For the last 20 years or so I have been unwittingly researching corporate dysfunctionality through my work in Leadership Development around the world. Over that time, from conversations with thousands of mid career workers, I have noticed a pattern in what causes the most angst and loss of what I choose to call “career mojo”. Ask people what their biggest time waster is and I’ll put good money on the answer: dysfunctional meetings.

Too many people spend whole days every week in useless or poorly run meetings (often online), and it can be the biggest source of corporate misery of all.

Tomorrow it’s my 60th birthday. That milestone reminds me that time is running out, and renews my energy to help people to do something about this before it’s too late. I am as  motivated as ever to help other people fulfil their potential, but my knees have only so many more years of long haul travel in them.  So here’s my birthday gift to you: the list of what my research tells me are the top three meetings dysfunctions, and what to do about them.

(Important note: YOU can do something about this, whether or not it’s “your” meeting. It’s called leadership. You do not have to be a meetings victim, and some basic changes of behaviour can transform your workplace experience of this.)   

Dysfunction #1: No agenda. Meetings without agendas are highly likely to be inefficient because they will lack structure and focus. They probably have unclear objectives as well, so no one really knows what is required and why they are meeting. If the person running the meeting is clear about these things but chooses not to disclose it, there is in effect a hidden agenda.

Agenda items should ideally state the topic, the objective of the discussion, and a time frame for it.  A time keeper can be appointed and can call it when only 10 minutes left.  This focuses minds wonderfully. Sample agenda item:

“Budget cut. Decision required on savings by department for financial year.  30 minutes.”

Solution: when you are invited to a meeting, ask what the agenda is. If the answer to that is “we won’t have an agenda”, you are in a perfect position to reply that you are therefore unable to ascertain whether it is relevant to you, and can therefore politely decline. Ask them to send you the minutes so you can see if you should attend next time (there probably won’t be any of those either, so you’re off the hook.)

The more Adult approach is of course to suggest we have an agenda, and coach the meeting caller to create one. And encourage them to take some action-based minutes to, capturing the following: Item, Action, By Who, By When.  This can be a simple spreadsheet, completed by someone during the meeting, issued immediately afterwards and reviewed as the first item on the agenda next time we meet. Doesn’t half produce clarity when you know you will be called to account next time if you commit to something and it goes in the spreadsheet. It generates action, which is why we met in the first place (unless it’s one of those where we are meeting to recharge our batteries, acknowledge how well we’ve done and motivate ourselves to carry on until we meet again, in which case it’s not a meeting really; more like a group hug, team pat on the head, mutual back slap or some such).

Dysfunctional meetings are all too frequent. They lead to career mojo loss. Dysfunction #2: Having a meeting in the first place. Too often a meeting is called when other communication vehicles would have been more appropriate. For instance, having an agenda item which is only relevant to a select few of those invited. Asking people to attend in case there is something they might be the expert in. Calling a meeting and then handing it over to someone to make a presentation while everyone sits and listens. Using a meeting to purportedly discuss something which has already been decided.

Note: we read at 450 words per minute and talk at 150. If you present something which we could equally well read, it takes three times as long to get through it. Why not send the presentation out in advance and use the meeting to discuss the key points in it?

Solution: if it is not clear why you are having a meeting, ask the meeting owner (in the nicest possible way, of course). This might have the benefit of encouraging them to rethink. Their answer might also lead you into a discussion in which you find an alternative to attending if you detect it is not going to be a good use of your time.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of mutual respect. I often incorporate a meeting of some sort into the leadership development programmes I run. They’re a great way to examine default behaviours, and my conclusion is that a meeting often brings out the worst in people. The list of naughty meetings behaviours includes:

  • Extraverts ignoring or shutting out the Introverts. Hogging the airwaves, interrupting, finishing their sentences for them, ignoring body language, and believing that the best way to influence others is to transmit your position until the others submit. It’s SO rude, and a source of huge frustration for the 50% of the population which has a preference for Introversion.
  • Ignoring the human component. Meetings jump straight into the detail, without recognising that human beings have come together either remotely or in the same room to share opinions, build out ideas, reach consensus, but above all to share and collaborate as people. This aspect is largely ignored in my experience, and so the opportunity to build relationships, and thus trust and mutual respect, is lost. What a shame. It’s all part of the slip towards breakdown in society, in my view, and we must all rail against it, people!
  • Competitive behaviours, often dressed up as banter or through hidden agendas and cloak and daggery of various kinds. People saying they agree but moaning afterwards. Using a vote to force through a decision where sensible balanced debate should have been allowed for. The meetings chairperson who pretends to have an open mind but is in fact leading the discussion towards what has already been decided.
  • Not even attempting to get buy in. Jumping into the detail without positioning the topic and addressing the “why should I care about this?” question which is always on everyone’s mind. Assuming it is obvious and expecting everyone to be as motivated to discuss it as the topic sponsor.
  • Ignoring different time zones and expecting people to attend in the middle of the night.  OK now and then, but you guys in the USA need to reciprocate!
  • Ignoring language barriers, a particular favourite of native English speakers, who use the millisecond advantage they have when processing another’s comment to jump in, rather than allowing time for others to process it. Along with assuming local dialect and accents translate perfectly worldwide (which they do not, of  course. Even I find it difficult to understand Glaswegian).

Solution. This one’s hard because the lack of respect can show up in many guises. One suggestion is to do what Nancy Kline recommends in her book “Time to think“. She has a list of techniques for producing a “Thinking Environment” in a meeting: one in which people do show respect and allow space for ideas to come out. She suggests having a review at the end of the meeting in which everyone says what they liked about the meeting. This creates a positive atmosphere and helps us to know what to ensure we repeat next time, so that we encourage the positive behaviours.  I’d go one further and suggest that if there are disrespectful behaviours you want to discourage, add “what do we want to do differently next time we meet?” to the review, and this will give an opportunity for people to speak up and voice their feedback. If no one else has the courage to, you can be the one to call it if you like.

I could go on, but won’t. It’s hardly an uplifting topic. This is such a rich seam of dysfunction, and all of it at such a basic level. It never ceases to amaze me how sophisticated and intelligent people like you allow so much of their precious time to be wasted in this way. It really is possible to change it. I know this from what people tell me.  The “no agenda=no meeting” principle can save people days per week. Seriously.

What are your experiences of this? How does meeting malfunction present itself in your world?  What works when you try to address it?

My book “My Job Isn’t Working!” will be published in July.  It includes this topic along with 9 others which I know are at the heart of career mojo malfunction. It is packed with tools for doing something about it and making your workplace experience more fulfilling and uplifting. If you’d like to join my launch team to help me smash it on Amazon, sign up to the form at the bottom of this link.  Thank you!

Cartoon drawn by Dr Will Liddell, an old schoolfriend and General Practitioner in the UK. He prompted me to write the book in the first place, because he was telling me how many people he sees in his surgery whose illness is directly attributable to mojo loss or breakdown at work.