Meetings should be engaging, focused, and efficient. Talented managers lead them with clarity and determination. Given the time lawyers spend in meetings, being able to lead them should be a professional requirement. Yet most of us have not received basic advice about it. According to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review, nine out of ten people dream in meetings, 25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant topics, 50% of people find meetings unproductive, and 73% of employees do other work in meetings. The answer is not to eliminate meetings, but to make them more thoughtful and impactful.
People have met since the beginning of civilization. The Greeks designed the famous Agora of Athens as the city’s central meeting place to encourage gathering of people and an intense exchange of views on topics ranging from economics to law to culture. Historians refer to the old agora as the birthplace of democracy, a word that literally means to derive strength (“kratos”) from the common people (“demos”). How is it that our primordial instinct for finding strength in the gathering of people has turned into a construct that is so universally despised?
The meeting concept is not bad; The way most people lead them is. What goes wrong Most of the meetings are:
- Too long
- Not a good use of time
- Lack of a clear purpose
- Indifferent to the variety of learning styles in the room
Think about the last meeting you enjoyed. What makes it stand out? Would you know how to replicate that experience? We applied principles from neuroscience and social psychology to identify four key practices for improving your meeting leadership:
- Point out the purpose
- Make it “sticky”
- Reach the room
- Practice your ABCs
Point out the purpose
Well-run meetings have a clear purpose. Purpose determines the structure, defines the desired outcome and creates an objective measure of success so that participants know what they have achieved. Identifying the purpose also makes it clear who should and shouldn’t be in the room.
A meeting without a defined purpose is like a road trip with no map or destination. You might stumble upon some great websites, but at some point you will run out of gas and get lost. While it is surprising to see so many meetings happening without a purpose, this is easy to fix as there are only three main options. These are:
- For brainstorming
- To decide
- Share (give and / or receive) information.
The key is this: the leader’s role is not only to know the purpose of the meeting, but to reveal it to all participants. This allows participants to adjust their expectations towards the announced goal and focus their contributions in support on it. Imagine how helpful it would be to know why you were called at the beginning of each meeting. Think about the implications of this simple change and start your next meeting with:
“The plan for today is to brainstorm ____ for 30 minutes,” or
“In this meeting, our main purpose is to decide ____” or
“I’d like to take the next 15 minutes to update all of them to ____ and then hear your reactions.”
With these simple statements, you tell the group what is important to you, which filter they should use and what the meeting should achieve. It is equally important that your explanation guides what is not discussed. This discourages the usual derailing of off-topic comments and grants permission to draw attention to the articulated purpose. While the simplicity of this method might lead you to explain a Trifecta meeting that encompasses all three purposes, we strongly encourage caution. Usually limit yourself to two. If you doubt this advice, test it for the real thing by saying all three prompts out loud and then let yourself feel how stressful such a meeting would be.
Make it “sticky”
Studying neuroscience shows that our brains are drawn to information that is personally relevant. The human brain also likes to be stimulated by information new enough to grab its attention without overstimulating to the point of overload. This is what neuroscientists mean by having an experience “sticky”. Our brain does not pay attention to “boring”. Things that are personally significant and register as new or novel cause the brain to release certain chemicals that physically help it focus and store information. These chemicals, especially dopamine and norepinephrine, alert our brains that something important or pleasant is happening and encourage the brain to focus.
Whether it’s sharing information in the form of an update, sharing ideas for brainstorming solutions, or deciding on a definitive course of action, the brain is more engaged when the meeting is difficult. Ursula Pottinger, a neuroscience-focused leadership trainer, said, “The way we loved learning as kids doesn’t really change as we grow. We want to have fun, we want the content to be personally relevant to us, and we want it to be structured in a way that is stimulating but not overwhelming. It has to be exciting and novel, but not too dense. “
Reach the room
People engage in different ways and process information differently. It follows that they also want different things out of a meeting. To run a successful meeting, it’s important to connect with a diverse audience – to “reach the room”.
Psychometric assessments, which examine preferences related to learning style, thought structure, and motivation, provide helpful guidance for leading successful meetings. We’ve turned some of these concepts into easy-to-understand advice on who is likely in your room and how to include them.
- Structure: People who value structure want to know what to expect. If there is an agenda they want to follow it, and if you want to work on the agenda items please let them know why. You are analytical about information and want to make sure that the outputs are logical, well thought out, and correct.
- Results: Some attendees want to be clear about the goal of the meeting and what results will be required. You focus on the details, often want to move quickly and want the next steps to be clarified in the end. And if it’s a crucial meeting, please decide!
- Connection / Collaboration: This preference measures success by the quality of communication during the meeting. These people are happy to be checked in, need time to have a thorough discussion of the items on the agenda, and search the room to ensure all voices are heard.
- Inspiration: People with this preference bring energy and inspiration to the meeting. They will be the brilliant brainstormers and creative idea connectors. They appreciate spontaneity and a bit of confusion. Invite these people to do the check-in occasionally and you won’t be disappointed.
Know your ABCs
As the leader of a meeting, you have a responsibility to make it meaningful to others. This requires a very specific preparation: you need to know what you want people to feel, do, and understand as a result of the meeting. Social psychologists call these principles “the ABC” of human interaction: affect (feelings), behavior (actions) and cognition (understanding). Professional moderator and organizational psychologist Rae Ringel pioneered the application of these ABCs to meeting preparation.
As you prepare to host your next meeting, ask yourself the following questions:
- Affective (How do you want people to feel about this meeting?)
- Behavior (what should people do as a result of this meeting?)
- Cognitive (what should people understand as a result of this meeting?)
Thinking about the desired emotional state of those present (A) is often overlooked, but it can be the most groundbreaking consideration as it sets the tone and provides a cross-check for the actions you are asking of the people and whether they will do so motivated enough to take them on. The B and C are also important; If you can’t define these then you should ask yourself why you are holding the meeting in the first place.
Increase your leadership in meetings by incorporating four key practices: reveal purpose, make it sticky, reach the room, and know your ABCs. You don’t have to include these all at once – take the time to familiarize yourself with each one before adding another. Most people find Purpose and ABCs to be the easiest to incorporate right away. So start with these first. Once you’ve mastered them, make them sticky and see how you can accommodate the different needs of your participants. The ancient Greeks got it right: meetings are important. You can do it better.