7 Ways to Ruin Your Meeting

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 25, 2012

Meetings really have a bad image. It’s not surprising since often they are too long, there’s no clear plan, too many people are invited and they dominate our work schedules. “Too many meetings” was the No. 1 time-waster at the office, cited by 47% of 3,164 workers in a recent Salary.com study. Research shows that most businesspeople spend the equivalent of one day per week in meetings and CEOs spend up to 60% of their time in meetings. In my travels, I think this is understated.

Aren’t meetings supposed to be a meaningful conversation between a few people to get something done, make a decision or create a new idea? Conversations on teaming, collaboration and brainstorming all bring enthusiasm, but when you talk about the “meeting” where this brilliance happens, the story changes. Maybe meetings need some rebranding help. Or maybe the people who lead and participate in the meetings are to blame.

I recently contributed to a Wall Street Journal article that identified the meeting killers, such as the naysayer, the dominator or the rambler. These characters definitely have to be reckoned with, yet we can be our own worst enemy.

If you are using any of these techniques, you are probably hosting bad meetings:

1. Not sure the meeting is needed, but you have it anyway. The pre-programmed meeting is the worst culprit. Someone set it up as a monthly meeting last year and there it is on your calendar. You have no obvious decision or action to take, but it might look bad to cancel so you soldier on.

2. Have a meeting when a short conversation between two people is enough. Not every issue requires a group discussion or decision. If Allison and Rob can talk for 15 minutes and reach a decision, then make that happen and tell them you want to be the first to know.

3. Invite anyone who is remotely involved. Many meetings are sunk by “let’s include John—he’s been involved in this” or “Karen may be able to add something.” As the invite list gets longer, the likelihood of frank, open discussion gets smaller. Ask the decision makers and only those who need to be there. Give the uninvited the gift of time.

4. Have no agenda. This is a great way to create a ‘free for all’ as everyone resorts to their own personal agendas. Think about it ahead of time, not as you are walking in or dialing the number. Know the steps to get to your outcome and tell everyone what they are. Then, it’s a lot easier when you tell the group that ‘while that is a fascinating topic, it will have to wait for another day.’

5. Have no one responsible for facilitating the meeting. This can be you or ask someone to play this role. Even if you know the three topics to cover, if no one is keeping the group on track and managing the clock, the chances of you just covering one of three skyrockets. And this esteemed facilitator makes sure that the agreed actions and owners are confirmed at the end.

6. Spend your first 15 minutes accommodating your late arrivers. This is the true time waster of waiting and waiting until more people arrive or get on the call. “We’ll wait just a few more minutes for people to arrive.” Or every time a new person joins (late) replaying what the people who got there on time have already heard. Regardless of the reason for someone arriving late, don’t let their delay move from their problem to the group’s problem. Also, this trains everyone to arrive late because you can be.

7. Look the other way on multitasking. If everyone in your meeting has their laptops open doing other work while half listening to the discussion, you’ve got a problem. They don’t see the meeting as critical, they don’t respect you and/or the group will revisit topics multiple times to accommodate those getting every third word. If you are in person or on teleconference, ask for some attention for a more effective—and faster—meeting if everyone stays in the game.

You know you’ll have enough challenges with the personalities in attendance, changing business priorities and conflicts with other events, so do your part. You, too, can learn how to conduct a great meeting—but please make it quick.

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.