Unnecessary and ill-timed meetings are estimated to cost businesses £26bn a year, with colleagues wasting almost three hours a week in get-togethers they could do without. Caroline Webb from behavioural science firm Sevenshift tells you how to be good at meetings and ensure they matter…
For many directors, back-to-back meetings have become the norm, reducing the time they can work on the business rather than just in it. If you ever come out of a meeting thinking, ‘That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back’, chances are you’re not alone. In her new book How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb – chief executive of behavioural science firm Sevenshift – discusses how ‘meeting’ has somehow become a dirty word. When someone tells us they have had a day full of meetings we feel pity rather than envy, says Webb.
Research in 2011 by Opinion Matters, which found that workers waste two hours 39 minutes in meetings a week, equivalent to £26bn in lost GDP, appears to echo Webb’s conclusions that, even for otherwise social creatures, such interaction has become onerous.
Webb – an economist who spent 12 years as partner and leadership coach at management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company before founding Sevenshift four years ago – says: “We often focus attention on what we’re discussing – the document we’re sharing, the decision we need to make, the message we want to get across – and very little to how we’re having the conversations. The number of times I’ve seen smart people spend long weeks putting together a presentation, followed by just a few minutes – often on the way to the meeting – on how to make the most of them… It’s a huge missed opportunity.”
So whether you’re chairing the meeting or simply attending it, here are a few of Webb’s tips for how to be good at meetings…
Whatever your role, preparation is crucial, says Webb. She recommends setting intentions beforehand, including your main priority for the meeting, challenging any negative expectations and deciding where you want to focus your attention.
“Which specific actions will help you make those intentions a reality, and what’s going to get in the way of things going as you hope?” she asks. “If you’re stressed about the meeting, use physical feedback loops – smile broadly, breathe deeply, spread yourself out – shoulders back, head up, feet firmly planted.”
And if you have a hand in planning the meeting, Webb advises you to think about the timing. “Make it slightly shorter than an hour or half hour to give people some mental recovery time. And don’t run over 90 minutes without a proper break.”
When it comes to the agenda, Webb says: “Try listing and introducing items as questions, not statements: for example, ‘How can we improve team communication?’ rather than ‘Team communication’.”
2. Start on a strong footing
If you find that meetings stray aimlessly from the agenda or finish without resolving the issues, then Webb’s advice on collaborative goal settings could prove useful.
“Ask, ‘Where do we want to be by the end of this meeting?’ and ‘What’s the best way to achieve that?’” she suggests, even if you are not formally chairing the meeting. And if a positive attitude can help frame the meeting then try asking people to share their recent successes.
She admits to setting up a ‘smartphone day-care’ box “where people can voluntarily deposit their phones” as part of a no-devices rule. “Otherwise people will use up some of their brain’s precious working memory on monitoring their phones and tablets, making everyone just a little bit dumber than they would be if they were concentrating.”
3. Making your mark
Even if you’re not chairing the meeting, using anecdotes that show an effect on colleagues or customers will help make your contributions memorable, says Webb.
“With longer comments, break your points into clear chunks to make it easier for people to process what you’re saying. If you need to disagree or raise a concern, help others stay in open-minded discovery mode as you share your views. Say what you like about the idea on the table. Be very specific. Then say, ‘What would make me like it more is…’”
4. Improving the discussion
Harmony is all well and good but if a meeting is to be successful then consensual nodding of heads may do little for the business. Avoid groupthink, says Webb. “It can feel great to reach quick agreement. But if you’re talking about something important and there’s no challenge, you’re probably missing part of the picture.”
She suggests picking holes with questions such as, ‘If person X were here, criticising our idea, what would they say – and what would we need to reassure them?’
On the flipside, if a meeting closes without agreement on all points, Webb recommends promoting calm by clarifying what you can agree on, and if you can agree to disagree on the rest. “If not, do your best to summarise each position objectively, doing justice to each idea.”
5. Handling challenging behaviour
“If people are being annoying, remember they’re probably feeling threatened by one of the common triggers: exclusion, unfairness, feeling unappreciated, a lack of autonomy, lack of competence, a threat to their values, or uncertainty,” says Webb. She suggests observing rather than trying to interpret their actions and thinking about whether their needs are being met.
“Even if you’re not the chair, you can make them feel included by expressing interest in their views, and you can make them feel heard and respected by referring back to something they’ve said.”
6. Wrapping up
Where possible do a positive round-up. Webb suggests taking time to recap key decisions, reflect on insights from the meeting and agree on steps that each person will take.
“You can combine it with a ‘next steps’ summary from each person, by asking everyone to say one thing they were interested or inspired to hear in the meeting and what they’re committed to doing, by when.”
Caroline Webb CV
Who Caroline Webb
Role Chief executive, Sevenshift; external senior adviser, McKinsey & Company
Education University of Oxford, MPhil, economics; University of Cambridge, BA, economics
Previous positions Partner and leadership coach, McKinsey & Company; economist, Bank of England; economist, Levy Economics Institute Coaching, Founding fellow of Harvard-affiliated Institute of Coaching
How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb published by Macmillan, £14.99