Too many; time wasting; little value – meetings don't have to be this way

A good meeting requires more than a tight agenda – the way we prepare, listen and engage is vital to developing presence and improving the experience for everyone
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By Dame Una O’Brien

09 Feb 2024


Too many; time wasting; little value – common refrains when it comes to meetings. Even with the wizardry of co-working software it’s still true that – love or loathe them – for most of us meetings are wired into the working week. Virtual meetings, brilliant in many ways, have failed to shift the feeling that meetings soak up too much time and are more likely slowing us down than helping get things done.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Well-designed organisation wide-protocols, with standards for things like agendas, papers, duration and decision rights should be the norm. Such basic “meeting hygiene” helps to make effective use of everyone’s time, enabling good quality discussion, co-ordination and better decision making. Team leaders, project managers and people responsible for regular meetings would do well also to look to their own meetings and ask participants: “What’s bugging you and what needs to change?” Research by Forbes Coaches’ Council in 2022 suggests that the five things employees most crave to address their negativity about meetings are purpose, action plans, manageable duration, good calibre chairing and clarity about why they personally are in the room. We all need to do a regular re-fresh of meeting habits and show that we care about getting better value from this time together.

Another reason to think about meetings differently is that they’re central to building productive relationships at work. That’s why the way we behave in them really matters. Recently, I asked a cross-section of leaders and aspiring leaders from the civil service and wider economy to share their insights. Here are a few examples that best encapsulate the feedback:

What does the term “presence” in meetings mean to you?

 “If you have presence people sense through what you say – or don’t say – and your attention that you’re a person whose intentions are positive and your opinion worth listening to. It means not fiddling with your phone, ensuring you look towards people who are speaking, that you are fully engaged and when you intervene you have thought carefully about what contribution you want to make.”

What do you notice about colleagues who bring an influential presence to a meeting?

“They rarely dominate discussion; rather they listen attentively and when they speak usually reference points made earlier by others. They tend to build on or synthesise views, while being generous in their acknowledgement of others’ contributions.”

“The best examples are people who challenge well; who listen to others and who are able to bring context with clarity and insight that moves the discussion forward.”

What do you do to make your presence heard and felt?

“I know what I should do but often still fail to do it! Confident body language, eye contact, introducing myself to others on arrival, sitting forward and showing engagement and readiness to speak and share views when appropriate, intervening if there are difficult conversations or disagreements… not speaking too quickly or devaluing my own contributions by downplaying them, not saying “sorry” unnecessarily!”

When is your presence at its best?

“When I’m feeling confident and well rested… When I’ve thought about the subject under discussion; not necessarily a lot of prep, but where I have enough mental bandwidth to engage with it in a meaningful way.”

What evidence could indicate your presence is influential?

“When your contribution turns or reinforces the direction of the discussion or conclusions. Does it appear to energise people? Do others pick up on your ideas and run with them? Do they ask for your continuing involvement?”

We all spend too much valuable time in meetings for them not to be effective. How we listen, contribute and engage with others can make all the difference to building social capital with colleagues, making it easier to progress projects and initiatives outside as well as in the course of meetings. However well organised and chaired a meeting, we know instinctively there’s still the question of our personal presence: how do we show up; what do we do and say; can we support our points with evidence or are we taking the discussion down rabbit-holes? Choosing to make small changes to how we behave and participate, such as preparing in advance, actively listening to others and contributing to the meeting’s aims, can make the experience much more energising and purposeful. That in turn raises the likelihood our meetings will become more effective, and maybe even enjoyable!  

Dame Una O’Brien is a leadership coach with the Praesta partnership and a former permanent secretary and the Department for Health and Social Care

This article first appeared in the winter 2024 issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine here

Read the most recent articles written by Dame Una O’Brien - Civil service leaders must get better at deep listening


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