Useless meetings

When opinions are voiced elsewhere instead


Imagine this scenario: You set up a meeting at work, hoping to discuss some upcoming changes or a new project that is to be launched. You ask for input from your team so that you can take it back to the planning team. The response is not what you had hoped for, perhaps one of the following: a) people listen quietly, perhaps muttering a meek “okay” b) a few loud ones voice their objection to the idea or praise its greatness while the rest sit quietly or c) someone raises a valid concern, only to be silenced by a slightly snide comment made by someone else. Not the result you had hoped for, because now you have nothing to go on. Then, later, you hear that there have been heated discussions about the topic at coffee machines or in other gatherings, but that’s fairly useless.

Does this sound familiar, either as the person who set up the meeting or from a participant’s point of view? It is indeed very common. Why does this happen? In many cases, the answer is fear. People are afraid that something bad will happen if they speak up - being criticized in a derogatory manner, losing (social) status in the group, feeling that one’s ideas are not as worthy or important as some other team member’s, and so on. It could be many things. However, creativity, innovation and the greatest ideas can only develop if people feel safe. Safe from humiliation, safe from undue criticism - safe to voice their thoughts on work-related issues without being personally hung out to dry. Because that’s usually what happens. People feel that they are not safe as a person, even though it’s a work setting.

If you’re the team leader in the example, try to figure out what people might be afraid of. You can do this by analyzing how your meetings usually go. Usually it has something to do with the social structure of the group, the ways in which people interact or even company culture. Maybe you’ll find the answer, maybe not. What you do next is more important. Getting rid of the fear requires conscious effort and a lot of practice, but some simple principles can help.

  • Most importantly, make sure it’s not YOU who’s making people quiet and timid. This can happen without thinking about it, for example by being too quick in making decisions or impatient when someone tries to point out something. Maybe you’re actually not so fond of some of your team members - believe me, it shows. Your body language is important in general - if you’re busy with your laptop or papers, only hastily glancing up at the team every once in a while, chances are people will not bother to try to get your attention. Try to improve or ask for feedback. You might be surprised!
  • Make sure everyone gets to voice their opinion and that nobody’s thoughts receive negative criticism that is presented in an indirect or unconstructive manner, like through facial expressions, sarcasm, snide remarks or other derogatory signals like ignoring. Those are the most effective ways of making people keep quiet, so they need to be abolished from the meeting room. If these behaviors surface, cut them short. Thank each contributor for their input, ask for more opinions, treat each comment as a valuable piece of information and a starting point for further discussion.
  • Set up some ground rules or principles on how meetings are conducted. There should be a clear goal for each meeting, which could be in the form of an agenda but also a more informal goal is fine. The point is that something should move forward as a result of the meeting. Other general principles is that people speak for themselves, stick to only commenting work-related issues in a constructive manner and voices are not raised. Everyone should be allowed to point out if people start to slip away from these principles.
  • Create a structure that assists in bringing forth different points of view. For example, this can be done by dividing people up in smaller groups and asking people to come up with some number of pros and cons regarding what you’re talking about. These don’t have to reflect their individual opinions, but can bring forth important considerations.
  • When you’re one of the participants, it is your right to have your say and to have your thoughts heard. Don’t forget that. However, remember that this is not most effectively done by raising your voice. Instead, try suggesting a way to get everyone’s thoughts on the table - like listing pros and cons like mentioned above, looking at different possible scenarios that the plans could lead to, or another way of focusing on improving the plans. If it feels too difficult to ask for this in the meeting, talk to the person calling the meeting next time one is planned and see if you can create a structure for the next meeting. After all, useless meeting are just that - useless and a waste of valuable time.

If meetings have been useless for a while, it can take time to improve them. Start with small steps and allow people time to adjust. Comment on progress if there is progress to be seen. And if you really feel like you have tried everything and nothing seems to help, it may be a good idea to seek feedback and advice from an outsider. This could be a colleague in a similar position, your manager, someone in HR or even an outside coach or mentor. Perhaps one of our Coachademy coaches can help you!

About Mari Järvinen

I’m a psychologist (MSc), currently specialising in work and organisational psychology. For 10 years, I’ve been working with the most intriguing, complex and varied workplace issues you can ever imagine. All the good things: work engagement, flow, innovation, creativity, leadership, teamwork...but also the dark side: conflicts, problems, stress, incivility and even bullying.

Currently I’m living in Amsterdam and getting immersed in the wonderful, innovative and exciting world of startups - learning about them and also volunteering to help great businesses grow and avoid some of the pitfalls along the way. Writing this blog is a part of my collaboration with Coachademy, who were kind enough to invite me to work at their office for a few hours per week. I will cover different topics depending on what pops into my mind, so let me know if there are specific topics you would like me to write about! I hope you enjoy reading it!