The Dysfunctional Meetings

I once consulted for a mid-sized company that had a challenge. The CEO  wanted a team to come to an agreement about a new program but after several meetings they just couldn’t seem to get it together. The meetings were run by the Marketing Manager, but the CEO asked me to step in as the meeting facilitator.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” -Stephen Covey

I started by talking privately with the Marketing Manager to get her perspective. A few of the meeting attendees were Vice-Presidents who outranked her, and they frequently showed up late to meetings.  People were coming unprepared and the group was getting bogged down in endless circular discussions, causing the meetings to run overtime and frustrating everyone.  She was relieved to have me listen to her and empathize with her situation.  I then went on a ‘listening tour” of the other employees on the team to find out what their issues and concerns were, and to make sure everyone was fully heard. This is an important step in the problem solving process.

Then, based on their feedback, I implemented some new meeting norms that I communicated to everyone in advance:

  1. Meetings would start and end on time, no matter who showed up late. Since I didn’t report to the VPs, I could easily start without them, and I did when necessary. Other team members appreciated this, since they arrived on time. (It wasn’t personal; latecomers were busy people but we needed to stay on a tight timeline.)
  2. Every person got a Meeting Agenda in advance. The agenda needed to be read in advance, had additional background information and stated whether or not something was:
    1. A decision item
    2. A discussion item
  3. Each item on the agenda had a time limit listed. For example, a Decision Item might be listed as 5 minutes.  If it looked like we would run over that allotted time because people still wanted to discuss, I would interject and ask the team if they were willing to extend the meeting, OR shorten another agenda item in order to continue, OR wrap up and come to a decision. This left the responsibility for time in the hands of the team, not the facilitator.

These small changes made people more mindful and empowered and helped them come to agreement about the new project quickly. We resolved the problem of dysfunctional meetings by creating a new set of expectations, building trust and enforcing accountability. 

Bottom line:  Mindfully creating communication processes (shared norms) in an organization will help things run more smoothly.