8 ways your meetings can go wrong

Experts explain common mistakes in meetings and how to avoid them.
 8 ways your meetings can go wrong

Meetings are a business staple, often essential for connecting and collaborating with colleagues to move organisations forward.

“If executed correctly, meetings can serve an important purpose by bringing people together to make decisions, reach consensus on projects, and share ideas,” said Dana Brownlee, author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up and founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate training firm based in the US.

But when meetings go wrong, they can become counterproductive exercises in frustration, the bane of existence for busy professionals concerned with completing their daily assignments and meeting deadlines.

“If proper planning doesn’t occur, meetings can fail,” Brownlee said. She suggested that careful preparation, including defining the meeting’s purpose, creating an agenda, and setting a time limit, is a basic framework for success.

Brownlee, along with Paul Matthews, founder and CEO of People Alchemy Ltd., a consultancy in Buckinghamshire, England, outlined a few common mistakes that often cause meetings to fail and shared ways to avoid those blunders.

Meeting without a goal in mind. Not only does this waste your colleagues’ time, but it renders meetings pointless. “Take time to consider your meeting’s purpose, agenda, and time frame, and if you don’t have clarity around these components, you may not be ready to meet,” Brownlee said. If that is the case, find another way to resolve an issue. Go directly to key people, send email, or distribute a survey to gauge opinions and collect ideas.

Building a weak agenda. Your agenda can make or break a meeting. “If you build a boring agenda, you can kill a meeting before it even begins,” Matthews said. A proper agenda should include action words rather than simply listing items for discussion. Phrases with strong verbs, such as “agree” on a mission statement, “plan” an outing, or “develop” ideas, will energise your team and keep them engaged.

Inviting the wrong people. Sometimes managers feel sensitive about leaving people out and invite everyone to meetings, even those who are only peripherally involved in the project or topic under discussion. This creates the potential for nonessential employees to waste time — both theirs and the company’s. For employees who don’t want to spend valuable time in irrelevant meetings, Matthews suggested they ring up their team leader and ask how they can contribute to the meeting and its desired outcome. “This opens the door for the employee to gracefully decline if their attendance is not vital,” Matthews said. For managers, Brownlee suggested calling the meeting and indicating on the invite list whose attendance is mandatory and whose is optional. “That way no one feels left out and nonessential employees get the message their attendance is not required,” she said.

Underestimating the value of time. Often Outlook and other online calendars default to hourlong meetings, even when the planned discussion calls for just a fraction of that. “If you only have 20 minutes’ worth of business to discuss, then just keep the meeting to 20 minutes,” Matthews said. Meetings can be a costly use of your employees’ time. You can use attendee salary data and the amount of time you require them to be in a meeting to easily calculate how much the meeting is costing your organisation.

Allowing distractions. Unless an employee is on call for emergencies or experiencing special circumstances, such as waiting for news about a loved one in the hospital, there is no reason to keep phones turned on in meetings. Setting ground rules for engaging with devices will help. “Some groups offer a basket where individuals can deposit their phones before meetings start and retrieve them after adjourning,” Brownlee said. If a meeting runs long, scheduling technology breaks to allow employees to check voicemail and email will alleviate stress and help employees keep up with their workflow.

Allowing some participants to dominate. Sometimes both leaders and participants mistake their colleagues for an audience, according to Matthews. “The extroverts think out loud, often blurt out their views and talk over each other, while introverts, who need to formulate their input before they speak, often don’t get a chance to express their thoughts.” A good facilitator will recognise the role of introverts and manage the process, so they have a chance to participate in discussions.

Neglecting to summarise and collect action items at the end. Brownlee considers the value of a meeting not necessarily in the discussions that take place, but in the action items that arise out of those discussions. Instead of sending around minutes outlining the small details, she suggested it is best to send a simple list of decisions made and action items outlined. “You can have warm and fuzzy conversations, but if there’s no clarity, consensus, or action at the end, that meeting might have been a waste of time,” she said.

Elevating meetings to lofty heights. Matthews thinks of meetings as a cog in the wheel of progress. “People tend to put meetings on a pedestal, and this is not helpful,” he said. “A meeting is simply a part of the process and not a function in its own right. It is a step in the journey toward getting things done.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at