Finding a New Way to Meet: 10 Pitfalls of Pitiful Meetings

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Kimberly Douglas

In today’s lean organizations, every second of the work day counts.  The question of productivity is a huge issue when it comes to meetings. According to a Microsoft survey of over 38,000 employees, almost 70% felt that the average 5.6 hours they spend each week in meetings are unproductive. And in another survey, conducted by OfficeTeam, 28% of its 150 senior executives responded that meetings are a waste of time. Furthermore, 45% of respondents said they believed their employees could be more productive if meetings were banned at least one day a week.

If it’s time for a meetings overhaul at your organization, read on for 10 common meeting pitfalls and how you can fix them:

  • What’s the point? Run through a pre-meeting checklist before putting it on everyone’s schedule. First, ask yourself whether the meeting is even necessary. Could you just as easily communicate the information via e-mail? What do you want to accomplish with the meeting? Does it really require a group decision? If you ask yourself these questions and decide that you do need to have the meeting, next consider who should attend. Then clearly communicate any prep work that participants need to do beforehand. Simply explaining, “So why are we meeting?” before everyone is gathered in the conference room will help ensure a more productive result.
  • What’s on the agenda? When people come into a meeting knowing what is going to be discussed, they have time to plan their own participation and so can participate more effectively. Simply by creating an agenda you significantly up your chances of having a successful meeting. Send the agenda out as far in advance of the meeting as possible, and then redistribute an agenda/meeting reminder 48 hours prior to the meeting. A quality meeting agenda includes:
    • The meeting date, time, and location
    • The meeting’s objectives
    • Three to six agenda items, with a time frame for each as well as a list of the discussion leaders
    • A clear explanation of the prep work that should be completed before the meeting
  • Too many people at the table. Would you attend a meeting if you didn’t know why the meeting was being held or why you, in particular, were invited? Attendees need to know if you want them to be an expert, an influencer, or a decider. When creating a meeting participant list, think about the meeting’s purpose.  If need be, communicate directly to participants, telling them why you want them there. Keep the number of “required” attendees as small as possible. If critical members can’t attend, consider postponing the meeting.  Finally, use the following litmus test. Ask yourself, Will this meeting be the best use of this person’s time, given its objectives? If you answer yes, then it’s highly likely that person should be there.
  • The meeting seems to go on forever. When people become more focused on their BlackBerries than on the matters at hand, you’re in trouble. Providing a meeting agenda will go a long way toward solving this problem.  When attendees know exactly when a meeting will be over, they won’t spend their time speculating about when they can leave. Create a reputation for yourself as being a meeting leader who starts and ends on time, every time. And if you do need to extend the meeting’s length, ask the group’s permission before doing so. Remember that the ideal maximum meeting length is 60 minutes. Bring a kitchen timer so that you can stay on schedule as you address each agenda item. And to keep those attending on their toes, you might want to consider an unusual start time like 11:45 a.m. or 1:15 p.m.
  • The meeting becomes a free-for-all.  As anyone who has led a meeting knows, it doesn’t take long for things to go terribly off track. The best way to avoid losing control of the meeting is to set some ground rules right away. Select four to six rules based on the unique needs of those attending and your specific meeting objectives. A few possibilities include: “Everyone participates,” “Speak in headlines” (to prevent attendees from rambling), and “Police yourself—asking ‘Am I participating too much or not enough?’” and so forth. You may even want to write the rules on a flip chart to display during the meeting. Or, once they’re established, you can include them in the actual agenda.  Always ask for the input of the group. The bottom line is to create rules that will keep everyone focused on the meeting’s goals.
  • Big talkers take over.  We’ve all experienced them: those folks who feel they are the most important people in the room, have the best ideas, and must comment on every subject. Your ground rules should help keep the big talkers in line, but there are other ways to ensure that one person doesn’t dominate. First, don’t let big talkers sit at the front of the room or the back center of a U-shape. This definitely gives them a feeling of being on stage.  You may even want to use assigned seating for the meeting. (But do change the assignments for each meeting and if you are the leader, change where you sit each meeting.) Breaking attendees up into small groups can also be effective, allowing quieter attendees to bounce ideas off of each other without the threat of being interrupted by someone else. If someone is consistently getting out of hand, pull him aside after the meeting and politely let him know that his behavior cannot be tolerated. Emphasize that by listening to the ideas of his colleagues, he actually sets himself and the company up for greater success because more ideas come to the fore.
  • Conflict kills productivity. Effective meetings aren’t necessarily free of conflict. In fact, conflict can be a good thing. The key is to not let it get out of hand. If things do get heated, ask everyone to take a break for a couple of minutes to think things over. Reinforce the ground rules and ask team members to listen to each other and consider what a possible compromise might be. Remind everyone of the meeting’s ultimate goal and ask, given that goal, how you all can move forward to achieve it. If worse comes to worst, use humor to disarm a tense discussion, and then try to get everyone re-focused.  Once you’ve trained your team to truly value and listen to one another, you’ll find that situations that may have previously turned into tense conflicts instead turn into collaborative brainstorming sessions.
  • No one knows who’s making the decisions. So your meeting is nearly over and you’ve covered everything on the agenda.  Now what?  As the leader, you don’t have to be the one making all of the decisions, but you do have to make sure the decision-making process is clear to everyone.  Will a group compromise be necessary? Should everyone vote and defer to the majority’s decision? Would it be better to build a consensus and go from there? Or should you, the leader, make the call? The best method will depend upon the meeting’s goal. The more critical the decision and the more buy-in you need for the execution of the decision to be effective, the more consensus you need to build.
  • No decisions, commitments, or next steps are captured. Too often, meetings end and everyone simply goes back to business as usual without putting anything that was discussed in the meeting into action, or without even knowing what they personally should do. There is no simpler way to record what went on than by writing on a flip chart the WHO, WHAT, and BY WHEN of the directives discussed in the meeting. Do a round robin with everyone recapping what they are accountable for delivering.  Always distribute a brief meeting summary within 24 hours to reiterate what actions are expected from each participant.
  • There are no evaluations. Too often employees think that all they need to do is sit through a meeting, and then they can get back to the task at hand. A great way to ensure that this isn’t the mindset of those in your organization’s meetings is to do proper meeting evaluations. You don’t have to wait until a meeting is over to evaluate.  A great strategy is to do a process check at least once during a meeting. Have everyone assess the four Ps:
    • Progress. Are we achieving our goals?
    • Pace. Are we moving too fast or too slowly?
    • Process. Are we using the right tools/methods?
    • Pulse. How is everyone feeling—frustrated, satisfied, energized?

The process check will allow you to get things back on track if the meeting isn’t going as planned. Then, at the end of the meeting, you can do a plus/delta evaluation to assess what worked well in the meeting (the plus) and what could be improved for the next one (the delta). Don’t look at meeting evaluations as a throwaway step; they are key to ensuring that your meetings are consistently well-organized and productive.

Moving Forward
Too many organizations call meetings for the wrong reasons or have simply fallen into a going-through-the-motions meeting style. By implementing a few simple strategies, you can breathe life back into your meetings. Give the above strategies time to take hold, and you’ll find that your meetings will become times of trust building, problem solving, and collaboration.  They will energize your employees and lead to innovation that will greatly benefit the organization as a whole.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Douglas, SPHR, is president of FireFly Facilitation, Inc., a firm specializing in the design and facilitation of high-impact initiatives, including leadership team effectiveness and strategic planning.  She is the author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results (Wiley, 2009). Douglas was the 2003 president of SHRM-Atlanta and was recently named to the SHRM National Task Force for Performance Standards Development.  For more information, visit