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How To Handle A Wandering Meeting

We’ve all been in the situation where you feel all set for your meeting, ready to go, and almost as soon as the meeting gets going it seems like everything is a slog. It’s not long before the thing you most wanted to talk about is relegated to the background and the team is talking about anything but.

It would be easy to lay the blame on a particular team member, someone who has some motive for not wanting to discuss your topic. And that certainly may be the case. If it is, I suggest you deal with that person in a direct and straightforward manner — asking them what’s going on. However, in the majority of instances that I have experienced and witnessed, it is one of two other issues.

In many issues, the issue is the meeting convenor has not been nearly as clear about the agenda as they think they have been. In your head, you may have a very clear idea of what you want to discuss, and why, but if you have not spelled those two precepts out clearly for the team, they will each have their own idea about why they are there and they will work to further that misunderstanding.

Slightly less often, the issue is that there is another issue that people feel is burning under the surface and they feel a need to address it before they can attend to what you’ve put on the agenda. Again, not a malicious response from the team, they’re just not sure how to tell you that you’re missing a big problem.

The first issue is the easiest to fix — it is completely within your control. You can fix this issue by putting the meeting objective and rationale at the top of the agenda for each meeting. “We are meeting today to accomplish x. We need to get x done because y.” These statements will serve as good touchstones throughout the meeting. Don’t make them too complex or involved. Simple is powerful in this case.

The second issue is more difficult because it indicates that the team doesn’t know how to approach you when you are missing something that they feel is important. This is partly a skill issue on their part, but it is also a trust issue. They don’t trust that you will react in a safe way if they say “Excuse me, I think we had better address these other issues before we spend time on that.” You can begin to address this by being explicit about your desire for exactly how you would like them to react in that situation. Then, you can create a protocol for how to do it. Protocols help create safety for all involved.

At the end of the day, if a meeting you’re holding is not going well, it could be that someone is trying to make your life difficult, but most likely it rests in something you can do differently to improve meeting functionality.

Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.

-Patrick Lencioni

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16th Street Consulting

16th Street Consulting

ceo@16thstreetconsulting.com is dedicated to improving organizational effectiveness through equity, focusing on education, health care, and government.

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