Article by Romano Theunissen based on original work by Irene Laochaisri.
What does a meaningful meeting at work feel like? For us, they feel like time well spent. What I mean by this is that they strengthen relationships, increase trust, represent voices equally, and lead to concrete steps that all involved agree upon.
But how do we constantly create those spaces?
Think about the typical work meeting involving 12 or more people. You will most likely have a few people who hold a lot of social and institutional power and respect. You will probably have one or two people who want to get straight to work with another one or two people who can’t stop talking about the weekend. You will have people who don’t want to say anything at all, people who are confused about why the meeting is happening in the first place, and maybe even someone who is going to try and be the loudest and most dominant voice in the room. And in all this normal chaos, you will have those who feel like they cannot contribute because their opinions will be glossed over and ignored.
While I know I paint a slightly exaggerated picture for many of you, this is all too often the reality of work meetings. Some of us might even be living this reality today.
Now think about how these dynamics show up virtually through Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, or any video conferencing platform.
How do they play out?
Are they exacerbated?
Are you looking at a screen filled with blank windows with everyone’s cameras off?
How do you know people are showing up fully, engaging, listening, contributing…participating.
Better yet, is the space inviting enough for those who typically feel ignored to step up and share your team's next big idea?
In a Harvard Business Review survey of managers, 71% of survey respondents said that meetings were unproductive. This is backed up by an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review which found that more than 50% of respondents complained about their meetings. Even the Instagram influencer, @loewhaley, has a popular account centered around how meetings are not great. And with over 2.3 million followers, people clearly agree.
All of this is however juxtaposed with findings that indicate that we actually like meetings. When the MIT researchers conducted private surveys, they found that the numbers dramatically reduced, with only 15% of respondents hating their meetings.
So why such a large difference in opinions?
The answer for us is quite simple. We like GOOD meetings.
But what does that mean exactly?
In our opinion, good meetings enable us to
This is really, really, REALLY hard to do.
In theory, all teams strive for good meetings. In practice, however, our behaviors fall short. Our egos and learned communication patterns get in the way of realizing this ideal, and it is no one’s fault.
What we must realize is that even though good meetings take a lot of effort to achieve, they are absolutely worth striving for.
And the benefits speak for themselves.
In essence, having opportunities to connect with each other face to face (or screen to screen) regularly allows teams to get to know each other and work together better. Without connection opportunities, individual members don’t get to know each other. This leads to increased siloing, less collaboration, less creativity and so much more.
I know this seems strange, given that so much of our time is spent in meetings. But a good meeting actually makes you more productive. They create spaces where ideas can be shared and feedback can be given. A meeting reduces opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding. By aligning on a shared understanding of an issue or idea, feedback becomes more valuable and actionable, leading to increased productivity.
All too often, good work goes unrecognized. Over time, this lack of recognition leads to employees dropping out and turning quiet, potentially even quitting. By creating spaces where people get to show progress and receive positive feedback publicly, significantly improves employee engagement. This has cascading effects that not only increase participation from other employees, but also increases productivity as employees are more motivated to engage.
It sounds strange that a meeting can increase creativity. But it really does. All too often, team members get ideas in their heads, only to let them die there due to a number of factors. More often than not, all it takes is for that idea to be shared. While I am not saying that every idea is golden, there is definitely a case that most ideas have something of use in them. Sometimes all it takes is hearing that idea and evolving it through discussion. Good meetings create this space and allow for these nuggets of gold to be developed, evolved, and actioned into reality.
This list could go on for much longer, but in short, good meetings lead to good outcomes.
The Question is…HOW?
I wish I could tell you that improving your meetings will be easy. The truth is that consistently conducting good meetings is tough. That being said, it is not impossible. There are definitely things you can do today that will see an improvement. However, running successful meetings consistently definitely needs a short, medium, and long term approach.
