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12 tips to overhaul bad meetings and keep your team engaged

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

February 16, 2022

Love them or loathe them, meetings are a vital part of business life. But bad meetings can have a huge impact on company performance. In fact, pointless meetings cost U.S. companies a whopping $399 billion in 2019.

Here are some eye-opening stats:

  • 65% of senior managers say meetings prevent them from finishing their own work.
  • 71% find meetings unproductive and inefficient.
  • 64% said meetings get in the way of deep thinking.
  • 62% believe meetings miss opportunities for team-building.

So, how do you banish bad meetings from your (and your team’s) life? Here are some tips.

Why do bad meetings happen?

Unfortunately, bad meetings happen more often than we’d like to admit. A “bad meeting” occurs when members are unable or unmotivated to accomplish anything of substance. Whether it’s a group of co-workers, classmates, teachers, or managers, any meeting that achieves nothing for any participants can be classified as a bad meeting.

How do you avoid bad meetings? The first step is understanding what could go wrong. Meetings go off track for any number of reasons. Someone could start rambling on without purpose or resolution, or a conflict between people with opposing personalities may hinder cooperation. Problems could also stem from poor planning, missing resources, or a lack of necessary knowledge, comprehension, or interest on the part of one or more people involved.

But no matter the circumstances, one thing is for sure: nobody wants to waste their time. Here are some of the most common signs of a bad meeting (and tips for avoiding them).

Bad meetings: signs to look out for

1. Your meetings are too long.

Meetings may start late; they may end early. You may have tried to cram in too much. There could be countless breaks in between. Whatever the problem, something is wrong if your meetings needlessly drag on. If this only happens a few times, it probably isn’t a big problem. But consistently running overtime is a sign of poor planning.

The fix: make sure you have an agenda in advance and send it out to all participants prior to the meeting. If you’re aware of a particularly chatty person who likes to interrupt other people’s conversations, be firm when asking them to wait until their turn before speaking.

You should also restrict meetings to a manageable timeframe. Sessions that last longer than an hour are often unnecessary and put people’s attention to the test. If you have the option to split it in two, do that.

2. There are too many distractions or interruptions.

Distractions can include laptops and other devices that divert attention away from the task at hand. Other interruptions can come from within the group, such as overly talkative participants who dominate the conversation. If someone isn’t respectful of other people’s opinions or ideas, this could also turn attention away from more important topics.

The fix: recognize distractions and reduce them to increase focus. Distractions may involve side discussions during the meeting, talking points that are off task, and other behavior that unduly draws attention away from important matters.

Consider addressing these issues politely during your next meeting, as team members could be unaware that these behaviors are distracting. Ensure all participants are focused by asking them to minimize the use of phones and email, which could draw attention away from relevant discussion topics.

3. The discussion topics aren’t relevant or worthwhile.

Discussions should cover pertinent matters that concern your department and its members directly. If there’s little or nothing for your team members to take away from the meeting, then it’s a waste of time! For example, if you need to share information that doesn’t require further explanation or consensus on the next steps, it’s better to send an email or company newsletter.

The fix: plan your meetings with specific action items in mind, and don’t cover extraneous information. If your meetings tend to be long and unfocused, consider whether a different format is more conducive to accomplishing your goals.

4. One or more team members dominate the meeting.

Power struggles within a team can cause a chaotic meeting environment. For example, if one person tries to take charge of every aspect of the conversation, other people may feel as though they don’t have a voice. In order to build trust among team members, facilitate effective communication.

The fix: go around the room one by one to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Simple! Not only does this keep the meeting organized, but everyone knows what’s expected of them as participants.

5. The relevant people aren’t present.

Informal chats are fine, but important discussions should include everyone whose opinions and signoff are necessary to move forward. While everyone can contribute feedback or ideas in a brainstorming session, not all opinions carry the same weight. When you don’t have the right people in the meeting, important decisions and information won’t reach the right ears.

