Last week I wrote about different office cultures and their ability to become entrenched to the detriment of the organization’s health. One common cultural aspect within organizations is a meetings-for-the-sake-of-meetings habit. There are “small” meetings (which is never really the case as the only thing small about them are the size of mandazis served with the tea) or “serious” meetings (where the most serious item of discussion is the fact that revenue is declining, costs are going up and therefore the training, tea and team building budgets are going to be slashed in that order).
So you strut around the office, feeling very important that you spend your day in three face-to-face meetings, two telephone conference calls and one Skype videoconference meeting. You are needed by absolutely everyone, you are a key part of the office network and collaborative system and essentially you are required by all to do absolutely……..nothing! You cannot seriously believe deep within yourself that you are working, can you? Surely what can you be contributing by the time the third meeting rolls by and your cognitive capacity is so low that it can’t be jumpstarted by an espresso shot, secret nip of vodka or whatever your choice of poison is? At which point you start becoming fidgety and irritable and constantly glance at your blackberry expecting it to morph into an F-5 fighter jet that will whisk you out of your misery into the stratospheric oblivion of office email.
So take a step back and ponder thus: Either I am the most important person to exist since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb or I am a total halfwit dunce who exists to make other people look important. Once the answer has lit up a bulb in your rapidly diminishing grey matter, put your hand on your heart and promise to ask the next meeting convener a set of three questions. Please note that you can ask the three questions as strictly posed or as you honestly interpret it. Here we go.
Question 1 as strictly posed: Who will participate in the meeting? Question 1 as you honestly interpret it: Which cretins need to spend time with you in your miserable existence as a person-important-enough-to-convene-meetings? Question 2 as strictly posed: What purpose will all the meeting attendees have achieved when the meeting is over? Question 2 as you honestly interpret it: Who needs to know that you are clever, important and that you rule their lives? Question 3 as strictly posed: What do you want to happen after the meeting that will be helped by having the meeting? Question 3 as you honestly interpret it: How do you want to be remembered as a clever, important person who rules the lives of his colleagues?
Now you must be prepared to take serious flak for asking the three questions in whatever format (strictly posed or honestly interpreted) primarily because the meeting convener has never really had to think about the answers to those questions. You see, in the rat race that is called the white collar professional life, one is bombarded by so many demands on one’s mental faculties via email, work deadlines, work updates, stakeholder reports blah, blah, blah that one can rarely differentiate what really needs to be done from what seems to need to be done. Meetings give great comfort to procrastinators who do not want to make critical decisions that have far reaching consequences. Meetings allow the convener to cover their backsides as a hard-hitting decision can be said to be consensual. Meetings also give great comfort to procrastinators who can’t make easy decisions with little or no consequences. They simply give the procrastinator the legitimacy to delay a decision until the “meeting to discuss” is held. Meetings are a procrastinator’s nirvana.
Look, don’t get me wrong. There are good meetings being held out there. These are categorized into three types: information sharing which last not more than 15 minutes, provide an update on an event happening within the organization and are held while standing, brainstorming which are typically free format and aimed at resolving a stated problem or creating a concept and, finally consultation meetings which provide status reporting and present new information. The latter meetings start with an agenda and any pre-reading required circulated in a meeting pack beforehand. The attendees come to the meeting having read the pack and ready to make a decision based on their understanding of the issue and leave with concrete actions, owners for those actions and timelines for resolution agreed upon by the action owners. There is both accountability and consequences for non-completion of actions.
You can take control of your time and start to ensure that meetings are categorically defined upfront and their motives adhered to. You can ask the meeting convener the three career limiting questions posed above and be prepared to receive a career limiting response. Or, to keep sane in an increasingly insane office world you can do the following top ten tips on how-to-keep-sane-at-a-boring-office-meeting and hope against hope that you will survive your office meeting culture.
1. Give a broad wink to someone else at the table.
2. In time, wink at everyone.
3. Sometimes shake your head just a little, as if to indicate that the speaker is slightly crazy and everybody knows it.
4. Complain loudly that your neighbour won’t stop touching you.
5. Demand that the boss make your neighbor stop doing it.
6. Bring a hand puppet, preferably an animal.
7. Bring a small mountain of computer printouts to the meeting. If possible, include some old-fashioned accordion-fold paper for dramatic effect.
8. Every time the speaker makes a point, pretend to check it in one of the printouts.
9. Pretend to find substantiating evidence in the computer printout.
10. Nod vigorously, and say “uh-huh, uh-huh!