by Steven G. Rogelberg, January–February 2019
Dave, a senior VP at a large U.S. bank, was a strong one-on-one manager. However, 360-degree feedback revealed that he struggled in one critical area: leading effective meetings. Multiple employees described his meetings as “a time suck.” They complained that he asked them to meet too often, allowed a few people to dominate conversations, and failed to create an environment where attendees really wrestled with ideas and engaged in critical thinking. These comments took Dave by complete surprise. He’d thought he was doing a good job with meetings—better than most of his peers, anyway.
Dave is not the first manager to overestimate his abilities in this area. Research suggests that of the 23 hours that executives spend in meetings each week, on average, eight are unproductive. Some 90% of people report daydreaming in meetings, and 73% admit that they use meeting time to do other work. And yet research by myself and others shows that leaders consistently rate their own meetings very favorably—and much more positively than attendees do. For instance, a telephone survey of more than 1,300 managers found that while 79% of them said that meetings they initiated were extremely or very productive, only 56% said the same about meetings initiated by others—clear evidence of an “I’m not the problem” attitude. Additional research provides insight into why: In a study with Jiajin Tong of Peking University, I found that the attendees who are the most active are the ones who feel that meetings are the most effective and satisfying. And who typically talks the most? The leader.
When leaders assume that their meetings are going well, they are less apt to solicit feedback and seek opportunities to improve. As a result, frustrations that attendees commonly cite in surveys (such as irrelevant agenda items, overly long duration, lack of focus) persist, leaving them disgruntled and disengaged. And the associated costs are significant. Apart from the actual time wasted—estimated to be more than $30 billion a year in the United States alone—there are opportunity costs of employees’ not working on more important, inspiring, or revenue-generating tasks. Reduced engagement has been shown to diminish everything from performance and innovation to service delivery, helping others, and teamwork. One recent study found that the effects of a bad meeting can linger for hours in the form of attendee grousing and complaining—a phenomenon dubbed “meeting recovery syndrome.” Finally, leaders who continue to run ineffective meetings, thereby failing to make the best use of the talent around them, might eventually see attrition on their teams and an erosion of their power and influence.
When consequences such as these are pointed out, a common impulse is to decree that all meetings should be eliminated. However, although most organizations have meetings that could easily be cut, a no-meetings policy is unrealistic and counterproductive. Meetings can efficiently bring together ideas and opinions and allow people to do their jobs in a more coordinated and cooperative manner. They help individuals form a coherent whole that is more adaptive, resilient, and self-directing, especially in times of crisis. Perhaps most important, meetings help establish and promote consensus, thus serving as a focal point for collective drive and energy.
So the goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain. To do this, leaders need to understand what they do well and not so well in meetings, but most organizations do little to promote self-awareness in this area. While presenting at a large HR conference, I asked the executives in attendance (many of them from Fortune 500 companies) how many included questions about meeting effectiveness in their employee engagement surveys or gathered 360-degree feedback about meeting leadership. Not one hand went up. In examining onboarding, leadership development, and high-potential programs across many top organizations, I’ve found little content on meeting best practices beyond the banal advice you’d see in any “how to” book (for example, don’t forget to have an agenda). One study found that despite the prevalence of meetings today, 75% of those surveyed had received no formal training in how to conduct or participate in them.
It’s therefore up to managers to make positive changes by objectively assessing and improving their own meeting skills. Here’s how.
Better meeting leadership requires better self-observation. Take a few minutes after each meeting you run to reflect. Think about attendee behavior, conversational dynamics, and the content that was covered. Ask yourself: Were people distracted? Conducting side conversations? Consider who did most of the talking. Was it you? One or two other people? Did the discussion stray to irrelevant topics? Were all the opinions and ideas that were expressed fairly similar? If you answer yes to some or all of these questions, there’s a problem. It’s also important to note the positive aspects of your meetings, such as full participation and healthy debate. What seemed to energize people? What could you do in future meetings to encourage that kind of engagement?
In addition to these routine scans, check in periodically with people who attend your meetings. You can do this face-to-face, making sure to emphasize that you truly want candid feedback, or you can use technology to gauge participants’ attitudes. For instance, as a follow-up to his 360, Dave conducted a three-question online survey to ask his peers and direct reports what was working well in his meetings, what needed improvement, and what suggestions folks had.
Once you’ve reflected on your own and solicited feedback from others, identify your key strengths and weaknesses and create a plan for improvement. In my consulting, I’ve found it useful to focus on two areas: preparation and facilitation.
Few of us would question the notion that presentations, client work, and many other business activities require thought and planning, even if it’s just a few minutes’ worth. But people routinely ignore this best practice when it comes to meetings. Especially with regularly scheduled ones, it’s easy to simply show up and default to the usual way of doing things. But when you’re a steward of others’ time, you owe it to them to make some modest upfront investment.
Before you hold a meeting, force yourself to make deliberate choices. First, know exactly why you’re convening and define your goals to set the stage for achieving them. This process may include asking others to suggest agenda items, which not only promotes relevance but also increases ownership and engagement. If you don’t have a clear mission or a list of agenda items, you should probably cancel.
Once you know why you’re meeting, decide who needs to be there to help you. Too many attendees can lead to a cacophony of voices or social loafing (whereby individuals scale back their efforts under the protection of a “crowd”), not to mention logistical challenges. That said, you don’t want to pare the invite list down so much that necessary people aren’t there or others end up feeling slighted. To find the right balance, think carefully about key decision makers, influencers, and stakeholders. Make sure that those outside the circle feel included, by asking for their input before the meeting and promising to share it and keep them in the loop. You might also consider a timed agenda, in which attendees join only the portions of the meeting pertinent to them.
