How to Set Meeting Ground Rules
What’s the difference between a chaotic, ineffective, energy-draining meeting and an organized, productive, revitalizing one? The participants in the latter are likely operating under a shared set of meeting ground rules.
Meetings are expensive enough as it is, so it’s essential to make the most of our time together. We’ve swapped ground rules that outline classroom conduct (e.g., raise your hand if you have a question, ask to go to the restroom, or turn off the lights if you’re the last one out) for ground rules to help us conduct better meetings.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- What ground rules are
- Why ground rules are essential and effective
- 8 meeting ground rule ideas (with tips on how to reap the most benefits!)
What are ground rules for effective meetings?
The most effective and productive meetings do not result from pure magic and luck (although, wouldn’t that be nice)? The best meetings follow ground rules, sometimes called meeting norms, shared expectations, or team meeting agreements.
No matter the term, ground rules consist of shared and agreed-upon standards or guidelines for conducting a meeting. They’re straightforward practices that all team members should know and agree to before entering a meeting room. Ground rules provide consistency and mutual agreements to help run a meeting as smoothly and productively as possible for optimal success.
8 meeting ground rules ideas
Setting meeting ground rules might seem complicated at first, but rest assured; it’s easier than it might seem. You might already implement meeting ground rules without realizing it! If you’re unsure where to start or if there are a few essential meeting norms, consider the ideas below. Most, if not all, teams will find value in these general guidelines.
1. Distribute the meeting agenda in advance
Few things in life are more anxiety-inducing than walking to a meeting unprepared, with little-to-no awareness of the discussion topics or expectations. Not only can this speak fear for meeting attendees, but it also doesn’t benefit the meeting host if participants show up unprepared to fulfill the needs of the meeting.
One meeting ground rule that benefits everyone involved is to create and distribute the meeting agenda in advance. (If a meeting agenda doesn’t exist, we have even bigger problems.) By sharing the meeting agenda ahead of time, participants can review the purpose of the meeting and prepare content and thoughts so they arrive fully prepared.
Consider the following as part of this ground rule:
- Ensuring the meeting host sends the agenda out at least 24 hours before the meeting
- Outlining the intended outcomes of the meeting in the agenda (Is it a broad discussion? Does the team need to make decisions?)
- Clarify whether team members need to bring any prepared materials to the meeting (e.g., prepare a brief slide deck to present during the session)
2. Create an inclusive and welcoming space for all meeting attendees
Creating an open meeting environment is essential if you want to make the most out of your time together during a meeting. All attendees should feel comfortable contributing ideas, asking questions, and engaging in the conversation. It’s not enough to invite people to the meeting and assume they feel included.
Expand on this ground rule by starting the meeting with an overview of meeting norms. Some examples include the following:
- Try not to interrupt others and share only when someone finishes speaking
- Dare to disagree, but respect others’ thoughts and opinions
- Critique ideas, not people
- Don’t dominate the conversation, and give everyone a chance to speak
3. Designate someone to take meeting notes and track action items
No matter what type of meeting you are conducting, a good meeting facilitator should designate a note-taker to capture discussion topics and action items before the meeting. When hopping between meetings and crossing items off to-do lists, it’s easy to forget what you and your team discussed and agreed upon if no one writes things down.
Instead of wasting time pinging team members on Slack or trying to recall specific next steps, consider capturing these items during the meeting and sharing them immediately following the meeting.
Pro-tip: Wrap up the meeting with three to five minutes left to discuss and agree upon action items and task owners, so everyone leaves the meeting on time and with clarity.
4. Stay on topic (and redirect when necessary)
Meeting agendas exist for a reason and time is valuable, which is why it’s essential to enforce a ground rule that holds all attendees accountable for staying on topic. It’s not uncommon for conversations to veer off in different directions as participants bring new ideas and considerations forward. But without this ground rule, attendees may feel they wasted their time or didn’t accomplish the purpose of the meeting.
For maximum effectiveness, try designating a specific person to redirect off-topic conversations and let all attendees know who that person is at the beginning of the meeting. This can help ensure that all participants are held accountable, and one person doesn’t receive more leeway to engage in off-topic conversations than others.
5. Cancel a meeting with plenty of notice
Nobody likes it when others waste their time, but meetings sometimes need to be canceled or postponed for various reasons. When you invite others to a meeting, you’re asking them to put in the time to prepare, read or contribute to the agenda and be ready to contribute to the discussion.
A lot goes into conducting and participating in successful meetings, which is why a great ground rule is to cancel a meeting with advanced notice. This conveys to the team that you respect their time and don’t want them to do unnecessary work for no reason.
Pro-tip: Set time constraints around your cancellation rule. For example, consider encouraging enforcing four or more hours notice for cancellations.
6. Mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking during virtual meetings
Virtual meetings can be challenging, especially when there are a lot of meeting attendees. Laggy internet connections, noisy spouses and children, active pets, doorbells, deliveries, and more can make it challenging for meeting participants to focus and distract the rest of the virtual meeting room. A quick and easy ground rule is to mute microphones unless you are speaking during virtual meetings.
Pro-tip: Ask all attendees to doublecheck their microphones before kicking off the meeting with an icebreaker just in case someone might’ve missed the “mute” button.
7. Be mentally and physically present during in-person meetings
If you’ve ever thought about your lingering to-do list, groceries you need to purchase, upcoming weekend plans, or anything in between during a meeting, you aren’t alone. Many thoughts can distract us from actively participating in meetings, which is why it can be helpful to set a ground rule to commit to presence, mentally and physically, during meetings. This includes shutting down distracting thoughts, engaging as an active listener, closing tabs and windows, and fighting the temptation to send a Slack, text, or start a side conversation during a meeting.
Pro-tip: Spend the first few minutes of a meeting asking meeting attendees to “dump their thoughts” and write down what’s on their minds so they can return to it after the meeting.
8. Wrap up a meeting before it runs over
Set a ground rule that encourages wrapping up meetings on time (or, better yet, early!) Never assume that team members are okay with sticking in a meeting longer than the allotted time, especially in meeting-heavy settings.
While this might sound easy, it requires ensuring the team covers action items and the next steps before the meeting’s scheduled end time. Some ground rules above (like distributing the agenda in advance and staying on topic) can help ensure meetings end on time or wrap up a few minutes early.
Whether or not the ground rules above are a good fit for you and your team, all teams can adopt some ground rules to improve their meetings.
Ground rules are shared and agreed-upon standards that all team members follow before, during, and after meetings to improve the overall meeting experience. Distributing the meeting agenda in advance, staying on topic (and redirecting when necessary), and wrapping up a meeting on time (or early) are some examples you can implement right away.