Most companies don't design their meetings with intention. Instead, they leave it up to each individual to figure how to meet on their own. Since companies also fail to provide meeting skills training, they get constant complaints about too much time wasted in unproductive meetings. 

This catch-as-catch-can approach to meeting performance is the status quo for most companies, so one of the most frequently asked questions I get is: "How can I make our meetings better when I'm not in charge?" 

First, I think it's really important to recognize what's happening here. Every person who asks this question works with someone who isn't doing their job. 

Meetings are a team sport, so no one should be expected to pull off a great meeting on their own. That said, the leader absolutely has more responsibility than anyone else. It's awfully hard to win when your coach puts all the players on the field then refuses to call any plays. 

What makes it worse? Unlike other team endeavors, when it comes to meetings you can't really blame these leaders for running lousy meetings. Today's meeting leaders developed whatever meeting chops they have by copying others. When you have generations of leaders badly copying bad practices, you get a culture of bad meetings.

So what can you do about it, especially if you're not in charge? 

Here are five strategies you can use to ease your suffering and make meetings better.

Strategy 1. Have the conversation.

Let's assume that most people don't come to work every day so they can disrespect others by wasting their time in unproductive meetings. Let's consider the possibility that your meeting leaders may be suffering too, but that it hasn't occurred to them to find a better way.

If you're asking this question, then you must have some ideas about how to improve your meetings. Find a time to privately raise the topic with the meeting leader and see if they're interested in experimenting with a different approach.

Strategy 2. Lead from the wings.

Maybe the direct approach isn't for you. Educate yourself about how to lead great meetings and use what you learn to improve the meetings you're in. 

If you watch professional facilitators when they're not in charge, you'll see they do this by asking questions. For example, you might ask:

  • Before the meeting: I want to make sure I'm prepared. Can you help me get clear on the meeting's purpose and what I should be ready to help us achieve there?
  • During the meeting: This is a great discussion, but I noticed we haven't heard from some people yet. I'd hate to miss out on those ideas. Should we hear from some others?
  • As the meeting is ending: Before we go, I want to make sure I'm super clear on what we just decided so I don't accidentally bring it up again later. Can we confirm that xyz was the decision? And what exactly happens next?

Strategy 3. Lead by taking notes.

Still too risky? Here's how you get permission to ask those questions.

Volunteer to take the meeting notes for the group. When you take the notes, you're providing a service to the group that also happens to give you a reason to ask clarifying questions. 

For example, let's say you want to help the group get to the point. You can ask: "Hey, we seem to be circling here. Can someone sum up the key idea so I can capture it in the notes?" 

Strategy 4. Defend your time.

Often the problem isn't the meetings per se, but that there are too darn many of them. Advocate for yourself and your work by protecting your time. 

First, use time blocking to schedule chunks of time on your calendar for focus work. It's a common practice for many high-performing individuals and a great way to prevent people from scheduling you into unnecessary meetings.

Second, if it's a meeting you don't need to be in, opt out gracefully. Reply to the invite saying "Thanks for the invite, but I don't have much to add and need to stay focused. If you really need me, let me know, but otherwise, I'll check the notes."

Strategy 5. Find a new game. 

If none of these strategies can work for you and if you really are wasting too much of your time-no, let's be clear, your life-in unproductive meetings, you've got a toxic job. 

More teams are learning to run consistently high-performing meetings every day. If your team isn't one of them, and if your leaders are unwilling to even try, you're working for a company that does not have your interests in mind. Take advantage of the tight labor market and do what so many others are doing; go to work with a team that runs meetings worthy of your time.

Published on: Oct 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.