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The Real Reasons Meetings Fail

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The day after a massive layoff, an executive scheduled a meeting with the talent remaining in his organization. At the meeting he said, “You were retained because you are the best of the best. You don’t have to fear that you’ll be laid off.” He then ended the meeting.

The individuals at the meeting never looked at each other but each one went away stewing. Did the manager appreciate that he was insulting their friends and coworkers who had been laid off? Did he think the best of the best would simply accept his word about their safety? What would happen to them when the organization got rid of all but the best of the best of the best? 

This meeting went awry for three reasons: the manager chose his message without consulting with the people affected by it; no one was encouraged to speak up; and the purpose of the meeting—to compliment and keep the remaining staff inspired—ignored basic facts.

Most complaints about meetings center on the lack of an agenda; but, in truth, most meetings fail because of bad analysis of the situation, insufficient preparation, and poor communication. In fact, according to some research, executives judge 67% of meetings to be failures.

How do you ensure that your meeting isn’t one of them?

Know the Situation before the Meeting

Most meetings are held in response to a situation: a project must be organized, a change has to be announced, an occasion must be recognized, a decision needs to be made, a goal needs to be set, an individual requires feedback or motivation, and so on. Deciding how to handle a meeting requires a degree of emotional intelligence, as well as an ability to objectively analyze the situation. 

At the very least, you need to know why you have called the meeting and whether it is absolutely necessary. Make sure that:

  • A meeting is the best alternative. If the situation is extremely time-sensitive or urgent, a faster means of communication (for example, a phone call) should probably be considered. If the participants have conflicting schedules, email may be more effective.
  • The meeting must involve other people—if you can handle it yourself or with a quick delegation, the meeting probably isn’t needed.
  • You have a clear agenda that fits in the time available—if you aren’t certain why a meeting is being called, what you want to happen, or how long it will take, don’t call it.

Prepare for the Meeting

Facts make any meeting better. Before you start a meeting, make sure you:

    • Select your audience. Who absolutely needs to be at the meeting? According to research at Wharton, the optimum meeting size varies from 5 to 12, depending on the task, the people involved, and the prior experience of the individual in working as a team. 
    • Know your goal: decision making, dividing tasks, informing, convincing?
  • Know the priorities and concerns of the group; are you prepared to address them?
  • Have the facts to back up any statements you make. You will have problems getting others to change and keeping them motivated if you rely solely on direct order.

Communicate before, during, and after the Meeting

The least productive meetings are those in which one person speaks and the others either gather fodder for resentment or tune out. That scenario is most likely when there is a lack of purpose, poor communication, and poor follow-up. For a productive meeting:

  • Send out the agenda ahead of time.
  • Know your audience. If someone invited states that the meeting is outside their area of expertise or interest, either find out why or strike them from the meeting—one disengaged person can doom a meeting.
  • Set a reasonable but flexible time limit; you don’t want to quit just as the best ideas and energy are flowing.
  • Make sure you have the right technology to support a videoconference or conference call before you start.
  • Encourage participation during the meeting without letting anyone hog the meeting or feel ignored.
  • Engage in listening; face-to-face communication needs to be two-way.
  • Make sure notes are taken and distributed quickly to every participant.
  • Follow up. Let everyone know what happens as a result of the meeting in a timely matter.

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