Save Your Next Staff Meeting From Itself

8.8.14 Staff Meetings

Story provided by Harvard Business Review – 

While many leaders see staff meetings as vital to the success of their organization, most employees see them as a painful waste of time. As a result, employees arrive or leave whenever they wish; check their emails; doodle; or use the time to make to-do lists of all the things they’re not getting done in your meeting. The outcome is a lethargic downward spiral.

With other types of meetings, leaders can mitigate this effect by keeping the attendee list as narrow as possible, and only calling a meeting when there’s something to discuss. But a staff meeting is a different beast altogether: by definition, it includes the entire team. And it’s usually a monthly or weekly recurring meeting (because scheduling so many people on short notice would be impossible).

Both of these factors mean that for the leader trying to run a good staff meeting, the deck is already stacked against you. But there are some common meeting pitfalls that are especially problematic in staff meetings. Avoid them, and you’ll make your staff meetings more useful and energizing:

Mistake 1: No clear objective. The luxury of a recurring meeting lets busy leaders get their teams together without having to think of a reason to do so. Yet each staff meeting should have a clear purpose: discuss a strategic issue, share information on business development activities, brainstorm on how to seize an opportunity or address a challenge, or to discuss options and make a decision. Participants then know what to expect and how to prepare.

If the meeting has no objective – or the only objective is that the leader hasn’t seen his team in a while – cancel it. (There are better ways to reconnect with your team than to pull them all into a room for no clear reason!) If you constantly find yourself trying to think of an objective 10 minutes before the meeting, either hold the meeting less often, or sit down once a quarter and create a schedule in advance.

Mistake 2: No focused agenda. Even when the objective is clear, the convener may not issue an agenda – a clear schedule of how the meeting will proceed – or will use vague agenda items (eg, “Market research” followed by “general updates”). Some leaders cannot resist the temptation to clutter up the agenda with other small items –the “kitchen sink” approach.

Preparing for such a large meeting requires some forethought and serious planning. Based on the objective of the meeting, force yourself to limit the agenda to the items that are most crucial to you, your team and your business. To do this right, have some informal discussions beforehand with relevant colleagues to identify what is important to them. Then email the agenda — with a timeline that allocates a certain number of minutes to each item — to people well in advance, so that they come prepared. (If you really don’t have time to do this, consider having a deputy do it.) Once you’re in the meeting, stick to the agenda items and time schedule. This prevents participants from wandering off topic and helps the team to finish the meeting on time.

Mistake 3: Not hearing from everyone in the room. Leaders allow the usual suspects dominate the discussions, while others remain largely quiet. You can do three things to get more people engaged:

  1. Get serious about participants who talk more than their fair share. You know who they are. Tell them you appreciate their input but that their vociferousness discourages other people from participating. Interrupt them (nicely) if necessary: “Excuse me George, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I want to make sure we have time to hear from everyone.”
  2. Give the podium to different participants. You can create air time for quiet team members by giving them a specific slot on the agenda.
  3. Ask direct questions and get opinions from different participants as you go. Are we missing something? Have we thought this through from all possible angles? Cold call people who don’t speak up.

Mistake 4: Debates that don’t go anywhere. When leaders fail to guide discussants away from subjective perspectives, or participants haven’t come prepared, people end up leaving the meeting without a clear course of action. Encourage attendees to come prepared and present their arguments backed up by numbers and facts. For instance, you’ll get more and better ideas out of participants if you send around a memo ahead of time, and tell them they’re expected to read it, than if you make them sit through a PowerPoint and then tell them to brainstorm.

Mistake 5: Not reaching consensus on a course of action. After all that talking, it’s important that people know what to do next or they’ll feel like the meeting was a waste of time. Set aside time at the end of each meeting to agree on an action plan and decide who is accountable for what. Keep a record of the actions to be taken, who is responsible for them, and what the deadlines will be. If the meeting identified any new issues to be further explored, schedule follow-up discussions as needed.

Mistake 6: Missing the opportunity to remind people of the big picture. A staff meeting can be an opportunity to offer public praise, reiterate a corporate goal, inspire people, and remind them of your strategic vision. Once the agenda has been covered, or your prearranged time is up, and actions have been agreed, wrap up the meeting by recognizing participants’ hard work and reminding all attendees how their work (and the agreed-upon action items) contribute to each other’s success and how they link to the bigger picture.

Remember that staff meetings are extremely expensive when you account for everyone’s time. Treat them with the attention and care you would any major investment, and you’ll find that your team soon takes them more seriously.

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