The fix: instead of having irrelevant people attend just to make up the numbers, schedule a conference call or an online chat. Is poor attendance the issue? People may be over-scheduled or too busy with their day-to-day work, causing them to forget meetings. If your team feels there’s no benefit to attending, it won’t matter what format you try or how many times you remind them.

To avoid poor turnout, send a weekly email reminder of upcoming scheduled meetings. Include the time, discussion topics, and overall purpose of the meeting, so everyone understands what you hope to achieve. If some people can’t attend because they have too many meetings with different teams, it’s a good idea to gather all managers to discuss how to minimize unnecessary communications.

6. The people who do show up aren’t prepared.

Meetings go smoothly when everyone shows up prepared. If someone doesn’t have the correct data or context coming into the meeting, their lack of organization will affect the whole group. You’ll end up wasting time filling others in on details they should have reviewed before the meeting. Or, when a key speaker is unprepared, they might not have adequate time to analyze their findings before presenting them.

How to fix it: before the meeting (as in a few days or weeks before, not hours), send out the agenda and all relevant materials so that everyone knows what’s coming. This way, they’ll have more time to gather information, get up to date on critical topics, and show up with valuable insights to contribute.

Set a goal for each meeting that’s important enough to motivate others to attend. If you can’t identify anything you want or need from this meeting, don’t have it! Put your energy elsewhere or reschedule. Another way to improve goal-setting and engagement is to ask every attendee to share what they want to get out of the meeting. This way, everyone has buy-in on what’s being accomplished.

7. People leave the meeting angry or frustrated.

Poor morale is a sure sign something hasn’t gone well. If this happens regularly, you need to look at the format and determine whether something inherent to your meetings is causing people to be miserable. As a manager, it’s crucial to make sure you don’t request feedback just for show. It’s common for team communication to break down because employees repeatedly have their concerns dismissed.

The fix: if you find this is happening only with a few people, but most attendees are having a good time, it may simply be an issue of setting expectations. Does everyone understand what is expected of them? Are they comfortable speaking up? Do they know how their input will be used?

If things aren’t working out for someone because they feel unappreciated or ignored, it might only be that one person who has a problem. Try talking one-on-one after the meeting to see if there’s anything you can do. Another option is to ask for feedback after the meeting to find out if others are happy or if you should adjust your approach. When a few people have particularly bad feedback, follow up with them to find out more.

8. Your action items and follow-up deadlines are unclear.

It’s important for meetings to have a clear purpose, whether it’s setting strategic direction, brainstorming ideas, or reviewing status. It should also be easy to tell what the next steps are. If people leave confused, nothing will get done, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

The fix: if you ask people to make commitments during your meetings, make sure they have adequate time to do so. Set deadlines for action items and project milestones as part of your follow-up. This will help everyone stay on track without feeling overwhelmed by an endless list of things to do.

If you want to set up a task force to address an issue, make sure the members agree with the goal and have the time to accommodate your request. Make it clear how many people you need and the amount of time they must commit, so you can adjust their workload to suit the request.

9. Long meetings don’t include enough breaks.

Asking attendees to spend more than two hours without a break is a formula for disengagement. Participants won’t be able to contribute fully if they’re sitting uncomfortably for hours.

The fix: organize the flow of the meeting to create natural stopping points. An intentionally long meeting or workshop should always have a modular structure. This allows everyone to process the large amount of information they just received, stretch their legs, and take care of any other needs.

And don’t forget the water! While we’re on the topic of discomfort, make sure your conference room is comfortable. Everything from the temperature to the furniture should be conducive to long periods of sitting and concentration. Otherwise, you can’t blame employees for being distracted by painful seating or an unbearably humid room.

10. The meeting isn’t coming to an end.

Knowing when to end a meeting is as important as knowing when to start one. Meetings that lose their direction or spiral into minor disagreements that don’t necessarily help the original purpose will leave attendees feeling like they’ve wasted their time.

