5 Meeting Traps and How To Fix Them

by Steve Roesler

I just returned from a good meeting.
Everyone was engaged, no one dominated (unless it made sense because of specific expertise), and every speaker followed up to check for understanding. It was more like sitting around a warm fireplace in winter than a typical business meeting.  So, it made me think about the planning that went into it and how it was led.
If you've struggled through more than a few bad meetings, I'm guessing you've experienced the following traps. Here they are and how to fix them.

1) People think they are experts.
Many people tell me that they know how to run an effective meeting. Actually, all they do is host a party. They invite guests, provide treats, and preside over a conversation. People talk. People eat. And nothing happens. Or, if they somehow manage to reach an agreement, there's no concrete follow-up to implement it.

What to do: Learn how to design and lead successful meetings. Attend a workshop, buy a book, or hire a facilitator who also teaches you what and why (s)he is doing so you can do it yourself the next time. If you are a leader at any level, being a meeting pro is linked closely to your long-term success. Recognize that there are systematic ways that can help people make practical, methodical progress toward results. Of course, you have to know what they are in order to use them. 
If you want professional help, contact me (609.654.7376) and we can look at the most sensible way for you to learn how to become a meeting pro.

2) People think they are inspiring.

(Inhaling deeply for extra breath): Too many meeting leaders labor under the delusion that long-winded announcements and dissertations impress others. The opposite is true. A long lecture quickly becomes a boring (and sometimes offensive) harangue. Why? Most employees want an active role in contributing to the business; listening to a lecturette feels like a waste of time.

What to do: Design meetings that give attendees opportunities to contribute. 
Plan questions that focus thinking on the situation at hand. Use activities 
that help people make decisions. Communicate your own thoughts  in e-
mails and casual converstations. If you must use a meeting, keep announcements brief and crisp (less than a few minutes).

 3) People think others agree with them.
Many of us rely on nods, smiles, and eye contact to measure acceptance. Most employees will do anything to appease a boss. And if the boss seems to be 
upset, the employees will become even more agreeable. Then, once the meeting 
ends, the employees will do one of three things: 1) forget the lecture, 2) ignore the message, 3) sabotage the idea.

What to do: Conduct meetings using an agreed process that everyone considers to be fair and effective. The single best element to remember: people will accept decisions that they helped make.

4) People think others are clairvoyant.

How many times have you received a meeting invitation without an agenda? At the same time, you were expected to arrive with a vision for what needs to be done. Whenever we go to a meeting, we do bring our private hopes, fears, and solutions to the situation supposedly being addressed. But without a clear agenda and a solid process to work the agenda, the result is something between chitchat and chaos, depending upon the complexity of the issue.

Note: A vague agenda, such as a list of topics, is about as useful as no agenda.

What to do: Write out your goal for the meeting. Then prepare an agenda that is so 
complete someone else could use it to run the meeting without you. Specify each 
step and provide blocks of time scheduled time. Send the agenda at least a few days before the meeting so that the attendees can use it to prepare. Call key participants before the meeting to see if they have questions or want to talk about the agenda.

5) People think meetings are necessary.

Have an emergency, surprise, or a twitch? Call a meeting. 

Uh, no.
A meeting is a special and often expensive process. It should be used only to
obtain results that require the efforts of the right group of people working together in the right way on the right issue. Meetings are not universal cures for whatever ails the work group. Held for the wrong reasons, meetings waste everyone's time and can undermine the leader's actual intentions.

What to do: Challenge every meeting for its ability to add verifiable value to your business objectives. If successful, do the results outweigh the cost of holding a
meeting. Is there another activity that could accomplish the same result? 

Yes?
Use it.
Number 5 is the one that really gets to me; I often come down fairly hard on clients and associates whose first step in addressing an issue is to call a meeting. Given my business and the importance of using time wisely, unnecessary meetings are unnecessarily costly. I hate when that happens.
Reader Expertise Wanted!
Meetings are one thing we all have in common. Weigh in with your own experiences, traps, and techniques--you'll provide help to a lot of people who are looking for it.
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