There are many ways meetings can get off track and many articles out there that help you recover when they do. Dealing with a colleague who won't stop talking? Here are a few ways to handle that one. Suffering through meetings where half the team is checking email? Try this, or this, or better yet, this.

The assumption behind all these articles is that the leader needs strategies for managing underperforming attendees. But sometimes, the problem isn't created by the participants at all. Sometimes, we unwittingly drive our own meetings off the rails. 

If you're the meeting leader, watch out for these unexpected traps.

1. Avoid seemingly innocuous but surprisingly controversial icebreakers. 

Many well-established teams use an icebreaker question at the beginning of their weekly meeting. It's a simple way to get everyone focused (i.e., off their phones) and participating. This practice requires choosing a new question each week, and while most people know to avoid anything too personal, like "What's your greatest fear?", we're less wary of questions that invoke tribal battles. 

For instance, "When should you put water on your toothbrush - before or after the toothpaste?"

Innocent enough? Perhaps, but also exactly the kind of thing everyone has an opinion about and that could--very possibly, if you took the time to run a carefully planned experiment--have a right and wrong answer. The leader who asked this question was shocked by the heated debate that consumed her group for a full fifteen minutes. 

Other lighting-rod questions include: 

  • Which way should you hang the toilet paper roll, over or under?  (There are so many YouTube videos about this one!)
  • Cilantro - friend or foe? Also, tomatoes.
  • Is a hotdog a sandwich? Assuming there's a bun, of course.

What to choose instead

Steer clear of these battle-inducing icebreakers and stick to questions from these categories.

Questions about the work, including:

  • What would you most like to accomplish during this meeting?
  • What's top of mind for you today at work? 

Questions without any "right" answers. The best questions in this category reveal personal preferences and cultural differences without splitting folks into camps. Examples include:

  • What's your favorite first meal of the day? 
  • If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be? 

2. Mute button ineptitude.

We've all experienced the person dialed-in to a meeting when the dog barks or the doorbell rings. These disruptions are annoying, but hardly catastrophes. The caller apologizes, mutes, and then returns when the cacophony passes. But have you been in a meeting where the remote caller didn't mute? 

I once participated in a national committee that held regular three-hour meetings to discuss trade policy. During difficult travel months, many people dialed in. I still giggle when I think about the time an honorable representative from an important company fell asleep before muting and snored loudly over the speakerphone for 20 minutes. International trade infringement just doesn't seem so bad when someone's huffing and wheezing loudly throughout the presentation.

Clearly the snoozer failed to mute, but more importantly, this was the meeting leader's failure. Every conference calling service and online meeting platform has a feature that allows the leader to mute participants, and the chair didn't use it. I'm pretty sure she didn't know how. 

Or maybe she was having fun giggling too because it was really funny. 

What to do instead
Learn your tools. If you're going to run an online meeting, know how your technology works.

Alternatively,  get a geek buddy. If you lack the time or inclination to learn the nuances of your technology, make sure you have someone there who can help during any high-stakes meetings.  

3. Prevent surprises from the wild, wild internet. 

Autocomplete can go so very wrong. Do you ever use your work computer to look up personal things? Or, perhaps more dangerously, do your teenage boys occasionally run a search on your computer? (I'm sure that wasn't you, right?)

I've seen many NSFW online embarrassments in my day, often from salespeople caught with their virtual pants down in the midst of a demo. For my part, I now know that the local Portland radio station can be found at kink.fm, and not .com or .net or anything else you might guess. Don't look. You've been warned.

What to do instead
Online embarrassment is avoidable with a bit of preparation. If you'll be sharing anything online, open those web pages in separate tabs before the meeting. That's the safest bet. If you do have to look up something on the wider wilder web on the fly, try to do so before sharing your screen. 

Published on: Apr 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.