ArticlesAugust 13, 2016

3 Ways to Ensure Your Meeting is a Hot Mess

You might think that a meeting that ended with food poisoning and then missed dinner at Spago would qualify as the worst meeting I’ve ever attended. You’d be mistaken; this meeting doesn’t even crack the list. With two of us down from bad tuna, the rest of the group made up the difference and took care of us. Everyone was happy to be part of that meeting and project.

To be clear, I am not talking about boring meetings or meetings that fall short of the basics, like not having an agenda. I’m not even talking about the Organizational Monster Meetapalooza, which I define as “bad meetings or a culture that generates many unproductive meetings.” Meetings qualifying at the ‘hot mess’ level are rare and extremely counterproductive. They are highly uncomfortable without cause. Adults stop acting like professionals while others watch on instead of stopping it.

When I reflect on the hundreds of meetings I’ve attended over the years, I can see three clear reasons why meetings make the ‘hot mess’ list.

A tone-deaf meeting is hard to listen to

I always enjoy hearing comedians talk about the first time they bombed on stage. These stories are not only funny but also self-aware. They understood the moment they lost the crowd. As a result, their skills improve, or they find other work. If only meeting facilitators were that reflective.

My worst meeting experiences were often facilitated by someone tone-deaf to their audience and too arrogant to care. I once managed meetings for a client, and their boss facilitated them. He broke three key rules: don’t talk for the sake of hearing your own voice, know your audience, and don’t talk down to women. People could overlook his off-putting personality. He didn’t understand his stakeholder groups and refused to listen to feedback.

High-ranking stakeholders told me they wouldn’t return unless I got rid of him. That is a tall request; when it’s your boss or your client’s boss, that is the problem. Luckily I had a budget and he appreciated flattery so was able to bring in an outside facilitator to save his precious time in prepping for those. The hired facilitator kept personalities in check, including his.

We all look the other way all the time. Occasionally, meeting leadership is so tone-deaf that everyone can’t help but stare.

Emotions are ok in a meeting, but irrationality is not

I walked into my first student meeting in college, and the leader was so frustrated that she was on the verge of tears. She and I were destined to be friends – I knew it then. I got sucked into the organization and ran it the following year, thanks to her mentorship. She is still one of the most influential people in my life. An emotion that comes from passion can be harvested into growth and innovation. That is what she did.

I once observed a large meeting of high-ranking state officials at a project wrap-up meeting. Someone launched into an unprovoked twenty-minute paranoid and irrational monologue about how everyone in the room was against him and his agency.

Another time, I was at a regular monthly board of directors meeting. They were usually pretty uneventful. A member came into a meeting waving a copy of the bylaws while complaining about things that didn’t make sense. (If someone starts waving a copy of your charter or bylaws around, it will be a long night.)

These were both hot mess meetings, not just because participants were a little emotional but also because the facilitator allowed them to hijack the entire meeting.

Political drama belongs on the screen, not in the conference room

House of Cards and Game of Thrones are highly entertaining because you get to be a spectator. Some of the worst meetings I’ve ever attended have been political dramas that didn’t play out very elegantly.

Meetings mean discussions that often include conflict. As discussed in a previous blog post, there are good and bad types of conflict.

Meetings can and should be used to accomplish specific goals strategically. They provide an opportunity to change people’s minds through discussions and occasionally use peer pressure to further the cause. However, sometimes people use meetings to publicly shame, humiliate, or bully individuals, which is unacceptable.

I recall one meeting where CEOs attacked one of their own until the one attacked had to step away to compose himself. In another meeting, a supervisor set his subordinates up for public humiliation on purpose to remind them how important he (the boss) was. These ugly incidents aren’t just memorable to the one(s) being attacked and the spectators.

Some conversations should be done in private. Once you add the group dynamics and power structures, confrontations in front of everyone can quickly deteriorate into prime-time drama. I don’t know about you, but I prefer watching from my couch, not the conference room.

In conclusion

A meeting moves to my “hot mess” list when it causes extreme discomfort, a loss of credibility, and momentum. The kind of lousy meeting creates the wrong type of buzz that people remember.

Many factors beyond bad tuna can prevent meetings from fulfilling their full potential. I’ve attended hundreds of meetings, but only a few were a hot mess. At the end of the day, they were all caused by the same thing: adults watching the train wreck instead of preventing it.