13 tips for spotting and solving bad meetings

13 tips for spotting and solving bad meetings
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In our survey report, The State of Meetings, we found that off-topic conversations are the biggest meeting challenge for many meeting-goers, followed by one person dominating the conversation and a lack of clear next steps. Unsurprisingly, these challenges contribute to workers’ nightmares everywhere: a bad meeting.

Bad meetings are such a drag that respondents would rather engage in the following activities before having to attend one:

And as important as going to the dentist is, reducing the number of bad meetings in the workplace is a vision we can get behind. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • What makes a bad meeting
  • Reasons bad meetings occur and how to spot them
  • How to solve them 
  • Tips for running more effective meetings 

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What is a bad meeting?

Bad meetings vary, but most would agree that a bad meeting is an unproductive waste of time workers could have spent doing productive work. Bad meetings waste time, energy, resources, and money. And, they negatively impact morale. 

During a bad meeting, team members might appear distracted, uninterested, bored, or disengaged from the conversation. Workers who leave a bad meeting may report feeling drained, annoyed, or frustrated. 

According to Harvard Business Review, “Poorly run meetings contribute to employee dissatisfaction, drain cognitive bandwidth, and cost organizations billions.”

5 ways to spot bad meetings 

No one intentionally sets out to hold a bad meeting. There are many reasons for bad meetings, and sometimes many factors add up. Below are five ways to spot bad meetings and the warning signs to watch for:

1. The meeting agenda is poor or missing 

No agenda is never a good sign. If you’re invited to a meeting and don’t receive an agenda, or it’s rather vague, run the other direction! Seriously, though, if a meeting organizer doesn’t prepare an agenda, there’s a good chance they will come unprepared for the meeting and may not be clear on their desired outcomes. 

Without an agenda, attendees will show up unprepared, feel confused about the purpose of the meeting, and can quickly derail conversations. Our friends at Fellow live by the motto, “No agenda, no attenda.” It’s a solid reminder that agendas should be mandatory when asking team members for their time. Next time a team member invites you to a meeting without an agenda, ask the meeting organizer if an agenda exists, and if not, consider whether your attendance is mandatory.

2. People aren’t participating or seem checked out 

If you notice meeting attendees working on other tasks, responding to emails, or messaging other colleagues on Slack, this is a sign of a bad meeting. The same goes if you ask for input or feedback and everyone in the room stares at you in silence. 

In some cases, virtual meeting participants may express their lack of interest by turning off their cameras (but not always!), working on a second screen, or even leaving the meeting running while they get up and do something else. Setting expectations and developing a shared understanding of proper meeting etiquette are important so that attendees participate and stay engaged. 

3. A subset of attendees dominate the meeting

Meetings include a group of attendees for a reason, and if you aren’t hearing from all attendees or a subset of them are dominating the conversation, you might be in a bad meeting. Everyone should feel comfortable and encouraged to share their opinions and feedback during a meeting. Discussing topics through different lenses and perspectives leads to the best, most representative outcomes and supports team members in knowing that their workplace hears their voices.

4. It starts late or runs over

As a meeting organizer or facilitator, punctuality shows others that you respect their time and vice versa. If a meeting starts late, runs over its scheduled block, or both, it can be frustrating and disrespectful to everyone involved. We aren’t talking about the occasional meeting that runs over due to great conversation and exchange of ideas, but rather, recurring poor punctuality. If you are the meeting host, try to start and end your meetings on time, even if some participants are running late. 

5. Next steps are unclear

If you attend a meeting and leave feeling uncertain about the next steps and what others can expect from you, consider the meeting a bad one. Unless the meeting was strictly informational (and if it was, it probably should have been an email), there should be some closure. This could be a consensus, list of action items, and/or follow-up meeting to continue conversations. 

Investing time in meetings should offer an outcome. And if the next steps were unattainable, there’s a chance the meeting purpose wasn’t specific or detailed enough to reach the desired result. 

4 ways to solve bad meetings 

Bad meetings don’t have to be the norm for your organization. Follow these four best practices to solve and prevent bad meetings.

1. Prepare and send an agenda

Let meeting participants know what they’re getting into by preparing and sending a clear agenda well ahead of time. You can customize your agenda for the size of the meeting and the audience, but it should always be specific enough to facilitate and guide the conversation. No matter what type of meeting you’re conducting, the first question is, “What is the purpose of this meeting?” Said differently, “What are the outcomes I hope to achieve by the end of this meeting?”

You can create your agenda once you know how to answer these questions. A recurring agenda template with repeated questions and bullet points may suffice for a regular a one-on-one

Consider creating a collaborative agenda for a larger team meeting and allowing others to add topics or key points they want to discuss. 

Pro-tip: Add the agenda to the meeting invitation for easy reference. Start every meeting by sharing the outcomes you’re trying to achieve in addition to a brief overview of the agenda to align meeting participants from the get-go.

2. Start and end on time

Be courteous and respectful of others’ time by starting and ending meetings on time. As the meeting facilitator, show up a few minutes early to settle in and get set up. That way, you can dive right in. Pay attention to the clock and ensure you wrap up your meeting on time, even if you cannot get through all of the items on the agenda. It’s better to end on time and allow others to get on with their day than to keep them and interfere with the rest of their schedules.

