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Meeting Fix #6: Who Should Attend a Business Meeting?

Too many cooks spoil the broth. This proverb aptly conveys what happens when too many people are involved, all at once, in a project or discussion. Conversely, if the right people aren’t there, meetings are unproductive. One of the worst mistakes you can make is failing to think through who should attend a business meeting.  

Benefits of Having the Right People at Meetings  

Graphic Showing Network or ConnectionsYou’ve been there and done that. Certain agenda items get derailed by circular discussions because no one present really knows the answer to a critical question. It takes a while to realize that’s what is happening and, by the time you figure it out, the meeting is over and nothing has been accomplished. 

Or maybe you’ve experienced an even more problematic outcome. The decision was made, the actions were implemented, and it’s fully in motion before you realize that a critical question wasn’t answered because someone wasn’t at the meeting. You’ve wasted a lot of time, energy, and resources going down the wrong path. 

When you don’t have the right people in your meetings, you’re at risk of wasting time in pointless discussions, having to add more follow-up meetings, and making ill-informed decisions.

When meetings proceed without important data points, insights, or perspectives, decisions are postponed or poor quality. Neither is ideal, and both erode the credibility of those who were involved. 

Having people in a meeting is not the point. Using up time on discussion that goes nowhere is not sufficient. With outcome-based meetings, you’ll get clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose (our desired outcome) leads to clarity about who should attend the meeting.   

When you get the right people in your meetings, the benefits include:

  • Accelerated problem solving, decision making, action planning, and implementation. 
  • Quality discussion because the expertise and authority is “in the room.”
  • Fewer distractions and tangents because everyone is able to focus on the matter at hand.
  • Deeper commitment and engagement from participants because topics are relevant to them. 
  • Better understanding as subject-matter experts can explain their rationale to others. 

Identifying and getting the right people to your meetings requires pre-planning. But you’ll save time in the long run by doing the extra work at the beginning. 

Benefits of Not Having Too Many Extras at Meetings  

It’s tempting (and lazy!) to issue meeting invitations to everyone who might possibly have an interest in a topic or in the work done by a particular group. Rather than appearing less inclusive, it seems safer to invite more people. Rather than omitting someone who really should be there, it’s easier to invite more people. 

When it comes to meetings, more is not merrier. Instead, more is confusing and counter-productive.  

Research reported in this HBR article explains why the most productive business meetings are attended by 5-8 people. Stanford organizational behavior professor Robert Sutton found that there’s a tipping point. More people in a meeting reduces the quality of the conversation. The issues include:

  • The more people who attend, the less time there is for each person to participate.
  • Healthy conflict and debate are replaced by shallow comments and tacit agreement.
  • Misinterpretations, repetition, and interruptions replace deeper, meaningful discussion. 
  • In larger groups, people are more guarded and less candid with each other. 
  • Agenda items are “safer” and shy away from tough topics and decision-making.

To get the right people in the meeting and to avoid having too many people, you’ll have to be willing to:

  • Work ahead to coordinate scheduling so all the right people can attend.
  • Spend time identifying who the right people are (see pointers below).
  • Explain to others why they are no longer being invited. It’s nothing personal!
  • Define the purpose of your meetings with clear, concise desired outcomes.
  • Teach people how to consult and represent others + how to cascade communication. 

The benefits are worth these extra efforts. 

How to Determine Who Should Attend a Business Meeting 

You want the right people in every meeting and ONLY the right people. 

Ask the following questions to determine who should attend a business meeting:

  1. Who is the subject-matter expert with essential information that needs to be considered?
  2. Who will be responsible for implementing changes decided on in this meeting?
  3. Who has relevant decision authority for what is going to be decided in this meeting? 
  4. Who will be impacted in ways that need to be considered before a decision is made?
  5. Who can represent others with similar interests and knowledge? 

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask someone who does. Instead of inviting every manager in a department, ask the senior leader to appoint someone who will represent others effectively. 

The person who attends as a representative should also assume responsibility for consulting and informing others as needed. These are skills that may need honing in organizations that have routinely over-populated meetings. 

Those who attend should also know the expectations for meeting participation. Since input and participation shapes the discussion, every participant should contribute in a timely manner. 

Facilitators and others should be sensitive to those who are more introverted and need time to process information internally and formulate their ideas. This webinar, An Introvert’s Guide to Business Meetings, can help. 

Expectations for meetings should also include effective listening, clear and concise sharing, and self-awareness about how tone and body language can impact others. General etiquette rules should also apply regarding being on time, being fully present, and being professional in interactions. 

Finally, when inviting fewer people, set expectations for those who are in the meeting to:

  • Consult others before, during, and after the meeting (as needed) before making hasty decisions or misrepresenting information or impacts.
  • Truly represent others who are not there rather than focusing too narrowly on their own concerns and preferences. 
  • Develop and deliver on a communication plan to appropriately keep others in the loop.
  • Pause when answers need to be pursued. It’s far better to proactively engage others who have the necessary insights. Plowing through the agenda and “checking the boxes” often backfires. 
  • Support decisions made once all voices have been heard and all ideas have been evaluated. Dissenting publicly or withholding commitment is detrimental to the team’s progress.

There will, of course, be times when meetings need to include more than eight people. For example, it’s fine to include more in informational briefings, town hall meetings, and certain other formats that don’t require input and discussion.

If you use meetings as a development tool, consider the impact on those attending. Yes, for the observer who is learning about group processes and important topics, there is an opportunity to build business acumen and understand the dynamics of interaction. But at what cost to the meeting? Are people potentially holding back when they are observed by others? Are the observers a distraction or detraction in any way? Is time wasted on explaining, clarifying, and catching up the newcomers? 

When using meetings in this way, avoid inviting too many observers at once. That becomes “meeting theatre” where others are putting on a show rather than doing meaningful work. Consider doubling up so the person observing is also serving as a facilitator, note taker or process observer (learn more about meeting roles in this post.)

By limiting the number of participants, your meetings will be more effective and more efficient. There will be fewer meetings for any one person to attend. You’ll be conveying trust as you select representatives and empower them in meetings. More work will get done in less time, both inside and outside your meetings.

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