How to run better meetings

…there is no single investment of this magnitude that an organization makes that is treated in such a cavalier manner… – Professor Steven Rogelberg

I can’t even begin to assess how many hours of my life that I’ve lost to meetings. Now I’m my own boss I can be much more discerning about the meetings I do and don’t have. However, when working in a central role in the public sector, it felt like I was invited to pretty much every meeting taking place! And this is one of the main things I find with many of the managers and leaders I work with. Lots of them complain about having little time to do ‘real work’ because at least 75% of their diaries are dominated by back-to-back meetings. Although some of these meetings are of their own doing.

If you run meetings, then you have a part to play in whether these add value or are a waste of precious time. To ensure that your meetings are a help and not a hindrance, check out my top tips:

1. Assess how good a meeting leader you really are

Don’t fall prey to the Lake Wobegon Effect, the human tendency to overestimate – relative to others – our knowledge, skills, abilities and personality traits. Self-awareness in leaders is important, particularly if you want to have a positive impact. And heed the words of Steven G Rogelberg, in his book The Surprising Science of Meetings,

“…we found that the amount of participation or involvement in meetings correlated positively with perceptions of meeting effectiveness and satisfaction. In other words, if you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one. Well, guess who typically talks the most in meetings? The leader.”

Unsure of where to start? Lisa MacLellan wrote a helpful post for Quartz on how to become a more self-aware meeting leader. 

And Steven Rogelberg suggests meeting leaders use the following questions to get feedback from meeting participants:

  1. What am I not doing so well as the meeting leader (need to stop doing)?
  2. What should I start doing that I am not currently doing?
  3. What am I doing well as the meeting leader (need to keep doing)?

2. Start and end meetings on time

I’ve worked in plenty of places where lateness was the norm. And in some meetings, it was often the meeting leader who’d be late, meaning those of us who had turned up on time couldn’t get started. Part of the issue is people have too many meetings in their diaries, with no gap between. This means if a previous meeting runs late, this then has a cumulative knock-on effect. The other knock-on effect is the perception you don’t respect other people’s time. In his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Professor Bob Sutton says,

..if you want your people to have time to do work, be treated with dignity, and be proud to work for you, then start and end meetings on time.

Joseph E Mroz and Joseph A Allen found this in their 2017 study investigating the impact of lateness to meetings. The research, involving nearly 300 people, found that the reason for lateness and the level of responsibility a late-comer had for being late determined people’s reactions to the late-comer. The more the late-comer was responsible for being late, the more likely it was to elicit anger with a view to punishing the individual; the less they were responsible (i.e. their lateness was out of their control) the more likely it was to elicit sympathy. Interestingly, the importance of the meeting did not have an effect on the relationship between anger or sympathy and meeting lateness.

3. Put some proper thought into creating your agenda

Do your meeting agendas cram too much in? Again, I’ve sat in plenty of meetings where this is the case. And not only has the agenda been overloaded but the order of items hasn’t been given much thought. With some boards, the agenda items are pretty much the same every meeting and have become something of a habit.

A 1993 study published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality examined the order of agenda items and the amount of time dedicated to items. In a series of experiments involving 24 meetings, each with three to five attendees, each meeting was given an agenda and asked to conduct its meeting. The researchers monitored the amount of time spent on various agenda items, with each agenda item varying in difficulty and importance. The researchers also manipulated the order of agenda items. They found that important, weighty items, requiring in-depth discussion, did not always get more time. More importantly. they found that the items early in the agenda received a disproportionate amount of time and attention. The key take-away? The order of your items matters.

And in a more recent study, from 2018, researchers examined 200 studies to determine the best way to maximise the effectiveness of meetings. Their findings have led to a science-based approach to managing meetings before, during and after. The advice includes:

  • Assessing the meeting needs before pulling the agenda together – will the meeting involve problem solving, decision making or substantive discussion? Any items that are routine or not urgent shouldn’t be included on an agenda.
  • Making sure to share the agenda in good time, at least five days’ before the meeting – this makes the priorities clear to all participants and allows them sufficient time to prepare beforehand.

4. Check you don’t have too many people

Too many meeting attendees is something I see a lot across all sectors. Board meetings with more than 10 people. Project team meetings with over 20!

Research by Caroline Aube, Vincent Rousseau and Sebastien Tremblay examined the relationship between the size of a team meeting and the quality of the meeting experience. In a survey involving nearly 100 work teams, larger teams reported poorer-quality group experiences and higher levels of counterproductive behaviours. This included more aggression, more self-centered behaviors, and greater misuse of resources.

When it comes to meetings, size matters! Be ruthless with yourself as to who really must be in the meeting. The people who get left off will be forever in your debt.

5. Make some of your meetings stand-up ones

No wonder we find it harder to be creative toward the end of an interminable meeting; our deliberate system has spent all its energy on staying focused and polite for hours, leaving little in the tank for brilliant insight – Caroline Webb, How to have a good day

Sitting down for hours on end in a meeting isn’t just soul-destroying. It’s bad for our health as well. If you must have long meetings, of two or more hours, then make sure you factor in sufficient breaks so people can move. Alternatively, why not think about having stand-up meetings? These are good for shorter meetings, anything up to an hour.

A 2014 study examined the effects of stand-up meetings on creativity and team performance. The research, involving over 50 small groups of three to five attendees, tested two conditions: sitting meetings and standing meetings. The participants were asked to develop and record a university recruitment video in 30 minutes. The researchers found that in the stand-up meetings there was better collaboration, less possessiveness of ideas, more willingness to consider others’ ideas, and greater levels of engagement. Therefore, if the focus of your meeting is idea generation then standing meetings could be the way to go.

How do you ensure your meetings are productive? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it. Thank you!

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