How Mindfulness Can Make Your Meetings More Productive

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: Meetings can be most despised part of work and viewed often as a waste of time.
The Science: Studies have shown that meetings often hamper productivity but mindfulness can be a solution.
The Solution: Use these few simple tips to incorporate mindfulness into your next meeting to make it more productive and enjoyable!

In my work with CEOs, senior executives and employees the number one complaint is meetings–specifically how they are a waste of time. And even though the recession has resulted in reduced employee levels, the demand for meeting time has not changed. As renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Several research studies have shown that many if not most meetings are not worth the time. For example, in a survey reported in Industry Week, 2000 managers claimed that at least 30% of their time spent in meetings were a waste of time. According to a 3M Meeting Network survey of executives, 25-50% of the time people spend in meetings is wasted. And according to a survey by Office Team, a division of Robert Half International, 45% of senior executives surveyed said that their employees would be more productive if their firms banned meetings for a least one day a week.

Mike Figliudo, writing in SmartBrief on Leadership, conducted a poll asking this question: “How much time do you spend in recurring meetings?” He was shocked by the results. Thirty percent of the respondents are spending between 30-75% of their time in recurring meetings. He claims much of this time is a waste of money Figliudo calculates the cost by taking the total annual compensation of each fo the people in the meeting , dividing by 250 days per year and dividing that by 8 hours a day. Using an example of a typical company of senior managers, a monthly 2 hour staff meeting was costing the company $180K per year. Figliudo asks, is the resulting productivity worth the investment?

And brain research may provide us with another reason to not have meetings. Research by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues as well as other neuroscientists, indicates that we have a limited amount of cognitive or what they call “executive” resources. One they get depleted, we make bad decisions or choices. Business meetings require people to commit, focus and make decisions, with little or no attention paid to the depletion of the finite cognitive resources of the participants–particularly if the meetings are long. So if that is true, the three or four hour project meetings may be counterproductive.

If meetings are absolutely necessary, leaders responsible for them need to both manage the meetings efficiently and be skillful group processes, something that, in my experience, most executives are not trained to do.

Here are some useful general tips for meetings:

  • Don’t hold a meeting unless you have to. Avoid recurring meetings;
  • Be clear about the outcome and purpose of the meeting;
  • Have someone run the meeting who is skilled at group process;
  • Distribute a specific agenda including intended outcomes in advance
  • Don’t use meetings to distribute information or give updates or low level housekeeping–do that by email
  • Hold meetings just before lunch so people will value the limited time
  • Use stand-up meetings without chairs or tables wherever possible
  • Limit meetings to one hour in length
  • Always begin and end the meetings at the announced times whether the agenda is finished or not

Since my original advice, and my ongoing work with executives on mindful leadership, I’d add to the list above the following.

A few simple ways to incorporate mindfulness into meetings:

  • Conduct a quiet 1-2 minute grounding meditation exercise so people can clear their minds of previous brain activities and mentally and emotionally prepare themselves better for their new tasks in the meeting;
  • Go around the table and have people express how they are “feeling” (not thinking) that day, so the meeting leader and participants can gain a better appreciation of the inner states of the participants;
  • Encourage open-mindedness by insisting on people asking questions for clarification or further elucidation of the speaker before adding their perspectives;
  • Encourage the practice of acceptance by participants by accepting the person who is speaking, even though issue may be taken regarding their specific perspective or ideas;
  • Encourage the practice of compassion for participants who may be experiencing personal emotional challenges;
  • Ensure the meeting leader/facilitator regulates and prohibits personal attacks on individual participants;
  • Encourage participants to monitor their internal mental, physical and emotional states as they participate in the meeting.

A version of this article appeared in Psychology Today.

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Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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