Why Meetings Fail and How to Make Them Work

The lack of employee engagement at meetings is frustrating, particularly when you have done everything in your power to get employees to participate. You asked for ideas, only to get an eye roll, a shoulder shrug, and crossed arms. You bought lunch, created a friendly atmosphere, asked questions, started with humor, but still, no engagement. Even with the best efforts, there are many reasons why your employees may not engage at your meetings. Here are five reasons why employee engagement fails during meetings:

  • Employees feel that their ideas won’t be taken seriously anyway, so why bother?
  • Peer pressure. It’s more "cool" to have an "us against them" mentality.
  • The questions are not framed to allow for participation. (Too broad.)
  • Fear of rejection.
  • No feedback or recognition when suggestions are given.

Do any of these reasons resonate with you? One of the biggest human needs besides safety is status, particularly in the workplace. So, you need to make sure that employees feel safe when participating, and you need to build in some rewards so that they see sharing ideas as a way to increase their status. With that in mind, some of these problems listed can be solved with good facilitation skills and a little planning. Here are seven ways to improve employee engagement during meetings.

1. Frame the Question

Instead of asking, "Do you have any ideas for improvement?" state the specific problem and ask employees to help problem-solve. It’s easier to come up with suggestions if the question is more narrowly framed. For example, "Our problem is each week we have a list of tasks that do not get done because these tasks are not necessarily a priority, but then we get behind the next week because we are behind. What are some possible solutions?"

Make sure you set the rules for this type of problem-solving so that all ideas are considered and not discounted.

2. Go in Order

Ask each person to come up with at least one idea, even if it’s a small idea. Be comfortable with the silence that may occur right before the first word is spoken.

3. Warm Them Up

Get them started by doing a little brainstorming session. Ask your staff about something that is already positive, or something that is already working. In other words, find something to get feedback about before you open for problem-solving.

4. [Encourage] Group Participation

If you have six people, have them work in groups of two. Give them time to brainstorm either before or at your meeting, and then make a list of their suggestions.

5. Make It Part of the Agenda

Make it a requirement before the meeting for your people to come up with a suggestion. Put this on the agenda, so they get used to it. This will change the culture eventually.

6. Reward Good Ideas

Report back at the next meeting which idea was used and why. Compliment all for their participation and reinforce the notion that good ideas often come from an idea that was not completely developed. Let them know that what works today may be ineffective in two years, just as electricity made the candle an ineffective reading light.

7. Always Show Respect

Even when you hear something crazy, you must exhibit self-control. When I first started speaking, my expressions always betrayed my feelings. Once on a feedback form, someone said that when I disagree with others I roll my eyes. I tell you this to show you how unaware we are sometimes. Learn how to come from a place of curiosity instead of judgment. Once they trust you, they will have not only some good ideas, they will also have your back.

Try to implement these tips at your next staff meeting, and you’ll notice an immediate improvement in employee engagement. When employees know that you want to hear their ideas and suggestions and that you are listening to them, you’ll find that they are eager to participate and work together as a team.

Marlene Chism is a professional speaker, trainer, and the author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011), from which this article is drawn. It has been edited for this publication.

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