Meetings are a major source of frustration for many people and a common contributor to disengagement on teams. However, it is usually not meetings themselves that are the problem, but rather how meetings are managed. Time is precious, and when people feel their time has been wasted, they tend to disengage. When meetings are efficient and serve a necessary purpose, they tend to have a positive impact on engagement.
Meetings are a necessary part of collaboration. They facilitate effective communication by serving as a forum for information sharing. They also create space for healthy conflict of ideas, which is crucial to gaining commitment to team decisions. The concepts presented apply to both face-to-face and virtual meetings.
What Makes a Meeting Effective?
An effective meeting is one in which team members remain actively engaged before, during and after the meeting. There are five key elements to an effective meeting:
1) Everyone is clear on the purpose of the meeting.
When the meeting purpose is ambiguous, it opens the door to scope creep. The meeting becomes a free-for-all where everyone is pursuing their own agenda. When desired outcomes are clear at the start, and the team commits to these outcomes, keeping the discussion on topic becomes much easier.
The meeting purpose should ideally be focused on decision making and action. One of the big frustrations for teams is continuously talking about issues without ever doing anything about issues. The problem is open loops—if an issue remains unresolved, the team will keep coming back to it. These open loops weigh the team down, use up precious time and mental energy, and ultimately create disengagement. A meeting should always move the team forward.
2) The purpose is relevant to all participants.
When you have the wrong people in the meeting, or do not have the right people in the meeting, the result will be disengagement. For example, if a key decision maker is not present, the team is more likely to feel they are wasting their time. The guiding principle to decide who should attend is relevancy:
Do they have information that may be helpful for the discussion or have a unique perspective that would add value?
Would it be helpful in their role for them to be part of the discussion?
Is their presence essential for making decisions?
When in doubt, let the person know the intent of the meeting and ask them if they would like to be included.
3) Participants feel heard and understood during the meeting.
Healthy conflict—the debate of ideas to get to the best solutions—is crucial to gaining commitment. Healthy conflict is characterized by an emotionally safe environment where individual team members are honest, transparent, and participate vigorously in putting ideas to the test.
When frequent interruptions, sidebar conversations, sarcasm, tardiness, or lack of clear commitments are the typical behaviors for meetings, it will have a negative impact on team cohesion and engagement. The simple solution is to establish meeting norms at the start of the meeting. These norms serve as guardrails for the conversation and increase the likelihood every team member feels heard during the process.
4) Desired outcomes for the meeting are achieved.
This is really just the team honoring their commitment to the original purpose of the meeting. Honoring commitments produces trust. Not honoring commitments produces mistrust. When the team achieves the desired outcomes and makes forward progress, they are more likely to feel the time spent was a good investment.
5) Commitments to action and next steps are clear.
One of the most common frustrations we hear about meetings is the fact that meetings end without any clear decisions and commitments having been made. A decision is clear when the following questions have been answered—who, what, where, when, why and how? When decisions are made during a meeting, it is essential all team members have given their individual commitment.
Teams that rush past the step of gaining commitment usually find they must waste additional time rehashing the decision again at a future meeting.
Failure to gain commitment leads to disengagement. This disengagement is often manifested in the meeting after the meeting where complaining, blaming, and sabotage undermine the decision and the effectiveness of the team. At the end of the meeting the facilitator should summarize all decisions made and commitments to action with dates to confirm agreement. Clear commitments provide accountability and help ensure participants stay engaged after the meeting.
When these five elements are present, the meeting is much more likely to be considered a good investment of time, and engagement is the likely result.
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