I have yet to work with an organization that didn’t express frustration about meetings. In the words of Dave Barry, "If you had to identify in one word why the human race has not achieved, and will never achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'” So what can we do about them?
The first step is to accept the brute fact of their existence. We’re humans behaving at work, after all, and the need to gather in small groups to get things done is a species survival mechanism, a behavior programmed by evolution. So accept the fact that organizational life is simply a series of meetings followed by separations and then get to work modifying behaviors to get the most from our innate need to meet.
Before proposing ways to improve meeting hygiene, however, I want to stress the importance of communicating the context behind these changes to your organization. Why? Because people won't alter their habits unless motivated to do so. In our experience, the best way to ensure employees feel both motivated and accountable to those changes is to connect the need for behavior change to a shared purpose.
As it relates to meeting hygiene, consider tying it to the larger purpose of demonstrating leadership via stewardship. Rather than posting “Five Rules for Better Meetings” or creating a new policy about meeting protocol, make the case for a larger purpose at play by inviting your people to be leaders and reminding them of the stewardship obligations all effective leaders fulfill.
In fact, I'd like to suggest that stewardship becomes more of a sacred trust when it comes to an organization's most valuable asset - its people. Elevating stewardship in this way and combining it with the principle that leadership is everyone’s responsibility, unleashes the latent potential in a team, a department, and by extension, the organization.
By inviting everyone in your organization to be a leader and asking them to think about acting in ways that support being a good steward of their colleagues, you reveal an expanse of cultural behaviors for examination: one of which is meeting hygiene. After all, if people are an organization’s most valuable asset (they are), then their time must be the second most valuable asset. This simple idea is how stewards protect their colleagues' time: they hold themselves and others accountable to habits that lead to better meetings
We call these habits the five "Ps" of effective meetings, habits the leaders must model first if they are to catch hold and become part of the culture.
1. Shared Purpose
If people don’t know why they’re getting together, why meet? Insist that the host defines a clear purpose for the meeting and includes it in the initial invite. Make this drive to clarity non-negotiable and create the expectation that participants should remind the host if the shared purpose is missing or decline the meeting invite if it's missing.
2. Program Agenda
This one might be obvious, but all meetings should have an agenda. What’s less obvious is providing the agenda in advance – preferably, with the meeting invite. This is important for two reasons - participants are able to review the agenda, provide input and prepare better, but more importantly, it helps the organizer become clear about the purpose of the meeting. A missing or muddled agenda is often the harbinger of a time-sucking meeting.
3. Individual Purpose
Have you ever found yourself in a meeting and wondered, “why am I here?” Or looked across the room and wondered, “why are they here?” It is incumbent on participants to decline meetings if they aren’t clear about the value they bring to it. Shooting the organizer a quick note asking, “can you clarify my role before I accept this meeting?” or simply asking a pointed question like, “before we get started, is everyone clear about their role here?” raises the level of accountability by ensuring everyone knows why they’re around the table.
How many times have participants rushed into your meeting and declared, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to complete the prep work for this meeting”? Burning 10 minutes to cover the prep rewards the delinquent and punishes the prepared. Ignoring the trespass diminishes the value of the preparation. Holding the offender(s) accountable by calling attention its importance or, if chronic, rescheduling the meeting, reinforces the idea that being a good steward of the group’s time includes preparation. And if you’re the guilty party, inviting the meeting’s host to hold you accountable for your deficient behavior, either by excusing you or canceling the meeting, raises the stakes considerably.
This is perhaps the single most important factor to effective meetings. At what point did we all decide it was OK to let the digital interrupt the personal? Why is it OK that someone checks their email, answers a text or otherwise lets their device distract them while in the presence of colleagues who have taken the time to be with them in person? Establishing simple ground rules during a meeting, like turning off phones and communication programs (email, Jabber, messaging, etc.) on laptops, reminds participants that part of being a good steward is to respect one another’s time while together.
Model these five habits yourself and be the pebble that creates the ripples of stewardship in the organizational pond. To keep the ripples rippling however, requires more. It depends on giving people the motivation to hold themselves and others accountable to their practice. This is more likely if you remind them of their stewardship duty to protect their colleagues' time. It’s one way we can all demonstrate an ability to lead.
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