Co-workers wander off topic, send texts, disrupt decision-making or behave in other dysfunctional ways. Even the best leaders can resort to desperate measures to keep the discussion on track: chocolate rewards, Elmo dolls and ice-cold rooms.
Multitasking at meetings is such a given that unless a leader sets a “no devices” rule or schedules “tech breaks,” nearly everyone texts or sneaks a peek at email during meetings. And yet, that is nothing compared with real sabotage.
Naysayers are the ones who “whatever you bring up, it will never work,” says Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate-training company in Atlanta. One of her strategies is to take serial naysayers to lunch before meetings to let them vent and try to reach agreement. Once the meeting begins, she sets ground rules, requiring anyone who complains also to offer a solution.
Another problem personality is the silent plotter, Ms. Brownlee says. “They may be the quiet person sitting in back, but as soon as the meeting is over, they’re over there by the Coke machine, planning your demise,” she says. She makes a point of calling on plotters during meetings to try to draw out their feedback.
And for the toughest offenders, ramblers, Ms. Brownlee sometimes puts an Elmo doll in the center of the meeting table and tells participants, “Anytime anybody in the session thinks we’re getting off track, pick up the Elmo doll.” This allows co-workers to express frustration without interrupting, she says.
Brenna Smith still talks about her big meeting victory. She was making a slide presentation to her new boss and 10 colleagues several years ago when, mid-sentence, a co-worker stood up and walked toward the front of the room, arguing that her ideas wouldn’t work.
To show that she could hold her ground, Ms. Smith says, she returned fire. “I think you’re making a really good point,” she told the interrupter, “but I want to finish what I’m saying first so we can talk about my ideas, and then we can talk about yours if we have time.”
The room fell silent. The co-worker retreated to his seat. He never got time to make his case and her proposal was adopted, says Ms. Smith, founder and chief executive of SheNow.org, a website for women.
People who ramble can be equally disruptive. Samir Penkar, a Minneapolis project-management consultant, was running daily meetings among 20 employees at an insurance company last year when two participants kept taking the conversation off-track. So, he started bringing in chocolates. Whenever either “started their rambling, I handed them a chocolate,” he says.
He repeated the tactic six times over two weeks until the employees learned to stick to the agenda.
To keep a meeting moving, leaders sometimes set aside time early in the discussion for naysayers to voice objections and challenges, and then direct the group to shift gears and focus on making a decision, says Patti Johnson, chief executive of PeopleResults, a Dallas-based career and workplace consulting firm.
Illustrations by M.K. Perker
In a meeting she attended several years ago, co-workers were close to reaching consensus on a new project, Ms. Johnson says. Then, a senior manager blew it all up.
“She asked a question that was almost impossible to answer,” Ms. Johnson says. “It threw the speaker off balance.” Several of the manager’s 15 frustrated co-workers asked, “Why are you bringing this up at this point? Shouldn’t you have raised this earlier?” she says. But the naysayer’s objection was enough to stall the project—an outcome that seemed to please her.
With advances in technology and an emphasis on efficiency, the office should be running more smoothly than ever. Meetings are supposed to be a time of creative problem-solving, where the best ideas emerge. Yet even some of the best managers can’t seem to run them.
Office workers spend four hours a week in meetings on average—and they regard more than half of that time as wasted, according to a British study of 1,000 employees released last week by Opinion Matters, a London market-research company, for Epson, a maker of office printers and projectors, and the Centre for Economics and Business Research, an economic consulting firm.
“Too many meetings” was the No. 1 time-waster at the office, cited by 47% of 3,164 workers in a separate study by career site Salary.com this year on workplace time drains. That is up from 42% in 2008, when meetings tied for third place with “waiting for a co-worker to finish something you need.” (No. 1 was “fixing someone else’s work” and No. 2 was “dealing with office politics.”)
Ad-agency executive Bill Shelton acknowledges that he and others in his profession “have a way of drawing out meetings, grandstanding and trying to command attention. Part of your job is to sell your work, which you do in a meeting,” he says. To keep meetings from dragging on, his boss at a former employer positioned the conference table in his office right under the air-conditioning vents.
Illustrations by M.K. Perker
The Quiet Plotter: CRIME: Practices passive-aggressive insubordination. MODUS OPERANDI: Remains quiet at meetings; later undermines bosses and decisions. LEVEL: First degree nuisance.
“About an hour before the meeting, he would crank down the thermostat to about 50 degrees,” then tell employees as they arrived to “leave your sweater at the door,” says Mr. Shelton, now president of Left Field Creative, a St. Louis ad agency
“We had the most efficient, productive meetings in history, because everyone got down to business. We simply wanted to get out of the ‘walk-in freezer.’ ”
Get More Done
Advice from executives, meeting planners and trainers on productive meetings:
•Set a clear agenda.
•Impose a ‘no devices’ rule or schedule periodic tech breaks for email, texts and phone calls.
•Redirect people back to the agenda when they ramble or digress.
•Draw out quiet people by asking them in advance for a specific contribution.
•Do a ’round robin,’ when appropriate, to allow everyone to contribute.
•Ask early for objections to keep them from derailing discussions later.
•Limit the length of slide presentations.
•Interrupt people who talk too long or talk to each other.
•Set an ending time for the meeting and stick to it.
A version of this article appeared May 16, 2012, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Meet the Meeting Killers.
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