Who Stole Our Meeting?

by Merrick Rosenberg


Most people know what makes a good meeting, yet so many meetings are unproductive. So if we understand that efficient and effective meetings require preparing and sticking to agendas, starting and ending on time, and keeping minutes, why do meetings go awry?


The answer goes beyond the technical aspects of running meetings. To understand what turns potentially productive time in wasted hours, we must consider the people who run and attend meetings.

In The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy noted, "The form of the meeting is simply a reflection of the culture." Quite simply, people power meetings. And when those people work in a culture of caring, commitment, and cooperation, meetings will be productive, perhaps even regardless of whether or not you have an agenda and start on time.

The Emotionally Intelligent Meeting
It is said that meetings are often events where minutes are kept, but hours are lost. However, productive meetings are attended and led by individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence. These individuals focus on providing a positive contribution and are aware when others are tuning in or out to meeting content. Emotionally intelligent individuals are rarely disruptive and know how to deal with those who are. They have highly developed communication and listening skills and know how to respectfully raise concerns. They effectively manage their emotions and stay calm when the conversation gets heated.

Paul Rice of TimeSource asked people to identify what "bothered them a lot" about meetings. He found the following:

Factor % bothered a lot
People drifting off subject 83
Participants' lack of preparation 77
People not listening 67
People's wordiness 62
Length of time taken 60
People not participating 51
Emotional outbursts 41

Note how many of the above behaviors relate to emotional intelligence. While an agenda and a strong leader can help to keep a meeting on track, if the participants have lower levels of emotional awareness and poor communication skills, the meeting is doomed from the start.

The Attendees
In my experience in conducting team surveys in countless organizations, questions about team meetings are consistently among the lowest rated items. I have found that in most meetings, if twelve people are in attendance, the same four people will always speak, regardless of the content. Four people will rarely if ever speak. And the remaining four will speak only if they feel they have something valuable to contribute. This imbalance of participation means that a group is not capitalizing on the input of all of its members. Emotionally intelligent groups ensure that everyone plays a role in making the meeting effective.

Participants can negatively impact meetings in a variety of ways. Here's how to deal with some of the more difficult meeting attendees:

  • Apathetic: Ask them what they would do if they had to make the decision.

  • Challenger: Stay calm, don't let them monopolize the meeting.

  • Comedian: Acknowledge their humor, then politely ask them to stay focused and serious.

  • Conflict avoider: Validate the discomfort of dealing with difficult issues.

  • Distracter: Ask them direct questions about the topic at-hand.

  • Dominator: Ask direct questions to others, instead of open-ended questions to the group.

  • Early-leaver: Talk to them after the meeting and convey that they must attend the entire meeting.

  • Eye-roller: Talk to them after the meeting and discuss the message that their body language sends.

  • Interpreter: Check back with the originator to ensure proper interpretation.

  • Know-it-all: Acknowledge their insight and ask for other perspectives.

  • Late-comer: Start on time, let them catch up.

  • Leader trapper: Pass their questions to the group and let the group respond.

  • Neighbor whisperer: Immediately ask them to share their thoughts with the group.

  • Personal Agenda Pleader: Focus the group on finding a solution that benefits everyone.

  • Pessimist: Ask them for the logic behind their opinions.

  • Rambler: Tactfully ask them to present their bottom-line idea or opinion.

  • Withdrawn: Direct a question to them.

The Bottom Line
Every action we take (or don't take) has a cost. And while we can spend three things in life: time, money and energy... meetings cost all three.

By developing the skills that create emotionally intelligent employees, organizations invest in their people in way that will yield the highest possible dividends.