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It is sad, really. Every working day, the majority of us suffer from worthless and painful meetings that should have been avoided. These are those meetings that, with a little bit of intentionality, could have been scrubbed dysfunction-free. So what kinds of meetings am I talking about? Consider these particularly “dirty” gatherings that could have been made clean with a little pre-meeting hygiene:

“The ‘what’s the point’ meeting” – While you sit quietly in attendance, the question “what is the point of this meeting?” plays continuously in your head like a bad Pink song. No matter how hard you try, you can’t shake it. The more you resist, the louder it gets. As a result, you find concentrating nearly impossible. When it’s all over, you leave the meeting confused and angry. Another hour of your life gone forever.

“The birthday party” – The birthday party is a common meeting trap. The meeting organizer starts with a small list of attendees and quickly the list grows to include everyone he or she knows. There is little thought put into who needs to be in attendance. Rather the thinking is something more akin to planning a festive gala. The organizer thinks to him or herself, “The more people who come, the better. And who knows? They might bring food.” You know you are in one of these meetings when you look around the room and after trying to find the commonality with you and the other fifteen attendees, you say to yourself, “why am I here?” Pass another piece of cake.

“The ‘I’m gonna be fired’ meeting” – We all know the type. The person who leaves you a voicemail that simply says, “Call me back. We need to talk.” Vague and mysterious, these individuals refuse to tell you what they want to talk about, ever. As a result, your mind spins every time they make a request to connect. “What did I forget to do? Did I say something I shouldn’t have? What could they possibly be angry with me about?” They create an anxiety whirlwind in our minds as we begin to plot out worst-case scenarios. When these people schedule meetings, they do the same thing. No agenda. No objective. Nothing other than a meeting request. And if the person is your boss, in the back of your mind you wonder, “Am I going to be fired?” Wasted anxiety and worry that accomplishes nothing other than elevating your blood pressure and shortening your life expectancy.

So how do you avoid these messy meetings? Simple. Consider the following prescription on proper pre-meeting hygiene. Rub-a-dub-dub.

  1. Decide the purpose or objective. Before calling any meeting, ask yourself “what do I want to get out of the meeting?” Most meetings are either informational (you’re just wanting to keep all attendees informed with what’s going on) or decision-making (you need folks in the meeting to reach a decision) or both. Write down your objective in one line. If you can do that, you are ready for the next step. If you can’t, do you really need to have a meeting?
  2. Identify who should attend. Less is always more when it comes to meetings. Steelcase, a company known for office furniture, has been in the business of studying and providing solutions to make workspaces better for over 100 years. In their workplace research, they found that the most productive meetings are with three people. Not five. Not eight. Three people. When was the last time you were in a three person meeting? There is a natural temptation to expand meeting attendee lists. This person may need to hear what is said. That person could have something to contribute. He’ll be offended if I don’t invite him. So, before you end up with a party on your hands, seriously consider who is in attendance. If you are struggling to narrow your list, consider the hourly rates represented in the room. When I walk into a meeting of ten people, I don’t see productivity. All I see is thousands of dollars being wasted. Maybe that’s the contractor coming out in me. Time is money. You’ll know you have a good final list when you can say, “This is a good use of the resources I have at my disposal.” In other words, if it was your cash, you wouldn’t hesitate to pay to have those people in the room.
  3. Send out a meeting agenda at least 24 hrs prior. No one likes mysterious meetings. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve read one of my many mantras: “In absence of communication, people always assume the worst.” In absence of meeting agendas and objectives, people will naturally assume the worst. As a result, the worrying begins resulting in a total waste of mental and emotional energy. Avoid this by sending out any meeting agenda complete with meeting objective at least 24hours in advance. This also allows you to clearly spell out what preparation you expect attendees to have made prior to the meeting (Ex: “Come prepared to discuss the attached budget,” “Come prepared to review your department’s accomplishments last week,” etc…).

The steps above are simple and obvious and yet very few meetings qualify as “clean” based on the above criteria. So, do you and your team members a favor and show up all cleaned up and ready to go. And spread the word. All it takes is one badly planned meeting to stink up the place. Yuck.

Next Up: What do you do when you are in a dysfunctional meeting? The best ways to stomp out meeting dysfunction in the moment are on deck. Stay tuned…