Meeting leadership is a critical skill in any modern workplace. Doing it well sets you apart from your peers and boosts productivity and cooperation in your workplace. Doing it poorly frustrates participants and wastes time. So, why are so many meetings still so poorly run?
Meeting Leadership Is a Learnable Skill
Meeting leadership is a learnable skill, but unfortunately, it is rarely taught as one. That fact always amazes me. Meeting quality has an outsized impact on productivity and employee satisfaction in nearly all modern workplaces.
I lead 15+ meetings each week. Let’s assume each meeting averages eight participants and lasts one hour. That means that, at minimum, I am responsible for 120 hours of other people's work time every week. That equates to three full-time employees just sitting in meetings with me all day, every day. That kind of investment cannot be left to chance. This skill demands to be practiced and mastered.
Much like a trade, leading meetings requires both art and science and takes years to master. In this article, I introduce the topic and share a basic way to assess the success of your meetings.
Why Do We Even Have Meetings?
A meeting is when we meet together to . . . umm . . . do things? I have been in countless meetings with no apparent purpose or direction. We gather like flies to a porch light and stare blankly until it’s over. These sorts of meetings are obviously painful, and we have all been there. But really, what is this workplace ritual where we all gather together and discuss things? Why do we even do it?
Every Meeting Should Be a Tool With a Purpose
A meeting is a tool. It is not a thing with an end unto itself. The sole reason for a meeting is to accomplish something. Much like a hammer exists for pounding things, a meeting exists for accomplishing things.
Meetings are great tools for coordination, discussion, idea generation, decision-making, pulse-checking, information sharing (unless it could be done with an email), and celebrating. Outside of these purposes, meetings have limited use.
Tools Must Be Used Properly
Understanding the purpose of a tool is only the first step. The tool still must be wielded with skill and proficiency. Sitting in a poorly run meeting is like watching someone pound a nail with the wooden handle of a hammer—right tool; wrong use. We don’t pound nails with wooden handles—we hold the handle and strike solidly with the head.
Meetings are the same. Use the tool properly, and great things can be accomplished. Use it poorly, and much time and energy can be wasted. Run bad meetings at your own risk.
Meetings Have Side Effects
This point is very important to understand. How a meeting is run produces side effects or byproducts that are either positive or negative. A meeting's leader must accomplish the meeting’s purpose and generate positive byproducts. These byproducts either support and build or decay and corrode workplace culture and relationships.
Much of this comes down to leadership style and listening. For example, I can quickly gain feedback and facilitate a decision by bossing people around during a meeting. While we may meet our goal, the participants will leave frustrated, and their trust in me will be eroded.
Positive meeting side-effects include connection with colleagues, feelings of accomplishment, mentoring, synergy, understanding, deeper learning, and more. These are immensely valuable in organizational culture and often lead to positive financial outcomes in the long term.
Negative meeting side effects include futility, anger, confusion, interpersonal conflicts, lack of accomplishment, and isolation. These are culture killers that can eventually lead to increased cost and decreased quality.
Two Questions to Evaluate Meeting Success
The two questions to evaluate your meetings' efficacy are:
- Did you accomplish your meeting goal or purpose?
- Did you generate positive or negative relational and cultural side-effects?
The answers to these questions combine into only four possible meeting outcome types, as seen in the graphic above.
Type 1: Great Meetings
Great meetings accomplish their purpose and generate positive side effects. These meetings just feel good to be in. The forward momentum satisfies the achievers and produces organizational benefit.
The positive side-effects build trust among the group and a shared sense of purpose and accomplishment. People actually enjoy being in these meetings because they feed both accomplishment and social needs.
Type 2: Fun but Unproductive Meetings
These meetings are exactly as they sound—fun but unproductive. They are unproductive in the sense that the meeting’s purpose is not accomplished, but they can fill an important role in bonding team members and providing a break when times have been tough.
I never recommend scheduling meetings without a purpose, but occasionally, when the need arises, allowing a meeting to devolve into a social gathering is not the worst thing that could happen, provided you have no urgent business to address.
Type 3: Productive but Painful Meetings
These meetings accomplish their purpose but in such a way that exacts a toll on participants. The style of these meetings can take many forms, but the point is that although work is accomplished for short-term gain, the long-term benefits of organizational and relational culture are sacrificed.
For that reason, I would rather have a fun-but-unproductive meeting than a productive-but-painful meeting any day of the week. The negative side effects from these meetings will bear negative fruit over time, so watch out if this is a pattern in your workplace.
Type 4: Life Drainers
Life drainers do exactly as the name suggests—they drain the life out of participants. They do so because no needs are being met—nothing is accomplished professionally or socially. People will say things like “that was a complete waste of my time” or “that was painful” after life drainers.
My advice? Just don’t allow these sorts of meetings to happen. Nothing of organizational benefit is accomplished, and they produce negative fruit that each participant then has to expend energy to deal with later on. They are killers, and they belong nowhere in the workplace because they honor neither the company nor the individual participants of the meeting.
Did You Accomplish Your Meeting Goal or Purpose?
Of the two questions, this is the easier to answer. While accomplishing the purpose may sometimes be challenging, it is typically clear whether or not it happened. This obviously requires knowing the purpose of the meeting and specific agenda items in the first place.
If you don’t know the purpose, consider canceling or postponing the meeting. Meeting purposes may include coordination, discussion, idea generation, decision-making, pulse-checking, information sharing (use sparingly), and celebrating.
The tactics, structures, and meeting designs used to accomplish the purpose will vary, but for now, suffice it to say that you must know the purpose of your meeting and have a plan to accomplish it accordingly.
Did You Generate Positive or Negative Relational and Cultural Side Effects?
This question is more difficult to answer because it is open to interpretation. The key thing here is that generating positive meeting side effects requires adaptability from the meeting leader to match the specific context and participants of the meeting.
Which leadership style generates positive side effects varies drastically depending on the industry, the roles involved, the personalities of participants, the level of trust between participants, the purpose of the meeting, and several other factors.
Consider how you might lead a meeting with a group of seasoned engineers vs. a group of newly graduated nurses. You, as the meeting leader, would not only employ different meeting designs and techniques to accomplish your purpose, but you would also probably instinctively adapt your leadership style to match the needs and expectations of the meeting participants.
This sort of adaptability is required of great meeting leaders. It not only helps you accomplish your specific purpose, but it also builds trust and produces many other positive side effects.
What to Do When Results Are Mixed
People are complex, and meetings involving groups of people are exponentially more so. You will inevitably lead meetings that some thought were excellent and some thought were abysmal. The reasons for this are many, but they could even be as simple as the extrovert enjoying the lively meeting while the introvert felt overwhelmed. This is common in meetings. Try your best to generate positive side effects as often as you can with as many participants as possible.
When leading meetings, you will not always hit the mark. Sometimes, you will walk away and say, “Yeah, that wasn’t my best. I’d love to have that one back.” Move on. Learn from your mistakes. Address your failures personally when needed. Then get back on the horse and do it again. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of improvement and eventual mastery.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.