helpIf you’ve never felt like you were being held hostage in a series of never-ending, non-productive meetings, then this week’s blog is not for you. However, if you’re like the thousands and thousands (if not, millions and millions) of us who are frustrated by frequent meetings plagued by a lack of clear purpose, no meaningful conclusions, failure to follow up and myriad other ills, then read on. A measure of relief might just be in sight.

My biggest peeve about meetings is a lack of clarity about the purpose. Ever been invited to a meeting and all you information you receive is the date, time and place? Drives me nuts!!! If you don’t know what the meeting is about, how on earth are you supposed to prepare so that you can make a meaningful contribution? Unless of course, you have the enviable gift of being able to come up with brilliant strategies complete with pros and cons and risk and cost/benefit analysis of said strategy on the spur of the moment… Alternatively, maybe the convener of the meeting doesn’t really need you to contribute anything except to increase the headcount

My second biggest peeve is meetings which end without any clear decisions or accountability for any decisions that might have been taken. Oh, and to exacerbate the already bad situation, no notes/summary is provided in the wake of the meeting. Such meetings invariably lead to inaction and a lack of follow-up or follow-through. Why is it that some people assume that meeting attendees will remember what was discussed, who is supposed to do what and by when? Haven’t they ever heard the Chines proverb The palest ink is better than the best memory. No? What about the saying The mind is a terrible place to store important information?

So, if you know within your heart that you are guilty of these or other bad-meeting sins, here are a few tips designed to help you as well as the hapless folks that you’ve been holding hostage:

  1. Always distribute an agenda : an agenda including the purpose of the meeting should be distributed to all participants well in advance of the meeting.
  2. Ensure you have the right people in the room : large meetings with attendees who are disengaged encourage social loafing while the failure to have the right people in the room can prevent you from making decisions.
  3. Keep the meeting as short possible : the optimal duration will depend on the nature of the meeting (e.g. brainstorming, decision-making, planning etc.). Bear in mind that work expands to fill the space available. If participants know that only an hour has been allocated for the meeting, they are less likely to squander the time.
  4. Send out meeting notes : the sooner you do this, the better. Sending out a summary of salient points, decisions taken, action items, due dates and persons responsible for said action items helps to create and/or maintain a sense of urgency especially if you do so within twenty-four hours of the meeting.
  5. Follow up: this is yet another way in which you can communicate and reinforce the importance of the subject matter. Folks are busy, so if you don’t follow up, your issues are likely to be placed on the back burner (or may fall off the stove completely!).

If you follow those five tips, much fewer people are likely to feel like you’re holding them hostage. However, what if you’re not the meeting convener but one of the hostages? Well, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for you as well. In Secrets to Masterful Meetings, Michael Wilkinson dedicates a chapter to those of us who want to take action to break free rather than suffering in silence. Here are a few of his tips for politely breaking a hostage impasse:

  1. Meeting doesn’t have a purpose or agenda: Excuse me. I may have missed it. Could you take a second to go over the overall purpose of this meeting, what we need to have when we are done, and your thoughts about the agenda? This will help me stay focused and make sure I don’t go off on tangents.
  2. The discussion is getting off track: These are excellent points we’re discussing. I know we have to get back to our main topic, but I don’t want to lose these points. Can we record them on an Issues List? or somewhere else so we can discuss them later and then get back to our main topic?
  3. Decisions or actions are not being documented : It sounds like we just made an important decision. Can we have someone repeat it and the decision recorded so that we will have accurate documentation of what we decided?
  4. The meeting is about to end without a review/summary of decisions : After such a productive meeting, I would hate to leave without being clear on what we decided or what is going to happen next. Could we take a minute to review the decisions we’ve made and the actions that need to occur once we leave on, whether you’re guilty of unintentionally holding others hostage; or whether you’re desperately hoping that someone will rescue you from the plethora of non-productive meetings, I hope that this week’s blog has provided some measure of relief. What additional recommendations do you have for your fellow-sufferers? Have you identified any coping strategies that you can share with us?

(First published on

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