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Meeting Fix #8: Mind Your Manners! Meeting Etiquette 101

The first seven miserable meeting fixes covered in this series have focused on changes to be made by the organization, team or meeting leader. This post is more personal. It’s about you and your own meeting etiquette. Regardless of others’ meeting behaviors, practices, or norms, you can do a lot on your own to improve the meeting experience for yourself and others. 

Graphic Showing Talking Over a Water BreakRather than complaining about meetings in your organization, you can positively impact meeting culture and effectiveness by role modeling basic meeting etiquette. Regardless of others’ behaviors in meetings, you can become an example and influence that will improve your own (and others’) experiences and outcomes.   

How Not Minding Your Manners Messes with Meeting Effectiveness  

The easy thing to do is to go along with the norms. If, for example, meetings in your organization routinely start 10 minutes late, it’s easy to show up late or last minute for meetings. Similarly, if most people take calls or respond to emails and texts during meetings, you’ll be more likely to do the same. 

The more that each individual accepts, adopts, and perpetuates these behaviors, the more engrained they become. The more these behaviors permeate meetings, the less effective meetings become. Ineffective meetings lead to more meetings. Unfortunately, more of the same isn’t a good use of time and doesn’t fix the underlying problem.

To make meetings more effective, individual behaviors often have to change. Don’t wait for someone to issue a formal edict demanding behavior change. Instead, you can lead the way and demonstrate how simple shifts can improve meeting effectiveness.      

Here are some examples to help you get started. 

Ask about desired meeting outcomes. When you’re invited to a meeting, ask what the desired outcome for the meeting is. If it’s a briefing, there’s no advance prep needed. On the other hand, if it’s going to be a discussion leading to a decision, you’ll want to bring data and check with others about impacts. Prepare accordingly by first knowing what to expect. 

Volunteer for various meeting roles. Be the meeting notetaker, time keeper, facilitator, or process observer. Know about the roles and responsibilities for making meetings more effective. Then, when you see a gap you can fill in to show others how much different it can make to appoint simple roles like these for meeting participants.   

Introduce productive conflict. Play devil’s advocate to invite a diversity of thought and stir up genuine dialogue. False harmony and hasty agreement compromises decision quality. Effectiveness (not to be confused with efficiency) is important for teams tasked with solving problems or making decisions. 

Recognize best practices. When people are on time, ask great questions, provide clarity, are well-prepared, or do other things that improve meeting effectiveness, call it out. Show appreciation. Explain how this positive behavior helps others. With positive attention, others will be more likely to do the same in future meetings.  

Uphold high standards for meeting etiquette. Don’t forget the basics! The little things count when it comes to shifting behavior and setting an example. By making simple, observable changes, you’ll be  demonstrating to others what you’d like to see from them. Over time, others will emulate your behaviors for improving their meeting etiquette, too. Keep reading for 10 basics to start with . 

Don’t Bypass These 10 Basics of Meeting Etiquette 

The simple things matter. Even if others in your organization aren’t consistently abiding by these 10 basics, you can be the example and champion of meeting etiquette.