Speaking of time, Clockwise can help you find the best time to meet with your teammates.

3. Foster participation through interactive sessions

As the meeting facilitator, you should avoid “talking at” participants and instead talk to them. Ask them questions and seek their input. 

When planning your meeting, consider how you can foster and encourage participation to ensure attendees stay focused. For example, if you’re conducting a team brainstorm, use a virtual whiteboard collaboration tool like Miro or MURAL, which allows teams to collaborate together in real-time. 

If you’re hoping to reach a consensus at the end of a meeting, let participants know early on that you’ll be asking them to vote and that they may want to take notes to help make a better-informed decision.

4. Save time at the end of the meeting to discuss the next steps

As part of your agenda, build in five to ten minutes at the end of the meeting to discuss the next steps. Including time for closure on the agenda can help ensure the meeting stays on topic and follows a specified schedule. If you aren’t confident that you’ll be able to reserve the last few minutes of the meeting, use a free meeting timer like this one from EasyRetro.

How you approach this part of the meeting will vary depending on the type of meeting. For one-on-one meetings, it might be helpful to review the next steps or action items allowed and confirm commitment from both meeting attendees. At the end of a larger team meeting, consider reviewing action items by smaller groups or departments. Always discuss when the next meeting (if there is one) will take place. And send a follow-up email to meeting participants post-meeting with the next steps.

4 tips for how to run an effective meeting

Whether you’re looking to improve your role as a meeting leader or want to know how to run an effective meeting to share tips with your teams, look no further. You can adopt a few practices to run an effective meeting every time.

Before we share our secrets with you, you should pause and determine if a meeting is necessary. You may need to hold a meeting to brainstorm, discuss and resolve a complex issue, or reach a solution by a deadline. If you’re sharing status updates and can do so asynchronously, we recommend trying that first and offering a follow-up meeting if needed.

If you’re still reading, you’ve determined a meeting is necessary! Let’s make it as effective as possible. Follow these four tips:

1. Own your role as the meeting leader

As the meeting leader, you are responsible for organizing and scheduling the meeting, providing an agenda, and creating a vision for how you’ll spend the meeting time together. That’s not to say you have to work as a one-person show; you can pull in others as needed. Some tasks might include:

  • Establish a clear purpose and desired outcomes
  • Sending out a calendar invitation (or working with an assistant to schedule the meeting
  • Creating an agenda document
  • Asking meeting attendees to contribute to the agenda by a specific date 
  • Preparing pre-read materials 
  • Acting as the meeting facilitator or asking someone else 
  • Acting as the meeting notetaker or asking someone else
  • Sending out a post-meeting recap 

Below is a template you can customize and use to ask others to assist with your meeting:

Hello [Name],

I scheduled a meeting with [XYZ teams on mm/dd at hh:mm]. Hopefully, you saw the invitation come through, but please let me know if you haven’t received it. If you’re open to it, I’d love to request your assistance and see if you’d be willing to [take notes during the meeting]. This would include [capturing discussion points and action items]. Is that something you might be able to help me with? I’d greatly appreciate it.

Best,

[Name]

2. Make sure you have the right people in the room

Ensuring the right people —  no more or less —  are in the meeting room is an art. While it might seem thoughtful to include team members for visibility, other ways to provide visibility (like sending out a recap email) don’t include inviting a laundry list of attendees. 

According to Bain & Company, any group size larger than seven individuals reduces its decision effectiveness by 10%. Yes, sometimes it will be necessary to have more than seven people in the room. Still, it’s essential to consider which participants are vital to achieving your goals. Harvard Business Review (HBR) also emphasized that the most productive meetings have fewer than eight people.

Not sure who needs to attend your meeting? Ask yourself the following:

  • What is the minimum number of people I need to achieve my desired outcomes? Who are those people?
  • Are there teammates who don’t need to attend the meeting but who you should inform after the meeting? Who are those people? How will I relay this information to them?
  • Are there individuals who you should add as optional?
  • If I’m inviting multiple people from the same department, can one person represent their entire team instead?

3. Establish proper etiquette and meeting ground rules

Set standards for your meeting and lay the ground rules to ensure all attendees are on the same page. Some examples include:

  • Ditch unnecessary electronics, or no phones allowed 
  • Tackle the topic as one team - be willing to listen to others’ views without criticism and judgment
  • Actively listen to all members of the room 
  • Ask questions for clarification by raising your hand (in-person and virtually) 
  • For virtual meetings or remote participants, keep cameras on and mute unless speaking
  • Commit to action through verbal agreements

4. Ask for feedback, implement it, and improve your role

To improve your skills as an effective meeting host:

  • Ask for feedback from those who attend your meetings.
  • Find out what worked, what you could have done better, and ask for recommendations to implement before the next meeting if there’s a follow-up.
  • Don’t allow your meetings to become stale.
  • Seek to constantly improve them, find new ways to engage others, and strengthen your ability to achieve a meeting’s intended outcomes.

Go forth and have a good meeting

Workers despise bad meetings that make them feel drained, confused, annoyed, and frustrated. Missing agendas, lack of participation, and unclear next steps contribute to bad meetings. Running an effective meeting includes taking ownership as a meeting leader, inviting the right people, establishing ground rules, and asking for feedback.

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes on a productivity and career-related topics for Insider, Clockwise, G2 and other publications.

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