Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid in Your 2021 Meetings

When my youngest son was in elementary school he was asked by his teacher what his dad did for a living and his response was, “he goes to a lot of meetings”. It was actually a very accurate answer.

This past year I have facilitated almost 100 different meetings with group sizes from five to 25 people. From one hour meetings to multi-day retreats. On-site and off-site meetings. Way too many Zoom events. Good meetings and not-so-good meetings.

One practice I have at the end of each meeting is to do a brief plus/delta. What went well in the meeting and what would we do differently? I try to be brutally honest with myself in this quick evaluation. My intent is to try to get better with each meeting.

Based on my extensive meeting and follow-up assessment experience, I’ve assembled the following common mistakes we all make in planning and facilitating business meetings. Judge for yourself.

#1. No meeting agenda. Every meeting must have an agenda. It should be shared with the meeting participants either prior to the meeting or at the very latest, at the beginning of the meeting.

Why is this so important? Two reasons. First, it forces the meeting leader to determine the intended outcome(s) of the meeting and the meeting structure. Second, the agenda communicates to the attendees why the meeting is important. No agenda? It must not be an important meeting.

#2. No meeting structure. A good meeting, like a good play, should have three distinct “acts”: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The meeting agenda should clearly reflect each of these sections of the meeting.

Have you ever attended a meeting that just “leaped” right into the heart of the meeting without any introduction or set-up? You were left wondering where the meeting was going? Or maybe a meeting that suddenly just ended, leaving you pondering what’s next or what did we just decide?

#3. No empty seats. This one comes from Vistage speaker Boaz Rauchwerger, who preaches there should never be an empty seat at a meeting of any size. Why? A full meeting suggests an important meeting. Empty seats suggest that some members of the group decided not to attend. It must not have been important enough for them. This leaves attendees wondering what else they could be doing instead.

Boaz even suggests that you should intentionally have a shortage of seats at the table. Then, when you have to add extra chairs, meeting participants start to think the meeting must really be important since it’s now over-attended. Call this meeting psychology 101.

In virtual meetings, allowing participants to attend with no video or audio is almost the equivalent of an empty seat. It drains energy from the meeting.

#4. No toys on the table. Most adults are like kids when they attend meetings. They need something to play with while they’re sitting. I often use stress balls, cushions, and spinners to help “entertain” my guests. Keep their hands busy. Toys on the meeting table also suggest a “fun” meeting environment. In the virtual environment we find ourselves in currently, meeting participants are responsible for finding their toys to play with during the meeting.

#5. The use of only one medium in the meeting. There is nothing worse than watching a two-hour PowerPoint in its entirety. Death by slide. We begin to pray for some type of media malfunction. A power shortage possibly. A fire alarm. To prevent boredom, I try to use a variety of activities during a meeting. Examples include breaking participants into pairs or triads for discussions, brief videos, games, and brainstorming exercises. The research on meetings suggests that we can only sit in one place for about 15-20 minutes before we need to move in some way both physically and mentally. In virtual meetings, it’s important to use breakout rooms, polls, and chats to break up the meeting when possible.

#6. Failing to be empathetic with the group members. When I prepare for a meeting, one of the first questions I will ask myself or a client is “how do I want the participants to feel when they leave the meeting?”. Possible answers might be “confident, happy, proud, secure, etc.”. Once I’ve identified these potential feelings, the planning for the meeting gets much easier. Now I can organize the meeting to try to achieve these feelings.

#7. Failure to stay on schedule. Is there anything more frustrating than a meeting that starts late or runs way too long? The participants make great efforts to be there on time only to sit and wait for the meeting to start. It’s disrespectful. Likewise, there is also an expectation that the meeting will end on time. Like a train conductor, part of my job is to keep the meeting on time and on track.

#8. No icebreaker at the beginning of the meeting. One of the challenges that any meeting leader faces is engaging the participants as soon as possible. An engaged attendee is more likely to actively participate. I believe every meeting should have some type of check-in by each member. This can be as simple as a brief introduction if the participants don’t know each other or a quick update if they do. If possible, the check-in should fun as well.

#9. No meeting evaluation. As mentioned,  I evaluate my own meeting personally after each event. I think it’s a good idea to engage your participants in this as well. This can be as easy as just having each person rate the meeting on a scale of 1-10 at the end of the session. I sometimes use a plus/delta to brainstorm with the group about what went well during the meeting and what we can do better the next time.

Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni suggests that we ask the following two questions at the end of each meeting:

1) What have we agreed on in this meeting?

2) What will we communicate to the rest of the team about this meeting?

I really like both of these questions. Too often we leave a meeting with too much uncertainty about what we have discussed or what our next course of action might be. Also, there may be a larger audience that did not attend who curious about what was discussed or agreed upon.

#10. Not enough discomfort in the meeting. Healthy teams embrace some level of discomfort with each other in a meeting setting. Some amount of healthy conflict. A little drama.  I have attended team meetings that worked very hard to avoid tough subjects. There was a fear of conflict. A lack of trust in the room. A reluctance to challenge ideas. I believe it’s the job of the meeting leader to build trust in the room which then allows a healthy dose of discomfort to take place.

I know I’m in a good meeting when at some point there’s a highly uncomfortable moment. A leader acknowledges personal or team failures. A team member asks a question of a leader that has no good answer. Maybe a “brutal fact” facing the team is uncovered. As a meeting facilitator, these are “golden moments” in a meeting. This is where we earn our stripes.

Did you make any of these mistakes in your meetings in 2020? What will you do differently and/or better this year?

May your meetings in 2021 be the best.