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4 ways to be more effective in meetings

Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Michael Kurtz as Walter on 'Friends'
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Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Michael Kurtz as Walter on 'Friends'

Meetings!

Those endless blocks of time during the workday in which we are given tacit approval to zone out but that we cannot skip.

One study estimated that American companies hold 11 million meetings daily. Another said the unproductive ones cost the country about $37 billion yearly. This amusing calculator lets you estimate how much money your company spends on meetings.

So why do we bother? Well, the problem is not the meetings; we know collaboration is an overall benefit for the workplace. The real issue is how organizations, and individuals, approach them.

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"An excess of meetings is a symptom; it's not a problem in and of itself," said Michael Mankins, an author of "Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team's Productive Power" and a partner at Bain & Company.

That problem, Mr. Mankins said, is "either a culture that rewards collaboration for collaboration's sake, or more commonly, an organizational structure that basically necessitates more people being involved in critical activities than should be required."

Justin Rosenstein, who worked at Google and Facebook and was a co-founder of Asana, a productivity management tool, said even those vaunted tech icons of productivity fall into the trap.

"It was really sad the amount of time we spent not doing work, but doing work about work," he said. "Even if a 30-minute meeting seems innocuous, context-switching is so hard, and it's hard to get back into the rhythm of things."

Doing away with meetings altogether would be counterproductive, so the trick is to get more out of the meetings you attend.

Here's how to do it.

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Learn the art of the pre-meeting

After accepting a meeting invitation, the first thing you should always do is ask for an agenda well in advance.

Your best tool for doing well in meetings is relentless preparation, and studying the agenda will help you plot the moments for your contributions, said Jill Flynn, founding partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, a consulting firm focused on training female leaders.

"Think of a couple of ways you hope to add value or your point of view ahead of time," she said. "Meetings don't always go the way you anticipate, but it definitely helps to be mentally prepared."

When you are bringing a new idea, try to build support for it in casual chats before the meeting begins. If you face resistance, you will already have someone in your corner to back you up.

"Everybody knows, although women often do not, that the real meetings happen before the meeting," Ms. Flynn said. "You need to have conversations with the key players before you ever get in the room."

The first few minutes of a meeting are paramount, too.

"You want to get your voice in the room as early as you can," Ms. Flynn said. "A lot of times people wait and think, 'Oh, I have to wait because I have to have something really, really insightful to say.' "

But the direction of a meeting, including who will be contributing, is often decided in the first few minutes of a meeting, so it is important to participate early, she said.

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Beware of the 'tyranny of the most verbose'

If you must be in a meeting and you have done your homework, you can still end up being sidelined by what one former chief executive coach calls the "tyranny of the most verbose": a meeting's agenda being dictated by those who speak most forcefully, and often those who speak first.

"By not speaking up, you're withholding something valuable from the team," said Kim Scott, the chief executive of Candor and the author of "Radical Candor."

"Silence is not an act of generosity when you have a great idea," she said.

For timid or more junior employees — or those marginalized by a workplace's culture — speaking up can be at best nerve-racking and at worst a terrifying experience. But expressing confidence through body language and word choice can make it easier to jump in.

To appear more engaged, sit toward the front of your seat and do not lean back, Ms. Flynn said. Think about ditching the laptop; sometimes it can set up a barrier between you and everyone else.

When the moment comes to speak up, try to use "muscular language."

"If you're the junior member, or the only person of color, or the only woman, our tendency is to be way too deferential and use a lot of qualifiers," she said. "Get to the point, be factual, persuasive, use a sense of humor if you're good at that. But be factual and clear and don't use deferential language and filler words."

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Embrace the uncomfortable

Pointing out obvious but uncomfortable truths is never easy, but it is nearly impossible in a setting with your peers and colleagues. But that is all the more reason to go for it.

"People bumping up against each other is what helps us not just improve our work product but also ourselves as human beings," Ms. Scott said, noting the often-cited "obligation to dissent" at McKinsey & Company, the renowned management consulting firm.

The benefits here often far outweigh the risks, even if your workplace has not embraced dissent as a necessary tool for improvement. If something does not feel right to you, odds are it is not just you.

"I've seen meetings where I know that everyone in the room is thinking something, but no one feels comfortable saying it," Mr. Rosenstein said. "We want to hear people say things like 'I don't know exactly why yet, but I have a weird feeling about this idea.' "

That will not win any debates, but sometimes acknowledging an elephant in the room can be all that is needed.

Be selective about which meetings you attend

With such a premium placed on group efforts, many organizations have reached one of two points, or both: A culture in which meeting invitations are seen as a sign of one's prestige and importance, and collaboration happening for the sake of collaborating, a.k.a. collaboration overload.

"It's become sort of a part of corporate culture that if you're not invited to a meeting, it must be that you're not important," Mr. Mankins said. "That reinforces the behavior of wanting to be invited even if you play no role."

The first step to recovery is, obviously, going to fewer meetings. That is easy for managers, but what about their employees?

The most tactful technique, experts said, is to acknowledge the invitation and express your appreciation, then politely explain that you are unclear about how your presence will add anything and suggest that you skip it. Frame your absence as an opportunity for others to add more to the meeting.

Another, more radical, choice: Designate one day of the week in which you won't attend a single meeting. If you're lucky enough to be in a position where you can decline meetings en masse, give it a shot. Even just one interruption-free day of the week can do wonders for your productivity.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.