Meeting Misery

It's time to kick the habit of pulling staff away from their work to sit in on hollow status reports.

"It's almost time for our weekly staff meeting. I'm eager for it to start." Those words have never been spoken or written without sarcasm, anywhere, ever.

Why is that? With e-mail and instant-message software fragmenting professional teams into isolated workers, meetings should be an opportunity to bond with colleagues, share information and even get inspired. Instead, many professionals view meetings with dread. Often, just one mistake can turn a meeting from the productive, team-building event it could be into an energy-sapping waste of time. Here are some of the biggest meeting mistakes-and how to avoid them.

Having No Clear Purpose

"It's Monday" is not a good enough reason to have a staff meeting. If you don't have useful information to share with your team-information they'll need to perform their jobs-then it might make more sense to let them spend that hour working, rather than sitting in a meeting "just to get caught up" with the group. Meetings are so ingrained in office culture that you'll probably find it difficult to cut back on them.

Think of it this way: If you have seven employees, then a one-hour meeting isn't consuming only an hour of the workday. It's actually consuming eight hours-seven hours of your staff's time and an hour of yours. Now you can ask yourself: "Will the agenda for this meeting represent the most productive way to spend eight hours of my staff's time?"

Seeking Useless Updates

At a meaningless jargon update, you go around the room asking attendees to summarize the status of their projects. Sounds reasonable. But then the information technology staffer discusses new server architecture and a packet-loss problem, while attendees from the facilities and public affairs departments daydream about lunch. Most attendees simply tune out these updates, because speakers tend to use their job's unique lingo and include way too many details that have no effect on the rest of the group.

So these meetings become meaningless. When a pundit slips into jargon ("I think they're going to try reconciliation"), a good moderator adds context so anyone in the audience can understand ("Reconciliation is a Senate legislative practice to make budget adjustments to bills"). The moderator will guide a panelist who drifts into unnecessary detail back on topic. On political talk shows, the anchor often moderates a panel of pundits. As a meeting leader, think of yourself as that TV moderator. Stop attendees when they drift into jargon and ask them to rephrase it-or rephrase it for them-in terms that everyone understands. And if they get into details that don't contribute to the discussion, then ask them to stick to the bigger picture.

Drifting Off Topic

In many cases, an attendee will raise an issue or ask a question that moves the discussion away from the meeting agenda. In other cases, a discussion will move to an area of interest to only a few attendees. For example, you're updating staff on the department's new budget, and this leads to a discussion about bookkeeping tactics between two employees from accounting.

Use a whiteboard or flip chart as a "parking lot" during your meeting for valid but off-topic ideas, issues and questions. When someone raises a topic or question that's worth discussing but would derail the meeting, you can "park it" by writing it on the board. This lets attendees know the issue will be addressed. It also reinforces to others that they should contribute ideas or questions, because those will be noted and taken up during another discussion.

Ignoring Call-Ins

Often a meeting includes several people who call in from other locations. Remote attendees are represented simply by the speakerphone in the center of the conference table. The problem is some people speak in a low voice, and the callers often can't hear every word in the meeting. They miss important gestures and other nonverbal communication. And most people in the room naturally forget the remote employees are even there. This weakens morale among dial-in attendees, and the meeting becomes less valuable to them. It also can deprive others of insights the callers might contribute if they were treated as full participants.

To avoid this, write the names of dial-in attendees on both sides of a sheet of paper, and prop it up beside the speaker- phone so people at the table can "see" them. You can make this more fun by placing large photos of the callers beside the speakerphone. Also, remind all attendees before each meeting to keep their voices up so the dial-in attendees can hear them. Set a good example by referring to and soliciting information from the remote employees when you can.

A Learning Opportunity

Professional staffs and departments often operate as silos-communicating only among themselves, rarely learning how their functions affect the rest of the organization. When you hold meeting after meeting with your staff or department-without any outside representatives-you risk creating a bubble.

Here's where your meetings can provide great insight for staff-and even inspire them. Invite representatives from other departments, other agencies, or even interested members of the public, to your meetings. Hear what they have to say. Let your team ask them questions.

With this strategy, your team will find meetings much more informative, productive and enriching. This also can lift the quality of your staff's work, because they'll be operating with a broader, richer base of knowledge than they would have if they had talked only to one another.

Robbie Hyman is head of Robbie Hyman Copywriting, which writes documents and other content for federal agencies. He can be reached at robbie@robbiehymancopywriting.com.

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