Keeping Meetings on Track When You’re Not in Charge

Keeping Meetings on Track When You’re Not in Charge

04.22.16Ron Ashkenas

It takes courage to speak up

Meetings frustrate everyone. There are too many of them, they take too much time, and not enough gets done during and after.

It’s easy to blame this on others – the higher-ups who invite us, arrange the agendas, and chair the meetings.  We just show up, make our presentations, and try to sound smart.

But we are all accountable for keeping meetings effective, whether we are calling them or simply participating.  If you are in charge, there are obvious steps you need to take, most of which are covered in the countless books and training courses about meeting management.  If you’re not officially in charge, the things you should be doing to help keep everyone on track might not be as clear – but this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If you passively and repeatedly attend poorly conceived and run meetings, then you’re contributing to the problem by reinforcing the bad behavior of others.

While challenging a meeting leader can be difficult – especially when that person is your boss or a senior manager – if you find the right way to do it, you can save everyone some valuable time.

In a large technology firm, for example, the CEO led a bi-weekly meeting of her top 20 people to review the business and make key decisions.  Although the CEO’s chief of staff prepared an agenda in advance, the CEO was a passionate, curious person, who had a tendency to go off on tangents. So the meetings lasted longer, often going hours beyond what was originally planned.  Eventually, a couple of the CEO’s direct reports suggested to her that a third-party facilitator be brought in to the meetings to help keep things on track. Much to their amazement, she agreed.  Rather than being offended, it turned out that she too was feeling that the meetings were becoming inefficient but wasn’t sure what to do about it.

People won’t always be this cooperative or open to feedback, so employees should be prepared for resistance and tread with caution.  In one company I worked with, for example, the CEO liked to use his staff meetings to review business reports line by line as a way of identifying problems – a practice that frustrated the team since everyone could read the reports ahead of time and identify the issues in advance.  When members of the team pushed back, the CEO told them that this was the way he had run things for a long time and insisted (in less than polite language) that he was not going to change a thing. They then backed off, and only streamlined the review process after he retired.

The point is that it takes a certain amount of courage to push back on someone else’s meeting, and it’s unlikely that you’ll always be successful.  But if it’s clear that something has to be done in your organization, here are two strategies that you might consider:

First, think about the standard principles for planning a productive meeting – having a clear purpose, inviting the right people, sending out pre-work, developing an agenda – and start your feedback there. If any of these can be improved, it could have a big impact on meeting efficiency and outcomes. Plus, these are tangible issues that can be discussed rationally with your boss or other senior people. Most importantly, this conversation doesn’t require you to delve into a subjective assessment of meeting management behavior.

In one company, senior people were sending subordinates to regular meetings when they couldn’t attend. The problem was that they were sending these substitutes so frequently, it had become difficult to actually make decisions. Finally, a manager approached the boss about this policy. She walked through the reasons why having substitutes was helpful (they can represent their teams’ interests, and for the substitutes themselves, attending these higher-level meetings supported their development), and why it might be problematic (the practice caused delays in decision-making and sometimes hurt team dynamics).  Based on this, the boss was able to provide guidelines for when substitutes would and would not be allowed.

A greater challenge is how to give feedback on the way someone else (particularly, someone more senior) actually runs a meeting.

You certainly can’t say, “This was a lousy meeting, and here’s what you should do to make it better.” But you can offer the leader some easy assessment mechanisms that will help her reach her own conclusions about how well the meeting is being conducted.  This can be a meeting process checklist that people fill out anonymously, a survey that participants can complete online, or quick questions that everyone discusses at the end of every meeting. One manager suggested to his boss that they conclude staff meetings with a structured two-minute conversation in which everyone says what was good about the meeting, and what should be done differently the next time.  Naturally, after the first few meetings, most of the feedback was positive, but eventually people started testing the waters about possible changes. Eventually this led to crisper decisions, less off-target discussions, and generally more efficient and productive meetings.

With the amount of time that meetings take up, it’s crucial to remember that even if you’re not in charge, you can contribute to a meeting’s effectiveness and productivity, particularly through small acts of courage. It might not always work, but doing nothing won’t work any better.

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review.  Join the discussion.

 



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