice to mull it around prior.
  • Keep Agendas Taut
    How many meetings have you sat in where you run out of time and the last items are repeatedly either tabled for the next meeting, or given the "rush job?" I'm not a firm believer that the same items need to be on every agenda whether you need them or not. I'd like to see meetings go through agendas fairly quickly. If something needs more discussion, then let's take that small group and meet offline. I think when long discussions begin that only involve a small group, that's when the off task behaviors begin.
  • Table Anything That Doesn't Fit The Format
Chris says, "Never ever ever let someone else throw a mess into the meeting. Stay on top. Thank the person for raising the issue. Mention that you’ll put it into consideration for the next agenda. Handle it offline. Do whatever. But don’t handle topics that aren’t on agenda in the meeting “just because we’re gathered around.? 
This is a tough one. This is one of those things I think we would all LIKE to do, and may work well in the corporate world but in my reality (at least in faculty meetings and the organizational meetings I've attended) would come off as extremely rude. In my experiences, the only times I've seen this done is when it appeared that an argument is about to ensue. On the other hand, perhaps if this is done earlier on in the conversation, it may not have gone to that point. Hmmm...
I do believe these ideas from Chris would help make meetings more efficient.  But, would more efficient meetings really correct the issues with adults behaving poorly?

Who owns the problem?



I really really recommend this book: It contains a great deal of practical wisdom on this and other workplace/management/leadership issues.

My favorite meeting advice comes from Begala and Carville who said that during the 1992 Clinton War Room, they would have a meeting at 8 AM, tell the staff what was going to be done and give folks until 9 AM to make a case against moving forward.


Hey my name is Jenna Baxter and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am taking Dr. Strange's class EDM310, and am commenting on your blog as part of an assignment. You can find a summary of your blog with my comments by April 3. You can also follow me on Twitter @jennabaxter1988. First of all, let me say thank you for allowing me to view and comment on your blog. It really shows how interested you are in advancing the education of others.

I thought your blog post was quite interesting. While I have not been in very many meetings, I can definitely see your point. It is very hard to concentrate on what you are trying to say, especially when no one seems to be paying any attention. You then start to wonder if it is your fault because your presentation was not interesting enough. I don't really think it is the content of the meetings that makes everyone start "multitasking." I think it is the notion of the meeting itself. I know when I hear we are having a meeting at work I instantly dread it, before even finding out what it is about. I believe the word "meeting" has so much stigma attached to it that people often assume they will be boring and want to do something more interesting than paying attention. Good luck in your future meetings and thanks again for allowing me to read your blog!

Anonymous said...

Nope. Never took a day off to miss the entertainment value of a meeting. And the problem with most meetings is they rehash what everybody knows. Information can be conveyed in a document as easily as it can require 30 people to drive 30 minutes to a location to hear someone read it to them. We have technology that lets us meet online. Meetings should be as engaging as a classroom. Talk about what everyone already knows for an hour, and you'll lose them. Fast. Meetings don't have to be a waste of time, but the seem to strive for it. It's the 21st century. Shouldn't we be using the tools that we teach?


Would be curious as to if any of you have been using technology to manage, streamline and align your meeting agendas. I've been doing some consulting in this area and have found this effective.


On your recommendation, I just downloaded Guy's book onto my iPad. Not the first time I've read a book on your recommendation and you never disappoint. Thanks very much! As for the War Room strategy, not sure that would work where you're trying to build a collaborative environment with a team. I doubt people will appreciate being under the gun like that on a regular basis. Do you see that working, really?

Thanks very much for choosing my blog. My posting has slowed down considerably lately so I hope you aren't disappointed. I think you bring up a very good point about the stigma attached to meetings. I've come to see how the concept of "Self Fulfilling Prophecies" really work and this is not different.

I agree about rehashing what people already know. But how do you assess that with adults? (Especially when there are some things that are best not put in writing.) Do we really need to be as engaging to each other in a meeting as we expect teachers to be to their students? As an adult, aren't you expected to pay attention, even if it hurts? Not to say that being engaging is a bad thing, don't get me wrong. But must we really entertain in order to get respect?

Laura Johnson said...

AMEN to your entire post. It seems that we, as teachers, are the most guilty. We preach and teach all day and demand complete and full attention, but then in our own meetings that aren't usually to incredibly long, can't stay focused. We all need to focus on what is important and not only set the perimeters to our meeting outlines and stick to it but stay focused so we can be most effective in our own teaching!


Hello. My name is Michelle French. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am commenting on your blog as an assignment for my EDM 310 class with Dr. Strange. I will have a summary of your blog and my comments at my blog by April 3rd. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I believe that meetings are important, even though they can get tedious at times. It is better to address relevant topics than to stray off topic, and have the meeting last longer than it needs to be.


I think it's important to keep meetings as short as possible. I've been in too many meetings that just stretched on and on. Of course in those situations people will try to discreetly mark papers. It's the only option if you give work to your students that day that you want to give them feedback on the next day and you are stuck in a three hour meeting.

With all the tools we have now for hosting meetings online, etc, the most important thing is to plan meetings properly so that they are effective.