"I called this meeting to find out what you think of our new company slogan, ‘We’re working for you’," the Vice President proclaims.

"When did we come up with that winner?" queries George, a particularly vocal middle manager.

"At last week’s management retreat. What do you all think of it?"

"Hey, it really works for me!" announces George, with only a hint of sarcasm.

When you walk into a typical meeting at your company, what do you expect? The company party-line with no real information or honest exchange of ideas? People actively pretending to listen? Or do you expect your organization’s meetings to be consistently imaginative, inspiring, and powerfully productive?

One of the most common complaints I hear from workers is that their meetings stink – they’re either too long, too loose, or too predictable. Organizational issues such as lack of buy-in to company goals and vision, low morale and cynicism, politics and infighting…can often be traced back to the quality of our face-to-face encounters.

Corporate Truth Serum
A company’s meetings are where the cultural "rubber meets the road," and the espoused theories about "who we think we are" become practical demonstrations of "who we really are." People skills and a little planning can help remedy these common meeting maladies.

Dull city – Some meetings are dull because they are overly structured or controlled. Do your meetings routinely suffer from being routine? If they’re too predictable, people will slip into a coma, making participation uneven if not weird.

Allow room for "structured chaos" and spontaneity – those creative moments that surface innovative answers to problems that "ordinary" thinking would miss.

Preach, teach or reach? – If your meetings leave people confused or overwhelmed, adjust future sessions to fit with people’s natural learning and communication styles. For example, some people need visuals, some like written explanations, and some want to jump in and do work or they’ll consider the time wasted. The gateway: reach people where they are.

No clear goal invariably results in circular thinking, being "lost but making good time," misusing the time for irrelevant details or pet distractions – a classic case of the "hours are lost while the minutes are taken." Set the agenda in advance, gaining consensus on purpose.

People drift off topic but nobody says "refocus" or gently challenges the speaker to tie comments back to the stated purpose. Diversity of opinion is helpful when it leads to creative insight, but lengthy tangents often stem from unclear direction (see prior concern) or not taking the agenda seriously. A flip chart page labeled "Parking Lot" can be used to quickly record side issues. A gentle intervention is "Tie that in … how does that relate to our topic?"

Results are nebulous – If there is no accurate, written record of decisions made, clear consensus and accountability on action steps, or no follow-up from prior work, the bottom falls out.

Verify all agreements, making sure there’s a reasonable "by when."

Yearning for learning – Take time out to evaluate the meeting itself. "What are we doing well? What would help us make better use of our time?"

Even in the best companies, not every meeting can be a hit. However, if there is a clear up-front goal, a visible agenda, and the players know the difference between a constructive tangent and a distraction, positive results are inevitable.

Are you willing to speak up if you see ways to improve? Don’t let yourself get comfortable with the status quo. It only takes a moment to plug the energy leaks.

About Daniel N. Robin
Daniel N. Robin, principal, is a human relations and management consultant, workshop leader, mediator and coach with fifteen years’ consulting experience. He assists corporations, schools, and government agencies with human relations and organizational issues throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Brazil. He is the author of more than one hundred articles and extensive curriculum on workplace communication, collaborative leadership (leading change), and tools for effective collaboration.

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