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Eight Tips for Healthy Meetings

Do you stagger out of meetings moaning how you hate, hate, hate meetings? Do you yearn for anything — earthquake, hurricane, building collapse — to get out of the meeting you’re in? Do meetings have to be so awful?

The bad meetings always stand out in my memory, but actually, I’ve attended many good meetings, as well. They had a few things in common.

1. Agendas. A good meeting has an agenda. It might be a very informal agenda, such as “Today we are all going to share for two minutes each on everything we’ve done this past week.” Or it might be an elaborate, three-level-outline agenda. But a meeting without an agenda is not a meeting, it’s an encounter group.

2. Openness. Unless the meeting needs to be closed (personnel issues, for example), the meeting is not only open to those who are required to be there, but to people who have an interest in the topic and want to sit in. That also means that meetings are held at times that facilitate this openness (for a major violator of this principle, see ALA Council, which does the bulk of its work a day after the conference has ended). This openness not only contributes to cross-pollination; it also makes meetings more broadly accountable.

3. The meeting is the meeting. That sounds either Zen-like or Seuss-like (or a little of each), but let me clarify. I have worked in a number of settings where the announced meeting was really just a showcase, and key decisions took place before or after the meeting among the informal leaders in the organization. A variation on this is the person who hangs around after the meeting and has a special one-on-one meeting with a key decision-maker which alters decisions made at the meeting or makes new decisions on topics that weren’t addressed. Obviously, the cure for this is fairly complex — these problems are symptomatic of a toxic organizational culture — but if you can affect real change at that level, then meetings have a chance of becoming meetings again, and not charades resented for the time they suck from activities that people have some control over.

4. Time management. The push is to get the meeting done so people can leave the meeting and Do Something. Meetings not only have start times, but end times. Meetings do not wander on and on; agenda items have time limits. It is true that good meetings contribute to outcomes, but meetings rarely are the bulk of the outcome, and a meeting should leave people jazzed about the issue at hand, not exhausted and burned-out. (Oh, and don’t you love the admin-type whose power trip includes breathlessly showing up late for every single meeting — often with a dramatic explanation of the Very Important Thing that made her late? Yeah, me neither: if you can, start the meeting on time and don’t let this person get it off course when she arrives. Otherwise, practice your patient half-smile.)

5. Democratic but not anarchic. On the one hand, the meeting is not a lecture; you do not sit there, wishing you were dead, while for an hour someone on high reads notes that should have been sent out by email, or asks “questions” that have predetermined “answers.” People have discussions, and discussions resolve problems or lead to problem resolution strategies. the convener makes a special effort to acknowledge all meeting participants and draw the best out of them. On the other hand, the meeting is not dominated by trolls who filibuster on every topic (often with extreme negativism and pronounced opinions) and drown out meeker voices as they hammer home Their Way of Doing Things. To keep a meeting democratic without becoming anarchic requires some adroit, situation-specific meeting management — some of it thought through in advance, with a strategic awareness of the participants’ behavior styles — but it’s key.

6. Not every issue needs a meeting. (Tangentially, see also my observation earlier that for every action there is an equal and opposite committee.) Sometimes a problem can be at least partially resolved by two folks standing around a cubicle tossing a nerf ball; sometimes it’s too early to meet because you don’t know what the issue is. Sometimes the issue needs slow, protracted online conversation (easier among people who work this way naturally) rather than the artifice of ten people, a room, and an agenda.

7. Not every issue can be resolved in a meeting. I’ve seen meetings where the participants were determined to come to a conclusion right then and there. But a meeting is not always the right venue. Sometimes you need more information. Sometimes it’s too early to make a decision. (Yes, this does have to be balanced with not having a separate meeting-outside-of-the-meeting structure.) Sometimes you need to send out the email that you think you need to read aloud at the meeting because no one’s reading it, and if people aren’t reading it, find out why. Sometimes the issue requires an innovator, or serial conversations — someone interviewing people sequentially. Sometimes the issue is too volatile to discuss in the meeting format; you don’t want people being agreeniks because they feel put on the spot.

8. Food, fun, and familiarity. I tend to like work for work’s sake, so it took me a while to learn that offering a nibbly or two can greatly improve someone’s opinion of a meeting, as can a little fun (sharing something humorous) and recognizing human, non-work-related events, such as birthdays, new babies, household moves, and other events that make us who we are.

But the yummiest nibbly in the world can’t compare to a meeting that engages the right people for the right reasons, starts and ends on time, and leaves you better-equipped to handle the issue the meeting addressed.

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