There's nothing quite like the announcement of another meeting to evoke in employees a distinct feeling of dread. With most employees' time stretched thin with an already heavy workload, meetings can be seen as pointless time-wasters. Unfortunately, this is because many of them are. "The main thing people hate about meetings is that they are poorly run or don't accomplish anything," says Glenn Parker, team building consultant and author of Meeting Excellence: 33 Tools to Lead Meetings that Get Results.
Employees with a strong desire to accomplish work goals are especially negatively affected by meetings, according to Steven G. Rogelberg, professor of organizational and science psychology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He was lead researcher on a 2005 study of 908 employees on meetings published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. For those driven employees who are focused on completing tasks and achieving goals, meetings are an annoying interruption to their work and productivity; job satisfaction decreases as the number of meetings they attend increases. The study did find, however, that employees who are low in accomplishment striving have a more flexible orientation to work and actually liked meetings, presumably because meetings are seen as a welcome interruption, something that adds a chance to be social.
In "The Science and Fiction of Meetings," Rogelberg (along with Cliff Scott, professor at the University at North Carolina, Charlotte, and John Kello,
professor at Davidson College) writes that ineffective meetings are especially harmful to corporations. Three different studies support the idea that the level of meeting effectiveness is the single most powerful factor in job satisfaction; the more time spent in bad meetings the greater the job dissatisfaction, and the more likely employees are to leave the company.
Unfortunately, ineffective meetings are the norm. All too often, employees walk away from a meeting thinking, "That was not a good use of my time, we just sort of talked a lot, and there was no clear purpose or outcome," says Parker, who leads effective-meetings training for various corporations. He points out that even when there is a clear purpose, meetings can easily move off topic or can be hijacked by someone only interested in seeming smart or pushing his agenda.
Research supports his assessment. A 2005 Microsoft survey of 38,000 people worldwide found that the average worker feels productive only three days a week. What scored as one of the top three time-wasters? Ineffective meetings. (Unclear objectives and lack of team communication were also in the top three, which suggests the common use of meetings as a communication tool is ill-founded.) According to the survey, people spend 5.6 hours each week in meetings, yet 69 percent of them feel that meetings aren't productive. Looking strictly at the United States, the number of employees who feel meetings aren't productive climbs to 71 percent.
So how do you make sure you're not killing morale or job satisfaction with your meetings? You might consider hiring a specialist to educate meeting leaders on techniques for becoming more effective. More immediately, here are eight ways to help you become a more effective meeting leader.
1. Schedule only necessary meetings. Think of it at its most basic: When employees are in meetings, they are not producing work. The salary each person is being paid to be at a meeting and the amount of work that's collectively lost in the same amount of time should be considered against that meeting's importance. The purpose of a meeting is to make a decision, for example solving a problem, answering a query or selecting a vendor, says Parker. In other words, there's an outcome that requires the input of the players and those should be the only people at the meeting. "There might be a legitimate issue, but it only concerns X people; the rest [if required to attend will be] annoyed and feel they have more productive things to do."
Eva Budz, who attended Parker's training and is a senior clinical oncology research scientist at Novartis, says one good rule of thumb she uses to determine that it's time for a meeting is "when we start seeing frequent correspondence on an issue and cluttered inboxes." At that point, "we just hold a meeting to get to the heart of the problem."
2. Eliminate status meetings or reduce their frequency. A lot of meetings are just status updates, progress reports, announcements of new systems and so on, says Parker. "So each person gives their little update, and that in many cases is not a good reason to meet." The information conveyed in most meetings of the status/update variety could be communicated in other ways, for example electronically. To those who consider meetings to be a time of team bonding, Parker says, "If you want to have teambuilding have teambuilding, but let's call it that." If there's a lack of bonding there's a better way of addressing it, he says. Still, some companies may find it difficult to let go of status meetings altogether.
Such is the case at Novartis. As a clinical trial leader, Budz holds monthly update meetings during which participants from drug supply, regulatory and marketing divisions report on their specific part of the trial. She says the monthly update meeting is crucial and informative, since each group can hear and discuss what the others are doing.
If you must have status meetings, do keep in mind the overall amount of corporate meetings that employees attend and try to balance the amount with that in mind. At the very least, consider allowing them to be optional. For example, Budz says that since some participants, such as data management staff, have roles on multiple trials, about 30 percent of relevant players do not attend the status meeting any given month, but are updated with meeting minutes later.
3. Create an agenda. Creating a clear purpose for your meeting and a structure for conducting it is crucial, says Parker. You should identify the key meeting outcome you are hoping to get, or the one thing you need to get done to be able say, "Yes, that was a successful meeting." Include the objective on the agenda, so that everyone is aligned as to the meeting's purpose. Days before the meeting, solicit agenda items from meeting participants and compile them with your own. Be sure to send the agenda to all participants before the meeting.
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4. Prepare for how you want to run the meeting, not just what you want to cover. "I'm a big believer in preparation," says Parker. If you're the meeting leader you need to sit down and think about what might happen at this meeting. "I'll give thought in advance to 'what if?'" What if a key member of the team doesn't show up? The technology doesn't work? An audience member is bored or disruptive?
5. Review agenda and objectives at the beginning of the meeting. Key to keeping a meeting on track is summarizing what you will cover and what you hope to accomplish during the meeting. For example, "We're here today to review our vendor options and by the time this meeting is finished we should have narrowed our choices down to three." Budz notes that streamlining meetings by using agendas (especially those including agenda items from everyone) and verbalizing the meeting objective at the outset has made a tremendous impact on meeting productivity.
6. Encourage participation with active listening. Without an atmosphere of respect, you cannot hope for full participation; many people will simply not speak up in an atmosphere where it doesn't feel welcome. For starters, be respectful of people even if you disagree with their opinion. How you respond when people make a contribution can reinforce—or negate—your words. Show that you are open to different points of view by earnestly asking for clarification. And discourage inappropriate behavior from others. For example, cut off those who interrupt: "I understand you disagree but let's let Shawna finish her thought before we discuss it." Encourage others with pertinent questions, such as, "Mark thinks we don't have enough data to make a decision yet. How do the rest of you feel about it?" Call on those with particular subject expertise, "Erica, I know you have experience with these kinds of projects, what do you think about this?"
7. Give a recap at the end of the meeting. When the time limit has been reached, close the meeting. Summarize the accomplishments, decisions and next steps. Parker says that this recap my seem like it takes unnecessary time, but it emphasizes just the opposite is true: "You don't want people going out with a different understanding of what's been decided, and those five minutes at the end are crucial in that sense." Budz agrees, "You discuss so much during a meeting and can go off on tangents. Tying it all together at the end was one of the best things I learned."
8. Deliver meeting minutes in a reasonable time. Ideally you should send out draft meeting minutes and ask for input. Final versions should be sent once input has been incorporated. For both, set a timeframe that makes sense for the complexity of what was discussed and decided at the meeting. That said, sooner rather than later is a good maxim here.
Making meetings better should be a top priority for organizations. With their powerful effect on employee satisfaction, not to mention their cost, streamlining and improving meetings deserves your attention.
To share your meeting tips with other CIO readers, please go to "How Do You Make Meetings More Effective?" in our Advice & Opinion section.