Smart people endure boring meetings. Why?

Meetings are pretty useful for collaborative work, but they are rife with problems. Despite this, we have too many, suffer through boring ones, and need therapy after excruciating ones. We get caught too often in a groundhog day cycle of same people, same topic, just different day.

In their Harvard Business Review article Ashley Whillans, Dave Feldman and Damian Wisniewski reckon that, despite managers in one survey saying that 83% of their meetings were unproductive, there are a few reasons why we just can’t seem to break the meeting habit.

  1. Meeting FOMO – we’ll be judged or forgotten about if we don’t attend everything. This is part of that real productivity killer ‘presenteeism’. Organisers as well as participants can feel this. Time to stop inviting everyone to everything, and to decline most of the meetings you get invited to.
  1. Selfish Urgency – leaders schedule meetings when it suits them without considering what may or may not suit their team. I had a recent example of this – a leader whose team members had declared ‘no meeting Wednesdays’ was taking this as an opportunity to make her meetings with them then.
  1. Meetings as Commitment Devices – all too often this punishes those who have met their goals rather than motivates those who haven’t. There are better ways to keep people motivated to achieve their deadlines.
  1. Mere Urgency – When we’re busy, attending meetings can help us feel like we’re getting something done. Recurring meetings often create this kind of trap – it seems easier to have the meeting that to figure out what to do instead.
  1. Meeting Amnesia – This is a part of the groundhog day effect – without the right kind of follow-up and accountability we forgot what we did last time.
  1. Pluralistic Ignorance – we’re all experiencing the same thing but assume others aren’t – they almost certainly are. If you’re wondering why you’re there, so are they. If you think it’s a waste of time, so do they. Perhaps it’s time for some meeting feedback?

Here are my five ways to make meetings more dynamic and interesting, and get work done.

I have recently worked with executive teams where there is a distinct lack of appetite for meetings. Everyone agrees that team meetings are pretty boring, and some feel they are a complete waste of time. Team meetings lack compelling agendas and the most important and difficult issues that the organization faces are not on the table to be addressed.

The teams are characterized by a low level of trust, and this means that the foundation for effectively discussing the tougher, meaningful issues is absent. In two different teams, this means they engage in polite but tangential discussion giving the appearance of harmony, while in the other, the behaviour is more destructive, with time-wasting petty bickering and frequent lack of agreement.

Diagram quote "Why we are still overloaded with meetings when we know they don't work"


1. Prepare Well – sounds obvious, but with many competing commitments, it’s easy to just turn up for meetings. However, as much time needs to be spent preparing for and taking action after meetings, so make sure you do the prep. If you’re just turning up, there’s something wrong going on.

What’s the meeting’s purpose, is there a compelling agenda that is worth the time of all the talent in the room?

Is there an alternate way that issues could be resolved? Use that instead.

What’s the agenda? Let people know what and how they are expected to contribute during the meeting. What does everyone need to know in advance in order to sensibly contribute during the meeting?

Who’s required for the meeting? Is it critical that everyone is here? Can everyone make a full and frank contribution to the items on the agenda.

2. Fit for Purpose – having set the meeting agenda and prepared advance papers, what kind of meeting is required? And how long will it take? Meetings should take only as long as they need, try walking meetings instead of sitting meetings when only two or three people are involved, and choose the location to fit the topic.

3. Manage the Conversation – once the right people are in the room, how do you manage divergent perspectives, styles and needs to achieve a valuable outcome? Here are some conversational tactics that might help:

  • Take the role of chair seriously, even if it’s shared across all group members. Keep the conversation focused, open up to options, and work to resolution.
  • Ensure turn taking, that is, everyone gets the opportunity to contribute their ideas and perspectives. It’s a key part of collective intelligence, and might happen naturally, but then again, might need some help.
  • Encourage empathy and the ability of team members to tune in to others’ perspectives and pay respectful attention. Eye contact is important.
  • Cultivate a culture where difficult conversations aren’t so hard – show appreciation, open up and be inclusive are key to designing such a culture. Make sure there’s the right culture to allow you to have the tougher conversations and get to the heart of challenges.
  • Call-out dominance and power-plays that serve narrow interests.

4. Self-manage – manage your own engagement wisely:

Rely on your executive presence – come in to meetings expecting to contribute value.

Stay mindful – project a relaxed, calm demeanour; keep your conversation focused and to the point.  Be sincere, that’s the heart of trust.

5. Act! – there’s no point having the meeting if things don’t get done, right?

Make sure that actions are recorded.  Make commitments transparent.

Agree on how actions will be communicated to others and who takes that responsibility.


Book a call with me today to find out more about how executive coaching can help you to align with your purpose and values, focus on doing what matters most, and influence with great impact.

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