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Surefire Tips for Taming Meeting Monsters

You've planned a meeting for two months and finally all the key players are here—well, all except for the ones who are late! Still, all you have to do is work through the agenda and get a decision made. Your dream project then will be on its way.

Suddenly, disaster strikes as strong “personalities” come into play. Before you know it, your meeting is bogged down, your agenda is out the window, and you’re left watching the likelihood of your project dwindle away.

Your meeting is a casualty of “meeting monsters”—certain people with the knack for disrupting, distracting, and disintegrating potentially great meetings. These folks are often well-intentioned, but they wouldn’t know meeting etiquette if it hit them on the head.

Let us introduce you to some specific meeting monsters and offer some help in coping with them.

Larry Late. Larry always has an excuse for being late. “An important client called at the last second!” “I had to put out a fire!” Larry believes that being late proves he’s very important. Not so. Instead, Larry’s continual tardiness is seen as a sign of his unprofessionalism.

Quick Tip: The best defense is a great offense. State explicitly in your meeting invite that everyone should plan on being a few minutes early so they don’t hold things up. Next, leave a firm voicemail message for Larry letting him know that you need him to play a crucial role at the start of the meeting and that it would be quite embarrassing if he were to miss his chance to shine. Build that role into your agenda and watch Larry not only arrive on time but several minutes ahead of schedule looking sharp and ready to rock.

Ernie the E-mailer. Ernie spends most meetings huddled over his PDA doing the BlackBerry Prayer. During virtual meetings, you can hear him clacking away on e-mail, cheerfully ignoring one important issue after another.  What Ernie doesn’t know is that a recent survey conducted by infoexcellence.com indicates that 78% of all professionals consider this behavior really annoying!

Quick Tip: When the meeting starts, ask people to “TTO”—Turn Technology Off—and focus on the discussion. Designate a scribe so that Ernie can’t use the old “I’m taking notes” excuse.  Upgrade teleconferences to Web meetings to make it harder for Ernie and others like him to disappear into their inboxes. During virtual Web meetings, let participants use the chat box to chime in whenever they like.  This will keep Ernie and his ilk off of Twitter and focused on the business at hand.  

Henrietta the HPPO. Every meeting has a HPPO. That’s the Highest Paid Person Onboard (HPPO), and her opinion counts twice as much as everyone else’s. Since other participants will try to accommodate Henrietta’s every whim, her casual suggestions may turn into lengthy tangents.

Quick Tip: Head off HPPOmania by quickly reviewing a list of the impractical or impossible options that your team has eliminated in prior meetings. This will focus the discussion on areas of real importance, helping the HPPO save face and perhaps contribute some much needed wisdom to your initiative.

Ted Tangent. Ted is a brilliant guy but he loves to derail your meeting with an endless stream of “What if?” and “How about this?” diversions. You end up talking about everything except the crucial issues facing your team.

Quick Tip: Empower team members to ask the following question when things are getting off track: Is this new topic more important and urgent than the current agenda items? In most cases, the answer to the question will be obvious: Heck no! If you keep doing this, Ted eventually will begin to filter his off-the-wall ideas and your meetings will be much more productive.

Dr. No.  This meeting member loves to say no. For some reason, he can’t seem to agree on the course of action outlined by the group. Where the team sees opportunity with little risk, he sees disaster and the end of the world as we know it.

Quick Tip: Listen carefully to Dr. No. Usually there is a grain of truth in his negative responses. If you feel that he’s playing the devil’s advocate only to drive you bananas, then pause the meeting and ask, “Gee, it seems like you have some real misgivings about the direction we’re considering. Do you feel there is absolutely no way this can work?” In most cases, Dr. No will back off a bit when asked to define his skepticism in such stark terms. Use this opening to ask him what would work and you will at least be moving in the right direction. Finally, if Dr. No won’t budge, put the suggestion to a vote and move on.

Terry the Talkaholic. Terry is afraid of closure. Moving to the next agenda item is scary for her. She can always think of a way to sidetrack the discussion. So she cycles around and around stalling your meeting while everyone wonders, “Why am I here?”

Quick Tip: Use GEPO to break the cycle and stay on track. GEPO stands for Good Enough Press On. Agree with the team that any agenda item that has morphed from “well done” to “burnt toast” will trigger a call of “GEPO” from team members. Just discussing this technique will reinforce the importance of focusing on problems and then moving forward. As a result, you’ll get more done.

Silence of the Sams. It’s as though Sam’s mouth is glued shut. Like a clam he won’t ask questions, respond to comments, or even laugh at jokes. If you have a bunch of Sams in your meeting, be prepared to carry the conversational load. But here’s the hitch. Silent Sam is really smart and probably has some great ideas that would help the team move forward.

Quick Tip: Give Sam a speaking role. For example, at the beginning of the meeting have Sam review the action items from the last meeting. Once he begins to talk, encourage him by asking him for his input a little later. Step by step he will begin to contribute and everyone on your team will benefit.

So, managing your meeting monsters effectively helps you keep your meetings on track, reduce redundant future meetings, and get more done.