Meetings are akin to death and taxes. And they certainly can merit a collective groan among those who attend them, especially for people who find themselves in meetings back to back to back all day long.
Over my 15 years in project management and digital agency operations, I have become a person that schedules and leads a lot of meetings. Given their groan-inducing tendency, let’s just say it’s not a part of my job that my teammates delight in.
Because of this, I’ve started taking a harder look at how to facilitate effective team meetings. There is already a significant amount of writing on this subject, so I’ll skip the parts about making sure you have an agenda, objectives, and respecting time boundaries. (This is an intermediate guide after all.)
Do most of your meetings include one person talking and everyone else listening (and by “listening”, I mean doing other work, distracted by emails or Slack messages, or looking at their phones)? The only thing worse than participating in those meetings is leading them. No one wants to talk into a void.
As the meeting facilitator, think of how you might put the meeting back into the hands of the participants rather than it just being a college-style lecture. Here are a few strategies that I like to employ to bring fresh energy into otherwise dull meetings.
The marker of a mature team is not about how good people are at their jobs individually but more so how well they understand each other as people. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting shooting the breeze, asking about kids and weekend plans. Understanding that one colleague was up all night with a screaming child and another is in the middle of a stressful breakup gives you a frame of reference for how they might show up for a meeting. (I believe we’d call that empathy, a subject worth it’s own blog post entirely.)
You, as the facilitator of the conversation, will also come with your own baggage — get comfortable sharing where you are mentally when coming into a meeting. I pride myself on being buttoned up, completing my tasks on time and showing up prepared. So the first time I walked into an all-team meeting (that I led) without the updates (that I was expected to share) ready, I was both terrified and ashamed. The story ends with me being humbled by the grace I received simply because my team knew the circumstances leading up to my lack of preparedness.
To get people engaged or attract their attention, give them a little piece of yourself. This invites in trust and trust leads to better collaboration… which in turn makes for more effective team meetings.
Introduce moments of quiet thinking time into meetings. This may sound strange at first (we’re gonna go to a meeting, or sit on a call, but not talk?) but if the focus is brainstorming or problem solving, take a few minutes to have participants write rather than speak. Start by asking a pointed question (e.g. What are the risks if we do this? What do you like or dislike about this idea?) Time it - three to five minutes is usually plenty. At the end of the time box, have everyone share what they wrote.
It is terrifying to be the least experienced person in a room full of seasoned pros and share ideas about a subject in which you are not an expert. Reinforce that there is no right or wrong in this exercise.
When you do this, be sure to allow all voices to be heard equally. Many meetings I attend have a familiar few big voices and dominant players. Admittedly, I’m usually one of those people and it is crucial for people like me to learn to shut up and listen. This is important for your introverts and the more junior members of your team. By intentionally giving space for all voices to be heard, you’ll be surprised and delighted at the outcomes (spoiler alert: it’s not always the loudest voices that bring the best ideas).
Let me set up what is probably a familiar scene: your resident project manager schedules you into a meeting at 4pm on a Friday. (Wait, 4pm?! Shame on your project manager.) The subject matter is important but brains are fried, the energy is lackluster and everyone is just thinking about the weekend. As the meeting facilitator, do you power through? Do you get your pom-poms out and try to cheer your team into energy?
This is a trap that I refer to as “fake woo” — the act of trying to force energy out of people by being superficially enthusiastic. It is artificial and doesn’t usually beget the desired results. Conversely, picking up on the team’s negative energy and wearing it yourself is just as counterproductive. As ever, honesty remains the best policy. As the leader of the conversation, it is your job to be sensitive to the state of the team for an effective team meeting.
I’d suggest you stop and listen to the vibe of the room. Be comfortable acknowledging the reality that not everyone’s heart is in it. If postponing means you’d have a more productive team meeting, so be it. If you can’t postpone, ask everyone what they need at that moment to feel more effective. Try toying around with simple paradigm shifts: have everyone physically stand up for the conversation, revisit me time/we time, or even consider spending 10-15 minutes on an improv exercise to boost everyone’s energy.
This may be controversial, but meetings can be fun. At Ample, we try to bring levity where we can. We host seasonal events like fantasy football - at the beginning of our weekly team meetings, we check the standings and matchups (never without a little good-humored trash talk). I often open meetings by posing an off-the-wall question to the team (e.g. What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?) and then we’ll discuss their answers at the end of the meeting.
Weirdly, it seems to give a sense of something to look forward to if the rest of the meeting content is otherwise drab. Sometimes I close a meeting simply by asking if the team has any strong opinions about any subject at all. This question seems to result in fierce-but-friendly debates about a range of issues - like if mustard is the worst condiment of all time (it is), or if kebab case is the only correct way to write URLs (also truth).
As a meeting owner, it is important to think outside the box to get the most out of your meeting. When it comes down to it, productive team meetings are centered on the people who attend them and as the facilitator, your role is to ensure that your participants are engaged and their time valued. A meeting invitation and a well-formed agenda will only get you so far.