Manager Tools on Distractions in Meetings

Recorded on August 8th, 2016

Every so often, I listen to Manager Tools, an excellent podcast about being a better manager. I’m not a manager of anyone, but I believe that we can all influence and lead each other, even if we don’t have direct reports. Their latest episode covers distractions in meetings and gives some blunt, hard-nosed advice, but it’s something more people need to hear.

They recommend having agreed-upon ground rules for all meetings, such as no laptops, no checking smartphones, no interruptions, and no sidebars (people talking with each other on the side). Then, once these rules are in place, if someone violates one of the rules, you call them out on it. Not in a rude way, and not in a way that derails the meeting and calls undue attention to the offender. You call them out swiftly and politely so the behavior can be corrected and the meeting can continue. And you do this because meetings are expensive and it’s a waste of everyone’s time to do anything but listen and participate.

All of this may sound old-fashioned and rigid, but my experience with the Manager Tools podcast is that what sometimes sounds like extreme advice usually ends up being a smart direction, and it only sounds extreme because our habits are so broken. I’ve been in work cultures where laptop use wasn’t just tolerated — it was expected. I’ve seen how smartphones can be a badge of busy-person honor. And everyone knows the dynamic where the person who interrupts the most is seen as tuned-in and ambitious. What if we turned that all around?

What if, instead of taking notes on the laptop, we took only a notebook and pen or pencil into the meeting, and listened more and wrote down only key ideas and actions? What if we quietly excused ourselves from the meeting if we had to check our phone badly enough that we couldn’t leave it in our pocket? (Don’t even get me started about cellphone holsters.) What if we actually let people finish what they’re saying instead of breathlessly rushing in with criticism or our latest brilliant idea? And what if we actually shut the hell up and gave 100% focus to the person who had the floor?

Your workplace may encourage any of the distracting behaviors mentioned earlier, and they may be so widespread that no-one is bothered by them. But I suspect that if you abandon your old ways, you’ll subtly differentiate yourself from your peers. You’ll look wiser, calmer, and more thoughtful when you do step in with your earth-shattering idea, and your meetings will be more productive and end faster.

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