The fix: create a timed schedule, and stick to it. If you notice these signs popping up in your meetings, it might be best for all parties to take some time away from the table and regroup later.

Aim to cover the most relevant topics first. Then, dedicate the last five minutes to writing down items that still need to be addressed. That way, people won’t leave feeling like they couldn’t bring up crucial topics. Also, co-workers who want to continue talking can do so without holding up people who aren’t involved in their projects.

11. People behave poorly during the meeting.

The purpose of meetings is to foster progress towards shared goals, not establish who’s right or wrong.

When we feel attacked by others’ opinions, we mentally shut down and focus more on self-preservation than collaboration. While differing opinions are powerful, the more important thing is how we reach those conclusions. Accomplishing our common goals becomes a secondary concern when meetings turn into a platform for other people to boast strength and authority.

The fix: getting to know others should be at the heart of any meeting — not just team-building activities or icebreakers. You can accomplish both by starting with small talk unrelated to work. You never know what you might learn about another person that can help your business. Once everyone feels comfortable, it shouldn’t be difficult to transition into a work-related conversation. Otherwise, an agenda could help things move along with ease.

If conflict is an ongoing issue, host a discussion about behavioral standards before the meeting. Make it clear what’s acceptable and what isn’t. When poor behavior still persists, work with HR to outline a document that defines meeting etiquette. If individuals don’t follow it, then be strict and address the incident with a one-on-one meeting or disciplinary hearing.

12. The tech isn’t up to scratch.

Technical difficulties happen from time to time, but they shouldn’t be a constant hindrance to meetings. As more of us embrace remote work, virtual meetings are becoming the norm. Bad tech, such as dropped calls or poor audio and video, can really put a damper on things. It’s not just a big time-waster; it’s annoying for all involved.

The fix: Provide clear instructions on equipment availability and the correct channels participants must use to attend (i.e., video, phone, team chat app). During the meeting itself, keep an eye on your chat app for any messages. Be ready to pause the conversation, if necessary, and sort out a connection issue ASAP.

To make this as easy as possible, embrace a range of collaboration tools. Resources like chat apps, diagramming software, and virtual whiteboarding can enhance your team’s collaboration abilities. Just be sure to apply the same etiquette as you expect in a face-to-face meeting. Come with a plan, take the time to ensure all participants are connected, and use any tools at your disposal to communicate clearly. And after the meeting, share documents and give everyone access to the digital resources shared during the meeting.

Meeting best practice checklist

Here are some golden rules to follow.

  • Keep the meeting focused and on topic: if somebody has a question or suggestion unrelated to what you’re currently discussing, let them know you’ll get back to it after the current topic is done. When somebody brings up something completely off-topic, try saying, “That’s great, but I think it’s better to discuss this in another meeting.” They’re less likely to feel attacked for trying to contribute.
  • Have an agenda: put together an agenda before your meeting so that everybody knows what will be covered. Having an agenda improves accountability, since everyone knows who’s responsible for specific tasks and what will happen after the meeting.
  • Set time limits: keep everyone on task by setting time limits. For example, if one person has something important they need to discuss, mention how long that topic will take before starting the meeting so that other people can plan accordingly. By setting time limits,  you give participants a reference point for presenting their discussions. As a result, the meetings are more likely to stay productive.
  • Be prepared: you shouldn’t be calling a meeting without having something important or interesting to present. Before scheduling a status update, make sure there has been enough progress to warrant a full meeting. If it’s a brainstorming session, come prepared with enough objectives for everyone to contribute.
  • Assign tasks: let everyone know what to do post-meeting by compiling a list of actionable tasks with assignments for each person.

Final thoughts

Use the right tech to make communications run smoothly. Meetings are increasingly happening virtually, so make sure you’re equipped to get the most out of these catch-ups. Video software like Zoom or Skype, diagramming tools, and chat apps like Typetalk are all a must if you want your team to collaborate effectively and get the most out of their time!

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