Next, focus on time and place. It’s human nature to stick to the same room, same hour, and same general setup. But those routines can cause people to glaze over. Instead, find ways to introduce variety: Move to a different venue, meet in the morning instead of the afternoon, experiment with nontraditional time blocks (such as 50 minutes instead of an hour), or change the seating arrangements so that everyone is next to and across from different colleagues. For groups of two to four people, you might suggest a walking meeting. For larger groups, try standing,which has been shown to boost meeting efficiency and attendee satisfaction—provided the sessions are kept short (15 minutes or so) to prevent discomfort.
Ask yourself: Were people distracted? Conducting side conversations?
For high-stakes meetings, your preparation should go even further. Try having a “premortem” (also known as prospective hindsight), which involves imagining that the meeting has failed and working backward to ascertain why. Then plan the meeting in a way that avoids or mitigates those problems.
Dave’s big issue was that he held too many recurring weekly meetings that happened whether he had a compelling agenda or not. He held them out of habit rather than necessity. So he changed the cadence to every other week, and in the off weeks created something he called “magic time”—a slot that everyone on the team agreed to keep empty for either heads-down work or an impromptu meeting should an urgent issue surface. This significantly reduced the quantity of meetings, while also improving the quality of those that were held. Still, Dave had more work to do: improving his meeting facilitation.
Facilitation starts the moment attendees walk into the room. Because people often experience meetings as interruptions—taking them away from their “real work”—the leader’s first task is to promote a sense of presence among attendees. There are several ways to do this: by greeting people at the door, expressing gratitude for their time, offering snacks, playing music, and asking folks to turn off their phones and laptops. It is also important to start with a purposeful opening statement explaining why everyone is gathered. Consider recognizing group or individual accomplishments or reminding attendees of “meeting values”—previously agreed-upon rules of engagement, such as keeping comments succinct. All these tactics help people feel welcome and primed to tackle the task at hand.
As the conversation gets started, try to adopt a stewardship mindset, asking questions, engaging others, modeling active listening, drawing out concerns, and managing conflicts. Of course, leaders at times will need to offer their own opinions and directives to move the discussion forward, but the key to successful facilitation is understanding that you’re primarily playing a supportive role. This ensures that there is genuine give-and-take, attendees feel safe speaking up, and they leave feeling committed to the outcomes.
What are some techniques for getting attendees to actively participate? Try using time allotments for each agenda item to see whether that helps ensure equitable “air time.” To gauge interest in an idea, ask for a show of hands or, if you think anonymity might help, use a quick-survey app or website to poll people using their cell phones. Then share and discuss the aggregate results. To prevent groupthink, consider incorporating periods of silence throughout the meeting to let people to come up with ideas or form opinions without hearing others’ thoughts. “Brainwriting,” for instance, involves having individuals quietly reflect and write down their ideas before sharing them out loud; research shows that this approach yields more creative thinking than brainstorming does. Silent reading can also be useful. Asking attendees in a meeting to read a proposal to themselves before discussing it can increase their understanding and retention of the new idea—and thus their engagement with it.
Dave had two facilitation issues to address: He needed to get more people talking, and he wanted them to engage in real dialogue and debate. To address the participation problem, he began to periodically remind attendees that he wanted everyone to be involved and expected teammates to encourage one another to speak up. He solicited people’s ideas and opinions in advance to make sure he highlighted their concerns, or he would call on people to share if they were comfortable doing so. He made a point of asking quieter attendees to contribute thoughts or lead particular agenda items. He used body language to signal when someone was starting to dominate the conversation—for example, by shifting his gaze and turning his shoulders toward others to indicate that he wanted their reactions. And when he began to see better dynamics, he reinforced the behavior by offering comments such as “I’m loving this discussion and really appreciate everyone’s engagement and participation. Thank you.” To push his team toward more robust and in-depth conversation, he sometimes appointed people to play devil’s advocate in meetings. If the goal was to address a specific issue, he would create PowerPoint slides listing all the potential options privately suggested to him by team members (without using their names) and open each one to group discussion. He also sometimes separated the evaluation of an issue from the decision making, to ensure that debate wasn’t hampered by the pressure of having to make a choice on the spot—a strategy favored by companies including Cadbury Schweppes and Boeing.
Even when managers proactively diagnose their meeting problems and learn to better prepare for and facilitate the gatherings they lead, there will undoubtedly be room for improvement. And so the process begins again. In Dave’s case, after a few months of experimenting with the tactics I’ve described, he asked his team for another frank assessment. The good news is that everyone thought his meetings had vastly improved. But a new issue emerged. Some attendees felt that meetings were still longer than justified by their agendas; discussions sometimes rambled. So Dave decided to shave five or 10 minutes off his schedules to create a bit more urgency and focus.
Interestingly, people also offered suggestions that had nothing to do with meetings but were designed to address process issues in the department. At first, Dave was taken aback. But then he realized that in changing the way he ran his meetings, he’d shifted the culture on his team. He’d shown that he was a leader who valued reflection, learning, flexibility, taking reasonable risks, not being complacent, and trying new things, and his employees were rewarding him with proactive problem-solving.
Leading meetings might seem like a small part of a manager’s job. But positive change in this one arena can lead to real gains for companies and their employees. If your organization isn’t training you in this key skill, it’s time for you to develop it on your own using these strategies.