Careers advice: Meaningful meetings

20 November 2019

You can often predict which meetings will be unproductive from the moment you receive the invitation. There’s the weekly “team update” where you spend two hours listening to a rundown of how everyone spent their week, or the “planning meeting” where you thrash out details that could be handled elsewhere, or the general “brainstorming session” where typically the more extrovert hold court with shouting out random ideas.

Some of these you can navigate to be selective, but others are much harder to escape - especially if the invitation comes from your boss, a key client, or an influential colleague. Here are five ways to get out of a meeting that you know will be unproductive, or at least to limit the collateral damage to your productivity and diary commitments.

First, get clear on which meetings really are important to attend

The list is short: The most essential meetings are the ones in which decisions will be made. If your team is choosing to launch either Project A or Project B, you can’t make a high-stakes decision over email - you need everyone to share their viewpoint, air their concerns, and coalesce around a solution. That’s best done in person.

  • What is the exact topic?
  • What is the timing and location?
  • What is the duration?
  • Who else will be in attendance?
  • What decision needs to be made at the meeting? (This helps you easily determine whether the intended meeting is high-value.)

Ask why you specifically need to be there. This forces the meeting organisers to articulate a clear reason. If they say “To keep you updated,” then you can simply tell them to do this post facto by sharing the minutes with you. This is a more difficult challenge for junior colleagues but even so, asking for clarification and purpose shows that you are trying to effectively manage your time and productivity.

Secondly, a related category that’s important to attend is any meeting that provides an overall strategic direction for your company or team. It may not include specific decisions (“We’re launching the new line on August 1”), but it allows you to develop a unified vision of where you’re headed. This could include a project kick-off meeting, a brainstorming session (during which you form a rough sense of which ideas are on point and which aren’t), or a milestone-related check-in.

Thirdly, an acceptable reason to join a meeting is for relationship-building purposes. The content itself might be unnecessary, but if you can strengthen a relationship with an important contact by putting in some face time, that’s not a bad outcome. The meetings to avoid at all costs are “updates” — which can be handled in one-tenth of the time through email.

Fourthly, if you want to get out of a meeting but still feel it’s difficult to say no, suggest a minimally invasive compromise. A meeting will almost certainly take an hour or more of your time. See if the meeting organiser would be willing to update you over email, or by a short phone call to get your input.

Finally, sometimes you do have to relent and attend but you can at least make your boss or colleagues aware that your time is prioritised and scheduled. For instance, you could say, “I saw that you invited me to attend the meeting about Project A on Thursday. As you know, I’m heads-down right now working on Project B and we’re on a tight deadline. You have a better sense of the big picture here, so I wanted to check in. Do you think it’s worth it for me to take time away from Project B to attend this meeting? If you think it’s important, of course I’ll be there.” Sometimes, even well-meaning supervisors and colleagues forget that your time isn’t infinite, so a tactful reminder can help them understand the consequences of their meeting invitations.

Meetings can be the scourge of modern business life, consuming many hours a month. Many professionals attempt to cope in a passive-aggressive way, showing up late to meetings or fiddling with their gadgets instead of listening. But that may be the worst choice of all, because it perpetuates an office culture where it’s OK to tune out your colleagues and disrespect others’ time.

The strategies above provide a better way to push back and protect your time. Instead of running from meeting to meeting, behaving like the proverbial White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland repeating “I’m late, I’m late!” you’ll be better equipped to do the valuable work that you’re evaluated on and rewarded for.

For more support with any career-related issue, please don't hesitate to contact the WBS CareersPlus team via careersplus@wbs.ac.uk or alumnicareers@wbs.ac.uk for alumni.

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