Creative Antidotes for Painful Meetings

Some days you may wonder if the meetings you attend are nothing more than a kind of bad performance art.

There’s Negative Nelly, Blowhard Bob and Always Late Larry. And then there is you: The person who is supposed to direct this crazy band of characters into delivering results for your company.

But first you have to put up with the staff member who is unprepared, another trying to discreetly text on a Blackberry and someone else who has wandered so off topic that it will take a search party to find him.

There seems to be no end to the list of complaints from managers about meetings, but some of the biggest ones are about meetings that stretch beyond their time limits; people showing up late; and what SBA Consulting President Wayne Spivak calls “Seinfeld meetings,” or “meetings about nothing.”

Still, when I questioned professionals recently about a solution to meetings from hell, there were several suggestions offered.

For example, Dawn Bugni, a professional resume writer, suggests removing chairs from a meeting room so that attendees are forced to stand and attend to business more quickly as their feet get sore.

Chiara Mancardi, a B-management associate, says that her company has a saying that “the absent are wrong,” which means that those who are late or miss a meeting will find decisions being made without them. It’s “hard but effective,” she says.

Things are even tougher at the Phoenix Business Development Group.  Chief Efficiency Officer Tonya Haynes says doors are locked against latecomers. Notes about the meeting are given later to those who are absent, and “crucial conversations” are had with “tardy folks,” she says.

Further, she determines meeting length based on the number of people attending, or one minute per person. For example, 15 attendees means a 15-minute meeting, with those providing updates or information given three-minutes to make reports, she says.

Haynes says it’s a practice she learned in a previous job, where such meeting discipline boosted productivity 50 percent and accountability, efficiency and timeliness “went through the roof.”

John Anderson, principal at the Glowan Consulting Group, which has a program called “Making Meetings Work,” says that “most meetings are not well constructed, well planned or well run. Just ask any group of people if they want more meetings in their lives. The answer is always NO.”

Haynes says she has found it helpful to use Franklin Covey’s “4 Disciplines of Execution,” which includes making sure each team member attending can address a specific goal and what action was taken to achieve it – and is held accountable for the results.

Michael Janas, president of Godson HR Group, says that he holds staff members accountable for being late to meetings and will note it on performance reviews. “Since I try to keep meeting time to an absolute minimum, being late can make the difference between being knowledgeable enough to vote on decisions being made and voting in the dark, which I do not allow,” he says.

Some other suggestions to reduce the pain of meetings:

  1. Always have an agenda and do not let participants veer off topic or start navel-gazing. Tell them that other subjects can be put on the list for another day.
  2. Keep them short.  Matt Niemann, NWN Corp. CEO, says that 23 minutes is about the attention span of anyone. After that, “minds tend to wander,” he says.
  3. Ban cellphones.
  4. Reach at least one decision by the end of the meeting.  A meeting “should be designed to ratify [a] decision,” says Ehinola Emmanuel, group head of Superflux Ltd. “With this objective in mind, everyone looks forward” to a meeting.
  5. Ask for feedback.  Encourage employees to provide suggestions (anonymously if necessary) on ways you could improve your direction in meetings. Because maybe the long-winded, off-topic culprit is….you.

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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