You may have experienced the growing problem of "continuous partial attention" during meetings. With a laptop, iPhone, or other electronic device nearby, attendees simply cannot keep their focus on the meeting. Perhaps you've noticed them furtively glancing at their phone under the table as they check email, or heard the click-clack of a keyboard as people on speakerphone use their laptops. As this article describes, while a quick log-on may seem, to the user, a harmless break, others in the room receive it as silent dismissal. This problem is growing with the proliferation of devices and as people, especially younger employees who have grown-up using text based electronic communication, become less sensitive to the nuances of body-language.
This is just one of many challenges facing managers trying to run effective meetings. People arrive late, aren't prepared, engage in side conversations, or they don't participate and then have the real meeting in the hall afterwards. To overcome these challenges, I have found that establishing firm ground-rules with the group helps to set boundaries and define norms. Typically, during the first meeting I'll suggest a few ground-rules and then the group will discuss and customize them, and brainstorm additional ones. Once a final list of ground-rules has been agreed, a copy is posted on the wall and they are added to the meeting agenda. During the next few meetings, they are reviewed to ensure that everyone understands and remembers them. Lapses in behavior are then called-out by any member of the group; "Do you think that was consistent with our agreed ground-rules?"
Here are a few suggested ground-rules that I have personally found to be effective:
- Everyone participates - Use of laptops and other devices should be limited to making presentations, keeping notes, or looking up relevant information.
- Start and finish on time - Don't punish the prompt by making them wait for stragglers or reward late-comers by repeating discussions or revisiting decisions.
- One conversation at a time - Show respect for others by listening to their point of view and refraining from side conversations.
- Silence is agreement - It is unacceptable to remain silent during a meeting and then later say you don't agree with the group decision.
- Different opinions are welcome - Contrary views need to be encouraged to support robust decision-making and to prevent group-think.
- Challenge ideas, not individuals - Emotions can run high and criticism can turn personal if attendees aren't reminded to focus on the issues.
- Disagree in private; unite in public - Irrespective of how individuals voted, once a decision has been agreed to everyone should support it and speak with one voice outside of the meeting. Also known as Vegas rules (what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.)
- Do what you say you'll do - Individuals are accountable for following though on agreed actions and the group should hold each other mutually accountable.
Remember, it takes a good meeting to be better than no meeting at all.