  1. Be on time every time. When you’re late, you’re operating from a deficit. If they stated the meeting without you, the deficit is in information you missed. If they waited for you, the deficit is in good will – even if people understand why you were late and forgive you, there’s a lingering unspoken annoyance that’s unavoidable. After all, their time is valuable, too. 
  2. Participate. Use your voice. Offer your ideas and opinions. If you’re more introverted, get placeholder and set-up techniques for processing as you need to without losing opportunities for contributing to the discussion. You can start with this free webinar: “An Introvert’s Guide to Business Meetings.” Participation during the meeting is vastly more productive than sub-group “meetings after the meeting” at the proverbial water cooler. 
  3. Stop multi-tasking. You’re probably not as good at multi-tasking as you think you are. If you’re sitting in a meeting while doing unrelated work, you’re not participating fully in the meeting. You’re not contributing. You’re likely missing key information that forces others to repeat what they’ve said or robs others of input you would’ve offered if you’d been fully present.  What’s more, you’re going to leave the meeting with the illusion of being “in the know” rather than really knowing. 
  4. Stay in the moment. Mental distractions can be just as problematic as multi-tasking. If you’re not focused on what’s being said and done in the meeting, you’re not fully participating. When your mind wanders and you get absorbed in unrelated thoughts, your distraction impacts others. Similarly, when you dwell on closed topics, pursue tangential topics, or leap ahead to other agenda items, you’re missing out on the discussion at hand (and distracting others as you do). This chaotic, stream-of-consciousness approach derails meeting effectiveness. 
  5. Be prepared. To prepare for meetings, review any agenda or pre-work that’s been sent in advance. Gather your thoughts and supporting materials. Consider what information you don’t have and would need before decisions or implementation. Eliminate distractions and plan around the meeting so that you’re not late, double-booked, or compelled to multi-task during the meeting. 
  6. Ask questions. Questions surface what’s unknown or hasn’t been considered yet. By asking purposeful questions, you can help the group avoid rushed decisions or hasty actions. Getting answers to lingering questions also improves group commitment. A richer understanding prepares team members to cascade communication and fully support group decisions. 
  7. Engage others. Every member of the group has an opinion and insights that can benefit others and enhance decisions made. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their opinions and insights quickly and “on command.” You can engage others by allowing time for reflection before and during the meeting, by facilitating sub-group breakout discussions, by inviting specific input, and by showing genuine interest in others’ contributions.  
  8. Get clarity. All action items and next steps should be commonly understood by every member of the group. A recap on who will do what, by when, how, and why is essential in meetings for providing clarity and accountability. If this is not routinely a part of meetings you attend, request it or ask questions to draw this out of the group. 
  9. Capture action items. In addition to a verbal recap of the clear and commonly understood action items, teams benefit from written documentation of what’s been decided and how the next steps will be executed. Ideally, the facilitator (or a volunteer) captures this on a whiteboard for all to see. Notes or a photo of the whiteboard are also sent to meeting participants and to anyone who needs to be informed but wasn’t in the meeting.  
  10. Follow through. Too many meetings start with apologies about work that was not done in between meetings. When team members don’t complete action items, the entire group effort stalls out. This necessitates more meetings and slows down progress. When clear, commonly understood action items are captured, everyone should also understand that these are not nice ideas. They are commitments with deadlines. Others expect and count on you to complete the tasks you agreed to do. 

Holding Team Members Accountable for Meeting Behaviors  

Once you’ve worked out your own meeting behaviors and become a good example of meeting etiquette, you can enlist others so they, too, will do the same on a regular basis. 

Step one is to be the role model, cheerfully and without complaint. Step two is to show others the benefits of making personal change – less stress, better clarity, positive impact on meeting effectiveness, etc. 

Step three comes when others are warmed up to the idea of making change. They’ve seen the positives in you and from you. Now they’re more open to making their own changes, too. When enough members of the group come around, you can codify behaviors with formal processes that will replace the informal, lax meeting culture you’ve been experiencing.

Set ground rules with the group. This is an “all in” discussion so everyone can contribute, feel heard, and get their needs met. Don’t unilaterally make a list of rules and expect others to adopt it. Ground rules provide consistency, expectations, and clarity. 

With new groups, devise meeting charters. If a new task force or group forms and will be meeting regularly, start by creating a document that specifies HOW you will meet. Like ground rules, this is an exercise that involves the full group so that you’ll have commitment and collaboration right from the start. 

Be sure to include these elements in your meeting charter:

  1. Team objective (why this group is meeting, what you’re tasked with doing).
  2. Members (who attends meetings + who is later consulted/informed but doesn’t attend).
  3. Roles and responsibilities during meetings (assigned permanently or rotating).
  4. How and when the meeting agendas will be created and disseminated. 
  5. How and when meetings will be scheduled. 
  6. Expectations regarding participation, communication, and deliverables to each other. 
  7. Meeting etiquette standards and/or ground rules (see above).

When team members don’t abide by ground rules or charters, it’s helpful to remind them that these were developed by the group for the group. Peer accountability for what’s been decided together is fair and helpful. After all, you’d want to know if others perceived you as not doing your part. Gentle reminders with an obvious intent to help are welcomed by most, so don’t hold back. 

Left unchecked, unproductive meeting behaviors deplete morale, waste time, and impede team accomplishments. Start by working on your own behaviors so that you can be a positive force for change.

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