(Photo Courtesy of Chris Gilbert via stock.xchng.)

John’s meetings were some of the most painful I had ever experienced. Every week John would call a meeting with his senior leadership team (and I use that term loosely) in an effort to keep them updated, aligned and focused on what needed to get done. One by one, the members of his senior leadership team, all eight of them, would file into the room. They would find their seats, get settled and then proceed to turn their brains off. For the next hour, John would proclaim, ponder, question, entertain, inquire and generally try any approach he could think of in hopes of engaging them in dialogue. Typically all John would elicit would be the occasional trail of drool out of the corner of an attendee’s mouth. It was like trying to lead a meeting of workplace zombies. At the end of the hour, each individual would gather their things and quietly leave the room, never uttering a word to John or to each other. Once back in their respective domains, they would proceed to tell their teams to not collaborate with the other departments and only to do what he or she instructed. Leadership fail.

John’s dysfunctional leadership team meetings are simply one example of how dysfunction can rear it’s ugly heads in meetings. From attendee disengagement to the rogue emotional vampire, from the overly critical team member to individuals who say one thing and do something entirely different when they leave the room, meeting dysfunction can take so many messy forms. So how do you ensure a “dysfunction-free” meeting? I recommend the following prescription. Take daily:

  1. 1. Set meeting ground rules. Great meetings operate on a clear set of ground rules set by the leader. These ground rules set the expectations on what the leader wants to see (and doesn’t want to see) during each and every meeting. If you haven’t already established meeting ground rules for your team, I recommend starting off your next meeting by facilitating a discussion on what the meeting ground rules should be for the group. Once agreed, formalize those ground rules in some way (PowerPoint slide, poster, flipchart page, etc…) that allows you to bring those same ground rules back at the beginning of each and every meeting as a reminder on how to operate. This will make policing bad behavior a heck of a lot easier. When I facilitate this discussion with leadership teams, I have a few favorites I always try to work into the discussion. Consider these to get you started:

    Silence = Acceptance – if you don’t say anything during the meeting it indicates that you agree with everything being said.
    Be Authors, Not Editors – always provide a solution if you critique an idea or an individual. The world has plenty of critics already.
    Las Vegas Rules Apply – what is said in the room during meetings, stays in the room.
    Don’t Try to Say It Perfectly – just spit it out. I have seen too many great ideas and valid opinions are held back because participants try to say it perfectly at just the right time. Just say it.
    Leave as One Team – Debate in the meeting but support each other when you leave the room.

  2. 2. Assign a timekeeper. This can be your job as the leader or you can delegate the role. The point is to assign someone the task of watching the clock to ensure the meeting finishes on time and to vocally attend to discussions that may have gone off topic. This role is vitally important. No meeting should ever go over its allotted time without the full consent of all participants in attendance. This is necessary to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and your credibility as a leader. This person also needs to be ready to confront bad behavior. Meetings are a feeding frenzy for emotional vampires. They’ll suck and suck until all the energy in the room is gone and the meeting is significantly derailed. The timekeeper needs to be armed with the following phrase, “Let’s call a quick time out. It appears our discussion is going down a different path from the agenda. We need to decide if this is the path we want to go down or if we need to table this for a later discussion.” This brings me to my final meeting inoculation against dysfunction…
  3. 3. Establish a “parking lot” for ideas or topics that emerge but don’t fit with the purpose of the meeting. A common meeting technique, declare a space (whiteboard, flipchart, blank document, etc…) that’s sole purpose is to capture valuable discussions that need to continue but DO NOT need to continue during the current meeting. Examples would include:
    - Topics that only pertain to a small portion of the players in the room
    - Ideas that are in the early stages and are not ready to present to the group in a way that is valuable and productive (Ex: opinions vs. evidence and data)
    - A strongly held opinion that does not fall within the agenda and/or is a poor use of the group’s time (Ex: “And since we are on the topic of celebrating our unit’s success, I have a particular opinion on the food we should order for those events. The stuffed mushrooms we had last time were horrendous.”)

Some of you may look at my list above and label it “too corporate.” After all, phrases like “parking lot” don’t really live outside of corporate-speak, right? If that’s you, you’re the non-traditional type. You just gotta go against the grain. Here is a list of alternative medicines for curing meeting dysfunction that may fit you better. However, like any alternative medicines, the evidence and success rates are inconclusive. Take at your own risk:

  • Standing meetings – in an effort to reduce meeting times and to keep meetings moving more quickly, a growing technique employed by some managers is to enforce a “no-chairs” meeting. Applied to the proper meeting purpose, this can be a nice way to reinforce the importance of brevity and using the group’s time efficiently. However, if something needs debate and discussion, you may have some cranky attendees on your hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing “yoga pose” meetings. Hold downward facing dog until the discussion is over. Now that’s incentive to hurry up.
  • Walking meetings – A new growing trend, this “walking meeting” is exactly that. Meeting attendees walk with the meeting leader around “campus” while they chat. This has emerged in an effort to fight the latest corporate disease of the day: “sitting disease.” Walking, talking, deciding… now all we need is to rub our tummies at the same time and we are complete.
  • Over-sized clocks in all meeting rooms – One organization put in place large clocks (and I mean LARGE) in all meeting rooms in an effort to reinforce the importance of keeping things moving. Large and loud, they definitely made a point. Was it the right one? Hmm…

People’s time is important. It is our job to honor it. Follow the above criteria and you are set up for a more efficient and effective meeting. And one more thing, avoid bringing or encouraging snacks in meetings. I’ve attended meetings with plates of brownies, homemade cookies, cheese dip, cute little dainty sandwiches, etc… Meetings are not supposed to be trips to Ryan’s Steakhouse. They are meetings. Not to mention, after several of these buffet meetings, “walking meetings” will soon be in your future whether you like it or not. Trust me.