Meeting Ground Rules

We all whine about meetings.

“Too many!”  “Inefficient and a waste of time!”  “The wrong people are there!”  “Too much unnecessary discussion! Everybody has to show how smart they are!”  “Too political and the difficult issues never get addressed!” “Why are we revisiting this? Didn’t we already make this decision?”  “What do you mean nothing happened? Who was supposed to do that?”

And most of our complaints are well-founded.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, and leaders often have the power to make a difference.

The secrets of a good meeting are simple.

  • Agreed Purpose: Have a reason for using people’s time collectively, communicate and agree on it (publish an agenda).
  • Agreed Process: Set ground rules about how you will conduct the meeting.

The process used depends on the purpose of the meeting.  In my experience there are four main reasons to have a meeting:

  1. To give information . . . make an announcement
  2. To get information . . . fact-find, collect data, question and answer
  3. To solve a problem . . . define, generate alternate solutions, make a plan of action
  4. To gain commitment . . . persuade, negotiate, sell

The world would be a simpler place if we could separate these purposes within a typical Monday morning staff meeting, e.g.,

For the first ten minutes, I have some announcements to make.  During this time I’ll take only questions of clarity. Next, I need to get some information about absenteeism in your sections so each of you will present your data then. We’ll discuss what it means; then we’ll focus on solving the schedule delays in the XYZ project and we’ll break into a full problem-solving mode.  O.K.?

But purposes are often mixed and the process is unclear. In the worst cases, meetings blow up or people retreat into an uncommunicative shell or both.

There are some simple actions to avoid disaster and improve meetings (in this order):

  1. Agree on the purpose or purposes of the meeting.
  2. Agree on the rules of behavior in the meeting (ground rules).
  3. Agree on how the group will handle deviations from ground rules (i.e., politely note the infraction, confront it more strongly, fire the egregious offender, execute incorrigibles).

What is critical in the ground-rule agreement is that everyone takes responsibility for the success of the meeting by adhering to the ground rules. I often ran meetings to solve organizational problems.  These are not unlike other internal meetings and so the ground rules I used may be helpful:

  • Be present. Not just in body, but in mind and spirit, entirely focused on the issues at hand (not on your phone or computer, nor dreaming about a vacation).
  • Contribute and encourage contribution. Speak your mind and draw out those reluctant to speak.
    • Actively listen – not just with your ears but with visible and audible clues that you are listening (eye contact, “uh-huh,” note-taking).
    • Own your own data – it’s okay to say “I feel” or “I believe” but not to hide behind “I’ve heard that some people feel….”
    • Say what you mean and mean what you say – truthfully speak your mind, and don’t commit to things you won’t do.
  • Show respect. Don’t interrupt, don’t belittle anyone, and keep humor in, but not sarcasm at someone’s expense.
  • Be constructive. Stay focused on solutions; build on others’ ideas, and don’t tear them down.
  • Be open to insight. New ideas often come from hearing a different perspective.
  • Challenge and be open to challenge. Respectfully challenge facts, data, and conclusions, not the intent. Don’t be defensive when others ask for more explanation.
  • Spare me the history. Maintain a future focus. In order to remain solution-centered, avoid long-winded war stories about how we used to do it in year One.
  • Stay on track. Stick to the agreed process and ground rules, e.g., “We seem to be repeating information now. Have we defined the problem sufficiently such that we can move on to generating solutions?”
  • Document decisions; move to action. Output from every meeting should be a list of decisions, as well as an action list to avoid endlessly revisiting things. Hold people accountable for completing agreed actions.
  • Ensure results. Do what you say you are going to do, be persistent, and don’t give up.

Tailor five to six ground rules to the group and the needs of the meeting. Some groups need behaviorally measurable (and enforceable) ground rules like “stay on time,” “don’t interrupt,” “everything said in this room is confidential, unless agreed by the entire group.” Other groups need mindset-framing ground rules like “be open to insight,” “stretch your thinking.” Some groups need both types. There is some value to consistency, using the same ground rules over and over for the same type of meeting. There is also value to periodically changing ground rules.

If everyone agrees to the ground rules in advance and shares enforcement during the meeting, then they share responsibility for the success of the meeting and there is less whining afterwards. “NO whining” is a great meeting ground rule because even though everybody loves to whine, nobody likes a whiner.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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