The Meeting Paradox: We Hate Going But Still Want To Be Invited

Updated: May 17, 2019


First, a little story. When I was 24, I was put on this ridiculous consulting project that involved traipsing around New York accompanying a delegation of senior level officials from a Middle Eastern country. These officials had $70 billion dollars to burn as they set up their country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Well, as you can imagine, many a person wanted to chat with them in New York. So, I had the incredible experience of being in the room with the CEOs of the top banks and private equity funds as decisions were made, and strategies were set that would change the trajectory of a country (or so they thought). I dutifully took notes.


There’s power in being in the room where it happens. As a junior person, you soak so much in when you’re surrounded by people with more knowledge and experience than you. I learned so much that week in NY and got a huge amount of wind in my career sails by being exposed to such fascinating discussions.


But, here’s another little set of stories. A few days ago, I had an epic text conversation with a friend about discontinued Trader Joe’s items. It was incredibly involved, detailed and extensive. What was she doing during our text exchange? Sitting in a meeting at work. Here’s another one: Last week I was on a 30-person conference call. It was highly productive….in that I bought two plane tickets, found a new dentist, put a stop order on Lyft shares, and perused puppy adoption sites. And, we can’t not bring up that feeling I bet we each have had at least once over the last week where you look around during a meeting and silently ask yourself: “why exactly am I here again?”


Meetings. Are. The. Worst.


We are fatigued by meetings. As an organization scales, coordination becomes more difficult and often the most-used solution is more meetings: update meetings, cross-functional meetings, brainstorming meetings, weekly stand-ups, and mandatory “fun” meetings. It gets to a point where decisions can’t be made without a meeting. We don’t want to upset anyone so we invite anyone and everyone to join the meeting – just in case.


Herein lies the paradox as a manager: you want to involve your team members in meetings, support their development, and be sensitive to the perennial complaint that when a start-up scales, people (especially early joiners) feel more and more disconnected from decision-making and no longer are in the room where it happens. Yet excessive meetings with too many participants are unproductive and frankly, just not a good use of time. Your team or organization can become crippled under the weight of worthless meetings.


So what do you do? To be a great manager, you need to treat your approach to meetings (and who you invite) with as much care, diligence, and thought as you would treat a work product, an investor pitch, or a sales call.


There is a lot of advice out there about productive meetings. And, in this very blog, we’ve talked about the ways that group discussions can be improved and the bad habits we fall into when in meetings. So, here’s my take on ways to make your meetings better and also make sure your team members are developing and feeling included.


Ways to Save Your Sanity and Run Effective Meetings


1. Embrace the meeting paradox!

  • Tell your team that not everyone can and is going to get invited to every meeting. Provide space for your team to discuss their concerns and acknowledge that this is one of the things that hurts when a company scales.

2. Treat the meeting invite list like the bouncer at Tao

  • Be thoughtful about the invite list for every meeting:

  • For those team members who are not invited (and are likely bummed because they are not), let them know why, and make sure to provide an update after the meeting about what was discussed. They may not be in the room where it happens, but at least they’ll get some insight (so easy to do and goes such a long way!!).

3. Be that person who insists: “no agenda, no meeting.”

  • Set an agenda and share it in advance

  • Include the objective of the meeting (are we making a decision, brainstorming ideas, doing a check-in)

  • Include what is required of the attendees (pre-read, pre-work)

4. Embrace your inner theater geek and assign people roles

  • Do you think it’s obvious that the junior person in the room should take notes during a meeting? And then when he doesn’t, do you shoot him passive aggressive glances?

  • Be crystal clear about everyone’s roles during a meeting (that means saying it aloud!)

5. No matter how “good” you think you are at it…do not multi-task during a meeting (and don’t allow others to)

  • If you find yourself multi-tasking during a meeting – ask yourself if you really need to be there – and if not, don’t attend in the future.

  • Once you, as the boss, start to multi-task, that provides the signal to everyone else that they can also half check-out of the meeting.

  • I mean it. Don’t respond to emails. Don’t check your stock portfolio. Don’t text your mom.

6. Be chivalrous: plan the second date while still on the first one

  • Be clear about follow-up before you end the meeting – who is going to do what and by when?

  • Make sure people are clear about what they are expected to do coming out of the meeting.

  • For those folks who weren’t in the room where it happened, send a timely update email about the proceedings. It will be so appreciated!

And, if you’re already suffering from way too many meetings – do a quick meeting audit. Get rid of meetings that could be accomplished through a quick email. Disinvite people to those meetings where their attendance isn’t necessary. Shorten or lengthen meetings to align with the actual objective of what you’re trying to accomplish.


Good luck – don’t throw away your shot at making meetings better for everyone involved.


TL;DR

  • It's really powerful to be in the room where it happens, i.e., to witness and participate in decisions and strategies that impact your organization

  • Yet, as an organization grows, we often find ourselves in way too many meetings, and our meetings are poorly run

  • As a manager, you have a crucial role in ensuring that your team members participate in meetings while also ensuring that meetings are not a waste of time.

  • Ways to make your meetings more effective include always setting an agenda, never multi-tasking, and uninviting people if necessary.


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