Mastering Formal Structured Meetings

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Just as people notice when colleagues are especially horrible at running or attending meetings, they also notice people who are great at meetings. Be that person.

There are so many meetings, and, of course, some are better than others.

Meetings can be great opportunities, but not all meetings are great. There are really only three good reasons for a meeting:

1. To create a feeling of belonging and togetherness

2. To communicate a bunch of information to a bunch of people in the same way at the same time

3. To brainstorm about a project or deal with an open question, such as planning interdependent project handoffs in which multiple people need to hear and respond to each other

With so much interdependent work going on and handoffs to plan, meetings have become ubiquitous in the collaboration revolution workplace. People often tell me they have no time to work because they spend their whole workday in meetings on top of meetings, and too often, the meetings are not so great. The stakes are high because every single minute consumed in any meeting is multiplied by the number of people. A 30-minute meeting with eight people consumes four hours of productive capacity (time in which people could be working on something else).

Meeting Rules

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a corporate conference room that had a posted placard outlining rules of conduct for meetings. The list included gems ranging from “If you are the host, distribute an agenda in advance to all participants” to “Silence your phones” to “Please clean up after yourself.” I asked the person sitting next to me, “Gee, is that really necessary?” She said, “Yeah, people are irritated by the sign. It’s sort of infantilizing. But actually, some people are just horrible in meetings.”

Since then, I cannot count the number of conference rooms in which someone, officially or not, has posted a placard with similar kinds of meeting rules. Nonetheless, people still hold meetings without clear agendas or despite a clear agenda, they don’t follow it. Or they go way over the allotted time, digress, hold one-on-one cross-talk conversations on the side, or try to multitask with handheld devices or laptops (sometimes pretending to take notes) and then chime in with a point that’s already been made. Or they come late, leave early, make noise, eat smelly food—you name it.

Be a Great Meeting Citizen

Just as people notice when colleagues are especially horrible at running or attending meetings, they also notice people who are great at meetings. Be that person.

First, be known as a great meeting citizen. That means: Be informed and be reliable. Make sure you don’t double- or triple-book yourself for meetings. It’s amazing how common this has become among would-be go-to people because they think it makes them seem busy. Being double-booked is not impressive. You cannot be in more than one place at a time, and it’s distracting if you’re hopping in and out of meetings in progress. If you have conflicts, make a choice and choose the most important meeting, not the easiest one. That doesn’t mean the meeting with the most big shots or the highest-profile work, but rather the meeting where you play an important role and have the most value to add. If you are not sure, align with your boss.

Then, before attending any meeting or presentation, make sure you know what the meeting is about and whether your attendance is required or requested. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is becoming savvy about which meetings to attend and which ones not to. Again, make sure to align with your boss. The key is knowing exactly what your role in the meeting is: What information are you responsible for communicating or gathering? Prepare in advance any material you should review or read before the meeting. Are there any conversations you need to have before the meeting? If you are making a presentation, of course, you’ll prepare even more. Ask yourself exactly what value you have to offer the group and then be sure you deliver that value.

If you are not a primary actor, or you don’t have some other clear role in the meeting, try not to say a single word that will unnecessarily lengthen it. And practice good meeting manners: Do not try to multitask or make unnecessary noise or activity. Stay focused on the business at hand. Listen carefully and learn. If you are tempted to speak up, ask yourself: Is this a point everyone needs to hear, right here and now? If you have a question, consider whether the question is important to the purpose of the meeting or maybe you could get your question answered later by referring to a document or asking someone.

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done,” is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers on July 21, 2020, from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: