Picture it: New Brunswick 2012. A group of student leaders sit in a quasi-circle formation in a crowded room. There isn’t a ton of room to spread out and there is little table space for notepads or laptops. It is difficult to see and hear other student leaders. The tone in the room is questionable…so is the attention span of the crowd. Present? Yes. Engaged? Barely. Contributions? Practically zero.What’s wrong here? These students volunteered to be a part of this organization. Why isn’t this room booming with excitement, conversation, and brilliant ideas? Running a meeting is an extremely difficult task, one that is often overlooked. The ability to capture and hold on to the interest of numerous tired, busy students is one that is essential in a leader because meetings are a vital part of student organizations and often take up a significant amount of time compared to the length of events.
Many different strategies exist for running a meeting. Through my involvement at Rutgers University and in my work experiences I have seen a few different strategies to run a meeting; some successful and some disasters. The Unstructured Meeting At my former job, office assistant for a graphic design studio, we had bi-weekly meetings that were catered. We would all order our lunch two days in advance on the company’s bill and we would sit around a big square table and eat and chat. There were both formal and informal discussions. There were moments of seriousness and moments of laughter. All employees were required to come but no one was required to contribute to the discussion. It was relaxed. However, I noticed that meeting after meeting, people got comfortable in their seats and began sitting next to the same exact people and side conversations would occur. The artists sat together. The admin. people sat together. The management sat together. I felt it would have been healthier to take people out of their comfort zone and switch seating around or even play a game to find your seat just to lighten the mood and get employees moving and sitting near people they wouldn’t normally have. Its a good way to bring employees together and create a sense of community. The Principled Meeting
In one student organization I volunteer for, we have a strict formation of the meetings. A vague agenda is distributed in the exact same format every meeting and the same topics are discussed in the same order. The president of the organization begins, runs, and ends the meeting. Other students only chime in if the topic is theirs or when prompted for a response.
While this format, arguably, moves things along faster because of the strict structure, I feel that it hinders our ability as an organization to come up with new ideas, discuss things that should be delved into, and connect as a team.
Wouldn’t you say that the way an agenda is designed says a lot about what an organization finds important? By that I mean, would you say that what is discussed first is probably the most important thing to the organization? Would you also say that what is talked about last…you know, when members have mentally checked out, probably isn’t as hard-news as the first? I know I think that way. When I look around the room during the last few bullets on the agenda, I can see the glazed-over looks on members’ eyes who are internally saying, “Just 9 more minutes…just 6 more minutes…” By then, you’ve lost their attention and whatever is being discussed is actually ignored by some. This can’t be good.
Yes, this structure is successful in giving attention to each topic to be discussed but is almost robotic in the way it plays out. Let’s talk about X…Now let’s talk about Y…Lastly, Z…
Spare me. The Casual Meeting
Many college classes these days are placing a huge emphasis on group work and the importance of group dynamics. Groups are required to complete one or more big projects together over the course of a semester so in a way, they become a team…an organization dedicated to a common goal.
As is true in every team, there are leaders, followers, and slackers. The important thing to do is recognize who is who very early on in order to achieve success as a group…because even slackers can be influenced and inspired to contribute.
These student groups tend to randomly meet up outside of class time in order to accomplish tasks for their projects. Everyone shows up, contributes information, has discussions, and usually some idea or product is produced. There isn’t much pressure and its usually in a relaxed setting.
Although many complications can occur like tardiness of members or joking around during a meeting, ultimately the group must reach a point where a task must be completed and eventually, a goal accomplished.What does this mean?
Change it up! As you’ve read, many different meeting structures can work. But they can also fail. As a leader, it is your job (our job) to engage followers during a meeting and get things DONE.
Go ahead, lose a little bit of that control freak in you. Drop some structure and your followers might end up talking about things you’d never thought of. Switch up the seating or play short games and the perception of interconnectedness will increase.
Agendas are a great way to keep the meeting on track. But don’t get stuck in a rut. Switch things around. Your followers will lose interest if they know exactly what’s going to happen in exactly what order at every single meeting.
Get everyone to relax. Some members may feel stressed, anxious, or nervous before a meeting. Lighten up the moment and treat it somewhat like a hang-out, not a requirement. Even showing a funny YouTube clip that relates to your organization could decrease some tension before a long meeting and keep them wondering about the next meeting.