I work at a university where there is significant group work in the form of meetings or committees. In some of these meetings, a few people have a significant and vocal opinion about every agenda item. Every single one, every single time. I’ve noticed that these opinionated individuals speak to the point of soap boxing. Those of us who are indifferent or aren’t as vocal have grown tired of waiting our turn and check out of the meeting. It feels rather unproductive and pointless to hold a meeting since these gatherings are no longer about hearing from everyone but about hearing from the vocal minority. In addition, it has become an unsafe environment to voice a dissenting opinion—creating a lot of tension. What suggestions would you have to break up this meeting monopoly?
I think we can all relate to your situation: sitting in endless meetings that accomplish little other than destroying participants’ motivation and morale. And certain kinds of environments foster the worst kinds of meetings where people act as if they were at a debating society or a congressional committee meeting. The good news is that fixing meetings is relatively straightforward. I’ll suggest a few actions for getting started.
Take ownership for the meeting. One thing I’ve noticed about bad meetings is that everyone hates them, but few take responsibility for their failures. Begin by recognizing that your acceptance of bad norms reinforces those very norms. Change this situation by meeting with the meeting leader and suggesting the changes I’m going to recommend—as well as any other changes you believe would help. Don’t blame the leader for the bad meetings. You are all responsible and must all work together to create new norms.
Name the problems and create ground rules. Create a list of the problem behaviors that derail your current meetings. Be prepared to describe the impacts these behaviors have on decisions, wasted time, and morale. And think about a small number of ground rules that would prevent these problem behaviors. Try to limit the ground rules to five or less.
Schedule a special meeting or agenda item to discuss these problem behaviors and proposed ground rules. Use this meeting to model the ground rules you’d like to see adopted. Your goal is to get buy-in for testing the ground rules. Post a sign that labels the problem behaviors and the ground rules. Be open to changing the ground rules as you see which of them work and which don’t.
Example: “One of our problems is a lack of balance in participation. Some people tend to dominate, while others don’t say anything. As a ground rule, let’s limit comments to two minutes and check in with people who haven’t spoken up.”
Use an agenda with topics and time limits. Every meeting participant should receive an agenda at least a day in advance. This is especially important when you have introverts and others who prefer to prepare in advance, rather than speak off the cuff. In addition to beginning and ending times, the agenda should have time estimates for each topic. Participants and the meeting leader must then use these time limits to manage time during the meeting.
Example: A meeting participant says, “We only have 10 minutes left on this item. We haven’t heard from Suzy and John. Why don’t we get their perspective and then move on.”
Decide how to decide. Many of the problems I’ve seen in meetings stem from confusion over what participants are being asked to provide. Often, there is misunderstanding over who owns the decision rights. Are team members being asked for their input, or does the team have the authority to make the decision? If they do own the decision, how do they decide among options?
Make the decision process clear for each topic on the agenda. The main alternatives are:
- Command: The decision has already been made and the team is being informed about it. Often the decision maker wants the team’s help in implementing the decision.
- Consult: Team members are being asked for their input. They may help to identify and evaluate options, but they won’t be making the actual decision.
- Vote: The team is making the decision and is voting to decide among options. Voting favors efficiency over dialogue, so it only works when all team members feel they can support whichever option wins. In my experience, voting is rarely used.
- Consensus: Talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. Consensus is appropriate only when dealing with a.) High-stakes and complex issues, or b.) Issues where everyone must support the final choice.
Example: The participant who has a particular topic on the agenda says, “This is a consult. I want your input on . . . ”
Hold each other accountable. Don’t rely exclusively on the meeting leader to keep the meeting on track. Participants need to speak up when they see problem behaviors and to remind others of the ground rules.
Example: “John, we’ve heard from you already. Let’s stick to the two-minute rule and see what others might add. If there’s time, we can come back to you.”
Tips on stopping soapboxing. I’m guilty of this myself. I enjoy thinking on my feet and I talk when I’m thinking through an idea. I don’t mean to dominate. Not really.
Here are some tips to stop people like me from doing all the talking.
- Take notes on a white board or flip chart. Document the person’s point, and then stop them from repeating him or herself. Paraphrasing can serve this same purpose, but isn’t as effective as writing down what the person has said.
- Give everyone two-minutes of silence to think about, and write down, their ideas on a topic.
- Use a two-minute speaking rule to force people to be concise.
- After the person has spoken, have several others give their input before allowing the first person to speak again.
- Ask the person to provide further input after the meeting, perhaps in writing.
This is a topic that is familiar to many readers. Can everyone pitch in to help by sharing your best tips for keeping meetings effective, efficient, and on track? To share your best meeting tips, comment below.
Best of luck in getting your meetings back on track.