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7 simple ways to change meeting behaviours

2 min read: The meeting behaviours you observe in your workplace are contingent on the current workplace environment. Given that you are part of the workplace environment for other meeting attendees, if you want to get something different to happen in meetings, you’re going to have to do something different. Publishing a list of meeting rules will not get you very far, they often focus on too many things at once and do not consider the drivers of current behaviour.

Here’s a summary of some simple things that you can do to change the environment and get more of what you want:

1. Agree an objective for all meetings - It sounds simple, but if I asked you to list the objective for all of the meetings that you attended last week, how easy would it be? If you asked all of the other attendees, would they all come back with the same answer? Every one of these meetings should have an objective or a desired output. This will help you to select the right attendees and measure the success of the meeting. A huge proportion of the wage bill is spent on people spending their time in meetings, yet its the one activity that we often don't bother to define the objective of.

2. Cancel all meetings where the objective can be achieved via other means - We hold meetings for many reasons, often it’s just out of habit. Sometimes to avoid taking action now but feeling like we have ticked a box by setting up a meeting in two weeks time. Pretty soon your calendar can be filled up with reoccurring meetings, leaving little time for anything else. In one organisation, when the management team took a look at their diaries, their weekly reoccurring meetings added up to three and a half full days. Defining an objective for each meeting type will allow you to decide whether a meeting is actually the best way to achieve it. Once you’ve defined the objective ask yourself whether it can be achieved as effectively without the meeting. If it can, cancel the meeting.

3. Start all meetings on time regardless of whether all are present - The big problem with late attendance is that it’s infectious and it’s easy to see why: if the attendees arriving on time have to wait around for the meeting to get started, then have to start again once the late attendees join, soon enough they’ll now anticipating a slow start and its highly likely they will adjust their behaviour accordingly... arriving late to avoid hanging around. Make sure you are not inadvertently reinforcing late arrivals by ensuring you start your meetings with the people who have arrived on time, avoid recapping for late attendees, they’ll soon get the gist of it anyway, avoid commenting, humouring, paying attention to late attendees. You may have to run a couple of meetings that are less productive in the short term because late arrivals are missing critical information, but taking the pain now makes it more likely that they will turn up on time in the future.

4. Make sure all actions are assigned to an owner and a due date in the meeting - A good place to start is taking a look at the action log, is there a clear and pinpointed record of who, will do what and by when? Often this very basic is missing. Vague actions are recorded, often without an agreed timescale, or perhaps assigned to someone who wasn’t even in the meeting. Clear up the action log in the meeting, makes sure everyone leaves the room with a clear expectation of what they need to do next and by when.

5. Start an action log that shows close out rate - Similar to late attendance, if failure to complete on actions is the behavioural norm pay attention to what happens next. Are overdue actions followed up or do they just get rolled over to the next meeting date or perhaps assigned to someone else? Clearly if people are not completing on their actions, the current work environment does not support completion. Collect and share the data on action close out for the group and use it to have enquiring conversations to identify any barriers to performance.

6. Set an agenda and stick to it, coach the chair person in providing appropriate prompts to keep on track - Often the chairperson finds themselves frustrated that the meeting has gone off topic. It is the job of the chairperson to create the right environment by putting in lots of prompts and reinforcement to keep the discussion on topic. This is a great place to start when coaching your direct reports on managing meetings: get them to observe how often their meetings go off topic; monitor what they do to get it back on track; give them some simple things they could say to get it back on track. Manage the meeting environment so that the behaviour of talking on topic is more reinforcing than inappropriate detail, gossip or football. During the meeting an effective chairperson manages the behaviour of the other attendees by: Only reinforcing discussions aligned with the purpose of the meeting; Prompting attendees to get back on to topic if they become distracted; Providing regular feedback to attendees on agenda timings and meeting progress.

7. Run an anonymous meeting survey - I've worked with so many smart people who find themselves sat in meetings where folk turn up, read through a report or spreadsheet line by line, query minute detail, fail to engage in any value added problem solving discussion regarding the real issues and everyone just goes along with it, often because we've just never had the conversation about what we are trying to achieve with the meeting and how it is working. Running an anonymous survey after a meeting is a great way to get some data as a starting point for a discussion. We often use anonymous voting cards, but a simple online or paper survey will do. I've even had folk scribble down on a piece of paper a score out of ten for the question, this meeting was a good use of my time, as an on the hoof way to call out the elephant in the room and start talking about how we are using our time. This is a great way to get feedback from the group, chances are if you are sat in the meeting thinking its a waste of time, most of the other participants are too.

The best way to create change is to pick one or two simple pinpoints and get some movement. Think of this as a shaping plan, pick one item, fix that, move on to the next item on your list. Good luck and have fun experimenting.

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