In the short term, these steps will vastly improve your meetings, depending on where you are as a team and an organization
This is a simple step but a profound one. Having a thought out agenda with realistic timing that is shared ahead of time with dramatically reduce a lot of the frustrations that most people feel with meetings
Our time is valuable, and when it is wasted, frustration goes through the roof. Meetings are no exception. By starting on time and finishing on time, you send a clear signal that you respect your team's time. It should be noted that having a thought out agenda helps you to stick to your time
Meetings are meant to empower future work. That means that people need to leave the meeting understanding what needs to be done. These action plans can be as detailed as is necessary or as simple as, “we need to meet again, when and where?” By ending your meetings with actions, you empower individuals and teams to do the jobs you hired them to do in the first place.
Perhaps a counterintuitive point but an important one. Not everyone needs to be in every meeting. Being in a meeting that has nothing to do with you is frustrating indeed. This is however nuanced as it is all too easy to exclude important voices from a room. One way to do this is by publishing your agenda ahead of time. This helps attendees assess the agenda and the value that they can bring to the conversation. This approach accompanied with mandatory and optional attendees will increase engagement while also limiting frustration. Don’t be afraid to adjust as you go, landing on what works best for you and your team.
A facilitator’s main responsibility is to ensure that your team gets the most of the conversation you are planning to have. They are there to provide structure, ask questions that may feel difficult or uncomfortable for participants to ask, and ensure that all participants leave the conversation feeling seen, heard, and respected.
Recently, the United States Congress did just this and saw amazing results. To be precise, the Congressional Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hired a facilitator to help its bipartisan members come to terms with the events of the January 6th riots. This pivotal step allowed members of the select committee to move beyond deadlock, collaborate across party and ideological lines, and actually deliver a 10 chapter report that laid out clear and actionable steps to improve the way the US Congress operated.
While facilitators are not a silver bullet, they definitely go a long way in improving your meetings. And no, you don’t need to be stuck in a process deadlock like the US Congress before you hire a facilitator, nor do you and your team need to go through a traumatic experience. Facilitation is as much about improving something that’s working well as it is about addressing what isn’t. And by bringing an objective outsider in, your team will only benefit.
It should be noted that facilitators are not cheap, and having one for every meeting you have will see you quickly burning through your budget, and that leads me to our long term solution, training.
In their MIT Sloan Business Review article on meetings, the authors state…
“Given the amount of time and money that organizations spend on meetings, improving their effectiveness should be an important goal. In order to make that happen, companies need to focus on three fronts: improving employees’ skills in meetings; improving managers’ skills in meetings; and implementing best and innovative practices for running particular types of meetings.”
Training your teams in how to not only run good meetings, but how to be a part of good meetings, is the best long term approach to consistently creating meaningful spaces. These training sessions will help your team develop a set of skills that will see your organization's productivity and engagement levels increase, making your company more profitable and a better place to work.
To be clear, having people on your team who know how to facilitate meetings and participate in them will significantly increase the effectiveness of your meetings. They will not completely remove the need of an external facilitator. There will be times when an external facilitator will be more beneficial to you and your team. However, by developing and cultivating these skills in your organization will mean that when you hire a facilitator, you get more bang for your buck.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, bad meeting dynamics are only exacerbated when we move online and even more so, when we mix the two mediums up. As we all transition into a future of work that is increasingly in-person, online, and a mixture of the two (Hybrid), these solutions are even more important.
The short, medium, and long term solutions are therefore even more important in an environment where we are engaging across physical locations. Training solutions that identify this reality and provide skills to turn the difficulties of online and hybrid meetings into opportunities, are evermore important.
After reading this article you have a feeling of agency and are motivated to start improving your team's meetings. To help with that step, use this weekly meeting agenda template to help with your next meeting and get you started. Don’t be afraid to change things up and adjust timings that work for you and your team.
If you are interested in medium and long term solutions such as hiring facilitators and developing your team's meeting skills, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or take a look at our training products here.