How to make meetings less terrible

Meetings say a great deal about your culture, but are also a powerful tool to change it, writes author Chris Dyer

(Photograph: Yukie Nishizawa – Pool/Getty Images)
(Photograph: Yukie Nishizawa – Pool/Getty Images)

The way a company conducts its meetings says an awful lot about its culture. For a quick yardstick, measure the "distance" between those who called the meeting and those who showed up. The more closely aligned the objectives of those two parties, the more in sync the culture and the greater the chances of getting good work done.

Those two elements are co-dependent. Boost the team’s effectiveness and your culture gains direction and stability, and vice versa. By creating the most direct line between two points – meeting hosts and participants – you can elevate both your team’s productivity and your company’s culture.

The easiest place to start is to concentrate on what happens before meetings begin: how and why they take place, what people need to get from them and how they can enrich your team’s group dynamic.

Roles? Goals?

Nobody wants to waste their time in a conference room when they are not relevant to the proceedings, but a segmented workforce increases the likelihood that some participants won’t add to the discussion or that the topic will be of little use to them. 

To solve that problem, take a journalist’s approach to setting meeting parameters. Ask who, what, why?

As the host, you own the "what". That’s the information or the brainstorming or the debriefing that you need to do. 

Who can help you do that? You’ve got your own list, but you’re not omniscient. Others on the list should know who else to tap. 

This speaks to the transparency of your company’s culture. Does everyone know who does what on your team? When you help them know that, you raise the intelligence level of the entire group. People know who to turn to when questions need answers and challenges beg for expertise. 

Take that who-does-what question a step further. Does everyone know why their colleagues do what they do? If not, hold a meeting or video conference periodically to exchange "role-and-goal" information. 

When the company makes it a priority for people to know each other’s job descriptions, you’ll not only fill your meetings with the right people, but you’ll also have teams that know how to support each other in any situation. It’s an invaluable culture builder.

Make it work for everyone

Once you’ve got the guest list, you can delegate prep work to ensure that people come to a meeting armed with background basics or the expectation of learning them. 

Make attendance a plus, not a minus. Home in on a convenient time and support that timing. If it’s before lunch, offer snacks. If it’s before a big deadline or on Friday afternoon, stick to the schedule or end the meeting early.

In the best meetings, everyone gains. You’ll want to structure your gatherings so that even passive participants get something valuable. The best companies do this by satisfying what researcher Daniel Pink cites as fundamental human cravings for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Address autonomy by levelling the group playing field. Is everyone free to contribute? If that’s not practical in the time allotted, reserve a brief period for universal input. 

Go around the room and let each person weigh in on something that brings the team closer together. This might be a facet of their personal lives, the biggest difficulty they are facing or a quiz on core values or roles and goals.

Take the time to acknowledge individual successes or efforts beyond the call of duty. Carve out moments that give people a reason to participate.

Finally, define the group’s shared purpose by bringing the company’s mission or core values into the topic being discussed: "We’re doing this so we can fulfill this value...." 

Or put recent or future work into perspective by adding context to the purpose of the meeting. Talk about what is going well, what obstacles you might face and how you would circumvent them or do things differently.

Just rowing or pulling together?

Meetings might seem to be all about talking, but delivering information works well only if people are receiving it accurately. Whatever your topic of discussion, nothing will come of it if you have not developed a culture of listening. The way to do that is to model best practices yourself.

First rule? When you’re actively listening, you’re not talking. If you are chiming in with "uh-huhs" or just waiting for the speaker to pause so you can interject your opinion, you are not focused on the full message. The most effective players in meetings are generally the quietest, until it’s their turn to speak.

That said, part of good listening is being sure you understood the speaker. If you are unclear, jot down quick questions or keywords. When appropriate, ask those clarifying questions. Or repeat what you heard in your own words and ask if you’ve interpreted things correctly.

Speakers have obligations to listeners as well. If you’ve prepared a message, stay on topic. Know your audience so you can speak their language and circumvent any biases or idiosyncrasies. 

Some companies facilitate this by sharing the results of individual personality tests or surveys about communication preferences. Just knowing whether you’ve got introverts or extroverts in the seats will help you elicit needed information or work harder to keep things on track.

You can also promote better listening by reducing distractions, such as banning mobile phone and laptop use. Strictly moderate crosstalk and adhere to time limits as well. All of these things help people to focus and process what they are hearing.

If you want to have better meetings, give people what they want and need. If you want to have better culture, ask yourself the right questions before you plan your next meeting. By increasing the dynamic portion of the group dynamic, you’ll push productivity and organisational culture to new heights.

Chris Dyer is chief executive of PeopleG2 and author of The Power of Company Culture

This article first appeared in Third Sector's sister publication Management Today

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