There are numerous articles written about meetings—why are so many unproductive? How to better plan meetings? How to run an effective meeting? We’ve all been on both sides of the table. We should know better. So why is there still an overwhelming consensus that most meetings are ineffective wastes of time?
Rather than rehashing what makes meetings ineffective and how to fix them, this post explores the root causes of why unproductive meetings still thrive and offers some recommendations to overcome these core issues.
1. We are creatures of (bad) habit.
Maybe we don’t know better. We have come to accept that bad meetings are the norm rather than the exception. Those before us have created the expectation that meetings are necessary evils imposed by higher-ups in the organization. We develop poor meeting habits from our peers and leaders, and it follows us throughout our careers. Unfortunately, as we all know, bad habits can be hard to break.
Recommendation: If you are a team leader, include meeting planning and facilitation in your employee training and development program, as well as employee onboarding program. You may want to consider hiring an expert to help with this or to host a workshop on effective meetings. You can also see the resources at the end of this post.
2. We are descendants of a long line of meeting lemmings.
Slightly different from the above, we have meetings because we feel obligated to follow the crowd, or think that it is what is expected of us. Our predecessor had these meetings or others in similar roles in the organization have these meetings, and we feel we should do the same.
Recommendation: Ask your colleagues or those who’ve previously attended the meetings what the purpose was and for honest feedback on whether they found them helpful or not. Go one step further and ask them if another format, such as email, would have worked just as effectively. Be sure to confirm that the content is valuable and necessary rather than just transferring it to another communication format that no one looks at.
3. We are not punished for holding bad meetings.
What’s the worst that’s happened when you’ve held a bad meeting? During the meeting, people switch to another task and you lose their attention? Or after the meeting, attendees just complain that it was a waste of time and you feel a bit embarrassed? There are no formal repercussions or accountability for bad meetings which just perpetuates the problem. Would we rethink meetings if we had to face the consequences of wasting people’s time?
Recommendation: First, ensure you or your employee is well-equipped with training on how to have effective meetings. Then provide a feedback mechanism to show how they’re doing and areas for improvement. Finally, consider including this feedback as part of their performance evaluation.
4. We do not feel empowered to decline the meeting or challenge its purpose.
How many times have you gotten a last minute cancelation for a meeting and you did a mental fist pump and thought “YES!”? You didn’t want or think you needed to go in the first place. Meetings often create more work or, at least, interrupt the work we’re trying to do. However, with meetings set by our higher-ups, we feel we have no choice but to attend.
Recommendation: Have a conversation with your boss to understand your value add or benefit from the meeting. I suggest presenting them with what you think that is, and see if that matches their views. They may provide you with clarity on what they need from you or expect you to get out of the meeting. Or they may realize that they actually don’t need you there or can brief you separately.
5. We have no limits.
It seems the only limit to the number of meetings scheduled are the number of hours in a day, and even then you can get double or triple booked. Unfortunately, most companies don’t have mandated meeting black-out periods. You can try to protect your own calendar by blocking out time to do work, however unless you have the clout to stay firm and decline meetings, the cycle will continue.
Recommendation: Consider having a conversation with your boss to clarify priorities and where those lie with the meetings you have. Go in with a list of meetings you think are worthwhile, and those that are not and why. If you can, consider imposing a meeting quota for yourself, such as only X hours of meetings per week—this will also help you prioritize which meetings will be most beneficial to you and the organization.
6. It’s the only way we can get the answers or input we need.
You’ve tried it all. Email. Phone tag. Leaving notes on their desks. Cornering them at the coffee machine. And still you can’t get what you need to move forward on a task or project you’re working on. Reluctantly you go to your last resort—you schedule a meeting.
Recommendation: Be clear in your communications for your request—why you need it, when you need it, and if appropriate, the consequences of not getting it. E.g. “Hi Bob, Can you send our sales numbers for the last six months? I need it for my meeting with Janet tomorrow. If I don’t have that information we won’t be able to move ahead on a decision for a new hire for the sales team.” Not only will this provide context and a deadline to your colleague, but they may also be able to offer additional insight now that they know why you need it. And of course, ensure that you lead by example and rely on the power of reciprocity. If you are consistently responsive, others will return the favor.
7. We are optimistic (or delusional) about our time.
With calendars full of meetings and an endless list of tasks to be done, we’re lucky to be able to attend our own meeting, much less prepare for it. But we proceed with the meeting anyway. I believe lack of time to prepare is one of the critical root causes for why there are so many bad meetings. Of course, when we set the meeting we have grand ideas (or delusions) that we’ll find the time to prepare, and it will be awesome. No such luck. In the end, we want to save face and not cancel the meeting, so we scramble to pull together something as best we can.
Recommendation: Don’t set the meeting without having a clear idea of what you need to do to prepare for it and block out the appropriate amount of time in your calendar. Protect that time relentlessly. If it is a regular meeting, decide a trigger date on whether to continue or cancel. But above all, never be afraid to cancel a meeting if you are not prepared for it.
8. We need the pressure.
Sometimes meetings serve as forced deadlines to ensure we get important tasks done or meet project milestones. E.g. a meeting to review a draft report will ensure you have the draft report done in time for the meeting. This might be a good strategy in some cases, but be sure that the meeting still provides value to both you and the attendee(s). Don’t create work for others just to ensure you meet deadlines.
Recommendation: Be honest with yourself. Do you really need the meeting or is it just to add a little fire to get you motivated? If it’s the latter, enlist a colleague to hold you accountable for keeping to your deadline.
9. We assume others will be prepared.
You’ve set the agenda and sent out all the pre-read materials far ahead of time to give everyone the chance to review. But you get to the meeting and people are flipping through the materials for the first time, defeating the purpose of all of your preparation.
Recommendation: Expect that people will be unprepared. If this is a regularly scheduled meeting, then assign time at the beginning of the meeting to let everyone have a quick review of the materials. For project or ad hoc meetings, consider breaking the meeting into two parts (possibly on separate days) and have one part to review and ask questions about the material, and the other to get to the matter at hand.
These are just some of the core reasons why unproductive meetings still persist. If we take some simple steps toward self-awareness, empathy, training, and accountability, we may just see a world where well-managed, productive meetings become the norm rather than the exception.
There are lots of great articles that provide useful tips on how to have better meetings. Here are some of my favorites:
Five Reasons for a Meeting by Getting Things Done author David Allen
Why Most Meetings Are Awful And What You Can Do About It
Do You Really Need To Hold That Meeting? 4 Steps To Stop The Insanity
The Condensed Guide to Running Meetings
Break the Bad Habit of Ineffective Meetings