14 Tips for Holding a Productive Meeting

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

Nothing drains happiness faster than a long, unproductive meeting. You’re bored; you’re not getting anything done; emails are piling up while you sit, trapped. Just think: if you cut out just one hour of meeting time each week, you’d have an extra week for work – or fun – by the end of the year.

On the other hand, I disagree with people who argue that we should have no meetings. A productive meeting can be tremendously valuable, a big time-saver, and even exhilarating.

Here are some strategies I try to deploy:

1. Start on time, and end on time. Once people see that meetings are starting late, the bad habit builds, because people see there’s no point in showing up promptly. Here’s one solution: a friend worked at a law firm that fined partners $100 if they were late to a meeting, which turned out to be very effective. If the meeting has to run long, say, “We’re not through with the seven points, so can everyone stay fifteen extra minutes to wrap up?” That way, people know that the end is in sight.

2. It’s helpful to spend a little time in chit-chat. For a long time, I didn’t believe this to be true, and I tried to be hyper-efficient. But now I realize that it’s important – and productive – for people to have a chance to relate on a personal level. People need to build friendships, they need a chance to show their personalities, they need to establish rapport. Meetings are very important for this process.

3. If some people hesitate to jump in, or stop talking if interrupted, find a way to draw them out. Ability to grab the floor doesn’t necessarily correlate with capacity to contribute.

4. My father once gave me a brilliant piece of advice: If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you the responsibility.” Meetings often involve blame-giving and blame-taking, and although it’s not pleasant to accept blame, it’s a necessary aspect of getting responsibility (if deserved, of course). Proving my father’s point, one of my best meeting experiences ever was a time when I took the blame – rightly – for something done by a team of people working with me. Doing this ended up dramatically increasing my organizational credibility on all sides.

5. Share the credit. Along with blame, a meeting is also a great place to give people credit. Be quick to point out great work or to call for a round of applause for a colleague. People often act as though credit is a zero-sum goody, and if they share credit, they’ll get less themselves. From what I’ve seen, sharing credit not only doesn’t diminish the number of gold stars you get, but adds to them – because people so admire the ability to give credit. (Gold star junkie that I am, I pay close attention in this area.)

6. Making people feel stupid isn’t productive, and it isn’t kind. A friend has a good suggestion: “Be cheerfully, impersonally decisive.”

7. Have an agenda and stick to it. If possible, circulate the agenda in advance, along with anything else that needs to be read to prepare for the meeting. Make sure people know if they should bring anything. And along the same lines …

8. Never go to a meeting if you don’t know why you’re supposed to be there! This seems obvious, but it’s a situation that arises surprisingly frequently. I just made this mistake recently.

9. Regular meetings should be kept as short as possible and very structured. Have rules for canceling the meeting when appropriate – if such-and-such doesn’t happen, if only a certain number of people can attend, etc.

10. Don’t say things that will undermine or antagonize other people. Guess what? Turns out they do in fact notice this, and they don’t appreciate it. If you wonder if you’re an offender, check yourself against this list.

11. If a meeting is long, schedule breaks when people can check their email and phones. Otherwise, they get very distracted by feeling they’ve been out of touch for too long (for some people, this takes about ten minutes), and they start sneakily emailing under the table. As if no one will notice. Which they do.

12. Meetings should stay tightly focused. If people want a chance to discuss side issues, theoretical problems, or philosophical questions that aren’t relevant to the purpose of the meeting, they should meet separately.

13. Here’s a radical solution: no chairs. In Bob Sutton’s terrific book, The No A****** Rule, (written that way not out of prudery but to avoid spamblockers), he points to a study that showed that people in meetings where everyone stood took 34% less time to make an assigned decision, with decisions that were just as good as those made by groups who were sitting down.

14. Perhaps most important: Be very specific about the “action items” (to use the business-school term). Who is agreeing to do what, by when? Make sure someone keeps track of what is supposed to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and at the meeting’s end, review these items so it’s crystal clear to everyone. I now never leave a meeting without my own list of what I need to get done, for whom, and by when.

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

One Response so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Gretchen . . . after years of running meetings, if they are done well the leader will find that one of the most important unsaid rationale for meetings is that it draws the participants together in a single room.  Individuals rapidly become drawn in — at least in the way I do it — to each have part of “a common goal” that each has had a hand or a voice in.  It gives the individual “importance” — and always – always – it should be attempted to get input from each person that will form the final decisions.  They become “somebody”; they are listened to.  And that does wonders for self-esteem,particularlly if they are singled out for a wise statement or something that actually clinches the goal.  But in working together, they have come one which is so important in business.
    As you have said in a different form, anything that is going to be worked on MUST have a deadline date set at the meeting.  Procrastination takes over otherwise.  They have “more important things to do” .  .  . but giving them responsibility and a date to come back with the finished product makes them “important”. 

    Another thing I find imperative:  do not pass out long printed papers at the meeting itself.  Everything should have had time to be read and digested long before the meeting.  The meeting becomes out of control with people reading while a meeting is going on.  Even a stop to read the material given then does not work well as people take various times to digest it.

    Agendas are imperative with enough information enclosed that those attending should be able to respond.  At times, there is shyness or a person who is unsure.  It is then that I wait until the item is fairly well talked about and perhaps agreed about.  But then I may call on the quiet person, just casually asking if they feel that they agree with the solution OR if there are elements the person has thought of that really should be covered before a vote is taken.  The style is relaxed but says “I think you are important and we want to hear what you have to say”.
    It is a neat way to pull them into the group.

    If the group leader has put in time and thought to THE END RESULT of the meeting, he or she can then work back to set up the agenda in a way that the steps follow one another with the leader in control.  There should not be too much on an agenda so that the meeting runs too long as you lose your audience.  At times, meetings of smaller groups can preceed on topics that they are particularly sharp at and can present well, making for little stumbling as the main meeting progresses.  Call on one who represents the special group first, and then go from there. 

    I have seen far too many wasted meetings, making the participants dread the next one.  It starts and ends with the leader and how the meeting is pre-planned and conducted efficiently.
    You know you have done well when the meeting is over and people are conversing with smiles as they leave the room. 

    Gretchen, this was an excellent list you have assembled — and one much needed, especially within the local organizations who often make you want to throw up your arms at the mismanagement.  Great idea!