Surviving Meetings

Meetings – cruel and unusual punishment, the most pointless part of our lives or inadvertently hilarious? Do you want to laugh, cry or have your brain scooped out of your head by a teaspoon when attending most of your meetings?

There are so many things wrong with most meetings that one has to wonder who still thinks that they’re a good idea – or why HR will offer you training in every other subject BUT how to make them more effective. This part of working life is a great leveller, almost everybody at every level of any organisation has had the ‘Dear god, kill me now’ moments around a table usually too big for the room with some rather sad looking biscuits plonked in the middle, (if you’re senior management or an important client). I’m sure some of you will have done the maths and, when adding everybody’s salary together for the 90 minutes of soul-scraping tedium that you’ve just endured, wondered aloud how that spend could possibly be justified.

The way most companies set their meetings up, i.e. in the same way that I imagine we’ve been doing for centuries, creates a lot of the issues that cause people to actively consider a dose of primal screaming. For instance, the age old democratic urge to gather as many opinions as possible directly leads to people talking for the sake of it, because they feel that they ought to say something or that the obvious clearly needs stating, or someone else’s point remade. Seeking a broad consensus naturally leads to people stating at some length exactly how much they agree or disagree with something, leaving others staring into space for long periods and losing the will to live.

Poor timekeeping – whilst demonstrating, of course, how busy and important the latecomer is compared to everybody else around the table – can lead to rushed analysis, resentment and further political point scoring. Poor timekeeping in terms of controlling the meeting often leads to important issues never being discussed or disproportionate time given to certain issues or individuals. A lack of outcomes or individual actions – my personal favourite – directly leads to the kind of talking shop where you’d think people were being paid by the word.

“Blue sky thinking” – oooh, did that set your teeth on edge? – which is ‘thinking outside the box’ taken to a more meteorological level, if not correctly channelled can lead to the kind of tangential conversations where one starts questioning one’s own existence. Equally, those that stick to the same exact agenda time after time can quickly have one questioning the point of one’s own existence.

Obviously there are ways to make meetings effective and useful but as many require a collective suspension of rampant egos and political infighting you can judge for yourselves how successful they might be within your workplace. For your own part my suggestion is to firstly decide whether or not your presence is really required – only attend those meetings that you can really contribute to, and at a frequency at which you can justify the time spent. If you’re attending to somehow further your own career, bear in mind that you’re as much part of the problem as the others and adjust your levels of self loathing accordingly.

Arrive on time, look to finish on time and make sure that somebody is in charge – it doesn’t have to be the most senior person in the room and is usually the person who called the meeting –and that they have an agenda. If those two factors are not in place, you’re doomed, frankly.

Keep your contributions short and clear as to what you think should happen, without sounding dictatorial or reactive. If you don’t know something, please just say that you don’t know and that you’ll find out and notify all the attendees within a suitable timescale, usually 24 hours. Do not think that changing the subject or talking about, sometimes one by one, all of the things that you DO know about will fool anyone.

If you can’t make your point without putting someone else down, then you need to think about it a bit more. That’s not to say that finger pointing and blame allocation are not worthwhile pursuits – witch hunting would be unimaginably dull without them – but whilst bucks have to stop somewhere and responsibility taken, it’s worth remembering that the real reason that we want to find out what went wrong is to understand it, so that we learn appropriate lessons and that it doesn’t happen again. Having said that, if you’re at fault, admitting it quickly will leave you more time to explain what you’ve done about it and will save you a forensic interrogation by your peers and colleagues.

Most importantly, before the meeting ask ‘What exactly are we looking to achieve by having this meeting?’ and, afterwards, ‘Did we achieve it?’ Yes, I know it sounds obvious but if that was the real criteria you’d probably attend 20% of the meetings that you currently do.

Mo Rasanayagam, CMCIPD
HR Consultant
Susssex Enterprise

Follow Mo on Twitter


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