Improve your meetings: The attendee list

Improve your meetings: The attendee list

Considering the following scenario:

Max, a financial analyst, is working on a revenue forecast for his boss when he realises he has a meeting starting in five minutes. He is not happy about stopping his workflow to go to his third meeting of the day. Since he is one of the last to walk into the room, Max cannot get a seat at the table because it is, yet again, a meeting with too many attendees for the conference room. As he sits through the hourlong meeting, he lets his mind wander back to the forecasting project he was working on and desperately wishes he could have skipped this unnecessarily large “all-hands” meeting that could have been handled via email.

Employees worldwide spend a great deal of time in meetings. Nearly 30% of British and 23% of US professionals spend five or more hours a week in meetings, and 23% of professionals in Germany spend 2.5 hours a week in meetings, according to the 2019 State of Meetings Report. The higher the seniority, the more time the professional spends in meetings. There’s a large cost associated with this: Nearly two-thirds (71%) of professionals reported they lose time due to poorly organised or cancelled meetings; annually, this costs the UK economy an estimated $58 billion, the German economy an estimated $74 billion, and the US economy an estimated $399 billion.

Getting rid of meetings is the false solution, since they are forums for organisational democracy, knowledge sharing, decision-making, and communication. Thus, recent business books and scientific studies have focused on improving meetings and increasing meeting ROI through evidence-based practices.

One topic that meeting leaders need to consider when trying to improve their meetings’ effectiveness is inviting the correct people. When planning a party, we do not reuse the same guest list from our last gathering — instead, we sit down and thoughtfully craft a list of invitees; we think about who should be invited to have the right mix of people and who should be left off the list. Leaders should bring this same level of care and thoughtfulness when sending out a meeting invite.

Is bigger better? The short answer is no; in fact, a common complaint from employees is that at least half of their meetings have unnecessary attendees. While leaders might think that as meeting size increases, so do brainpower and decision-making ability, but this is not the case. Data from Bain & Company shows that each additional person over seven decision-makers in a meeting is associated with a 10% decrease in decision effectiveness. This is likely due to co-ordination challenges, counterproductive meeting behaviours (eg, multitasking), and conflict.

How do I trim my attendee list without making employees feel excluded? Perhaps the only thing worse than having to endure an unnecessarily large meeting is not being invited to that meeting. While employees complain about having too many meetings, being left off a meeting invitation without explanation can result in feelings of marginalisation and worry (similar to how we feel when we are not invited to a party that we hear about after the fact). So, how should leaders reconcile the need to keep meetings lean while also fostering feelings of inclusion? Here are some techniques:

  1. Split up your meetings. If your meeting agendas are bloated with too many topics that require lots of stakeholders, try splitting the agenda to create two smaller, shorter meetings with different sets of attendees.
  2. Try the “timed-agenda” approach. With this technique, certain individuals attend for only the agenda items that are most relevant to them. For example, you might need input from the financial analysts for only one item on the agenda — if that is the case, you could invite that group (or one individual from that group to serve as the representative voice, see technique number 4) to attend only at the time that item will be discussed. This means that you will need to assign timeslots for each topic and stick to them, but that can be achieved with some quick planning and good meeting leadership. Some leaders might worry about the disruption that the coming/going will create, but this could be a welcome break, and it will also be less disruptive as this technique becomes part of the rhythm.
  3. Leverage meeting notes. Remove some ancillary attendees from the invite list, but share meeting notes with them to make them feel included. There are two keys with this technique: (1) The notes should be detailed — assign a notetaker role that rotates each meeting and ask him or her to take meaningful notes about what was said and who has action items; and (2) invite everyone to make comments or ask questions so that those secondary stakeholders who were not invited still feel that they can provide input.
  4. Try the “representative voices” technique. With this approach, the meeting leader explicitly and publicly asks certain attendees to represent a group of stakeholders. For example, instead of inviting all of the financial analysts, just one could attend with the explicit understanding (this needs to be clear in order for this technique to work) that he or she is to represent the rest of the group, keep them in the loop afterwards, and ask for input as needed.

— Lea Williams is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, studying Organisational Science under Steven G. Rogelberg. Steven G. Rogelberg is the Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for distinguished national, international, and interdisciplinary contributions and the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (Oxford University Press, 2019). To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at