Stop saying 'let's cancel.' Stanford experts say this is how successful people reschedule meetings

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in "The Office" is known to be an incompetent manager.
Paul Drinkwater | NBCU Photo Bank

Years ago, I worked with a guy (we'll call him "Larry") who believed his good performance earned him a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to blow off any meeting he didn't feel like attending.

It was impossible to go through an entire day without hearing him say, at the very last minute, "Let's cancel, I can't make it." This affected my faith in Larry's reliability and trustworthiness, and I'm sure others felt the same. But Larry isn't the only person guilty of this bad habit.

Why do so many of us promise to do things, and then "cancel" when the time comes? We don't want to disappoint people, so we overcommit. Saying "no" sucks, so we tell people what they want to hear.

But as a CEO who has also held executive positions for more than 20 years, hearing someone say "let's cancel" at the 11th hour sounds like nails scratching on a chalkboard.

Why? Because so many people use the word too casually without considering how annoying and disrespectful it is to the person on the other side. They assume it's almost the same as if they had met their commitments.

The right way to 'cancel'

I get it: Things happen. Whatever the reason, the timing may be bad and you have no choice but to decline or postpone a meeting.

But the most successful people have mastered the best strategies for cancelling a meeting; they know when, why and how do it in a way that protects both their schedule and their reputation.

The art of how to cancel a meeting is best summed up in Stanford University's guidelines for best meeting practices. According to the school's leadership executives and academic researchers, here are the most effective ways to take charge of your commitments, while ensuring that your professional bonds remain intact:

1. Respond to invitations promptly by clicking "accept," "decline" or "tentative." This is a simple step that only takes seconds! If you already know there's a 99% chance you won't be able to make the meeting, hit "decline." Too often, decide to respond later and just let the invitation sit in their inbox for a few days. But when has procrastination ever led to a positive outcome?

If you're unsure and genuinely think there's a possibility you'll be overwhelmed that day or week, hit "tentative." You can even ask for more time to think things over. Maybe the meeting topic isn't a priority for you right now or you're unsure how central it is to your role.

Be discerning about your commitments. You don't have to take on everything and say yes to every meeting.

Remember, it's common courtesy to keep the organizer informed so they can better decide on things like whether the meeting needs to be cancelled, rescheduled or remain as is.

2. Notify attendees at least 24 hours before the scheduled start time. If you already said yes to attending the meeting, but then later realize you actually can't make it, let people know sooner rather than later.

Waiting until the very last minute can backfire. Like many executives, I usually only have time to review my calendar in the morning, so any last-minute changes made later in the day can easily go unnoticed. Then, when the meeting starts, I find myself asking, "Where's Larry?"

(There's nothing worse than when a dozen people from various parts of the world waste time on a call that doesn't get anywhere because important people are missing.)

3. Provide an update or reason. You don't need to let every attendee know; the most important people are typically your supervisors or key team members.

My philosophy is to always be as honest and transparent as you can. If the reason is personal and you prefer not to share it, let them know a private matter that needs your attention just came up. Trust me, no one is going to question you. Just use it sparingly.

Whatever you do do, don't make up some lame excuse. Here are a few that I've heard one too many times:

  • "Something came up." Well played. It's intentionally ambiguous and can mean anything from "I"m too tired/in a bad mood for this" to "I'm trying to go to lunch early."
  • "Got a fire to put out." Not bad. This one makes you sound busy. But there's a high risk for that reward: Your boss may wonder what the burning issue is.
  • "Current meeting running late, will try to make it." No chance. The organizer knows you're not showing up — and you know it, too.
  • And finally, the "touch and go." Jumping on that call or sticking your head in the conference room just for a few seconds: "Got a customer I have to deal with. Sorry!" Seriously?

4. Be respectful in the way you communicate your reason. It's best to let them know in-person, but an email is fine if you're really pressed for time. Don't send a text or Slack. More importantly, don't insert a smiley-face emoji.

Even if you have a good reason, backing out of a meeting often creates an imposition on other team members, so be earnest, respectful and informative in your message. Use phrases like:

  • "I understand how important this is..."
  • "I'm really sorry, but I need to change the schedule..."
  • "Let's reschedule this as soon as possible..."
  • "I'm available next [X DAY] between [X AND X TIME OF DAY]..."
  • "I'm sorry I can't make this meeting, but please fill me in on any important notes..."

Also, if the meeting is being recorded, you can show respect for your colleagues' time by listening to the audio and proactively giving feedback afterwards.

5. Block times on your calendar when you are not available. Blocking times is one of the most effective ways to avoid having to say "let's cancel" in the first place.

Mark everything! This includes vacation time as well as setting your calendar to show when you are routinely out of the office. If it's a personal commitment, simple label it as "unavailable."

Your closest colleagues may be aware that you work an unusual schedule, but others may not and could request a meeting with you before your train arrives in the morning or after you leave to pick the kids up from school.

Be mindful about things like deadlines, how long an assignment will take or what specific days or weeks will require more of your attention and time.

Govern your time and do as you say

Just because there's a "right way" to cancel a meeting doesn't mean you can still do it regularly. The last thing you want to be labeled as is a "serial canceller."

Employees who consistently overcommit and then cancel eventually spiral down a rabbit hole of skipping calls, not finishing assignments (or finishing them poorly) and being routinely late. Not only do they become unreliable, but they become a liability to their employers.

And soon, they won't even have to worry about any more of those "annoying meetings" because they'll no longer get invited. (The same goes for all those career-advancing assignments.)

Be discerning about your commitments. You don't have to take on everything and say yes to every meeting. If you're truly overextended, just say so. This could be dicey if it's your boss who's calling the meeting, but it's still better to be transparent than to play games.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm that helps companies select and hire the best talent. His latest book, a New York Times best-seller, "Lose the Resume, Land the Job," shares the kind of straight talk that no one  not a spouse, partner, mentor or anyone else  will tell you. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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