"How can I convince my boss that we need to use an agenda?"

That's just one variation on the most common question meeting experts get. In every webinar and every workshop, we know someone will ask how they can improve their meetings when they aren't in charge, and when their boss seems to think their meeting culture is just fine.

Others variations include: 

"My boss is embarrassing us in client meetings because he's obviously winging it. How can I make him come prepared to look professional without getting sacked?" 

and

"My boss insists on full-team check-in, but she won't facilitate and won't let anyone else do it either. There are 12 of us, some of whom love to talk, so now it's a three-hour meeting. What can I do to convince her it has to stop?"

If you are the boss, you probably think the meetings you run work fine. And you may be right - they may be perfectly wonderful! 

But then again, maybe not.  

Starting in 2011, researchers began digging into this question of what makes people feel like they'd been in a high-quality meeting. Is it the use of an agenda? The number of people present? The length of the meeting? Shorter is better, right?

It turns out all those best practices have a negligible impact on meeting satisfaction. Short, long - the length of the meeting didn't really matter. The agenda, like lots of best practice we hold sacred, turned out to be a nice-to-have.

What do people care about in their meetings?

1. They want know what to expect, then have these expectations met.   

Specifically, people like to know what the meeting is about and how long it's supposed to last. 

Are people asking you for an agenda? They want to know what to expect.

An agenda comes in handy here, but that's only one of many ways you can set a clear expectation. And while the length doesn't matter as much, people do want meetings to start and end when you said they would. 

2. They need to feel that the meeting is relevant to them personally.

Are people arriving late, leaving early, begging out, checking their phones, and in so many other ways showing you that they'd rather be somewhere else?

They're showing you that they don't feel this meeting is relevant to them.

3. They want to actively participate in the meeting.

Are you and a few others dominating the discussion while everyone else fidgets? All the quiet types are not having a good time. 

You can see why all of us who run meetings probably think our meetings work just fine. As the person in charge:

  • You know what to expect and will automatically work to meet your own expectations. 
  • You only schedule meetings that are relevant to you.
  • You are guaranteed an opportunity to actively participate.

When you're the boss, your meetings come with all the satisfaction boxes pre-checked. 

One final note from the research: to my great surprise and dismay, the studies revealed that a meeting didn't have to actually accomplish anything useful for people to give it high marks. Participants simply had to feel like it was a good meeting.

I took two lessons from this and hope you will too.

First, feeling like a meeting went well isn't good enough. That feeling is too easy when you're in charge, and can lure you into perpetuating bad meeting habits that squander your team's time.

Second, every meeting must have a clear purpose that's relevant to everyone invited, and everyone must have a chance to participate.

Published on: Dec 7, 2018