By Laura Andersen

It is way too easy now. A meeting gets put on your calendar about a project. No preparation instructions, no asks in advance, no provided purpose. You’re lukewarm on the project, not fully convinced of its merits yet. But everyone can see that your calendar is blank at that time. So, you show up to the meeting. 

If you’re in a workplace with norms designed to maintain connection and community while working from home, you have your camera on. If not, your camera is off and you’re on mute… staring at a bunch of dark, blank squares. Either way, you are eating a snack. 

The meeting kicks off but there’s no clear agenda. The organizer has good ideas, but no intentional strategy to reach decisions or commit to a plan in the time allotted. The end of the meeting approaches faster than everyone anticipated, leaving no time to assign specific next steps to each person on the call. 

You click out of the meeting, relieved that you did not have to commit to move on anything before the next meeting. And, you will not see the convener’s face until the next meeting, or perhaps the next time you’re back in office. You go back to your own work and simply wait for that person to call another poorly-run meeting about their project. Easy. 

Easy, but… yikes. If the project really does matter, then your organization’s vision and mission are undermined by this instance of [your and probably some others’] disengagement. This lack of interpersonal accountability is made effortless without face to face contact in the office. Our closeness and camaraderie, and sense of informal accountability, can easily erode. Where can we go from here?

If you are the convener, you can do your part, given these circumstances, to enhance the integrity of your professional community. Connection and communication happen in meetings. Then, individual and small-group productivity happens in between. If you see yourself in the above account of a bumbling project, take heart: structure helps. (Revisit Ashton’s post on the value of planning and preparation!) Almost everyone I know aspires to be a person of their word. The people around you probably do too. Consider these steps to help those around you make and keep agreements: 

  • Set the vision. Everyone is tugged in various directions, distracted by a home environment not fully “under control,” and stressed to maintain productivity. Remind your team why you ask for their precious minutes and focus, in the invitation itself and as you kick off the conversation. 
  • State the desired outcome of each meeting. Then, verbally elevate each person into a role of ensuring that the outcome is achieved. Sure, you are facilitating, but assuming that you chose the invite list well, you will need each person’s unique contributions to reach the end goal. Remind them what the goal is, and that you need them!
  • Watch the clock. If you are not going to reach the outcome you need in time, name it. “We have 10 minutes left and I sense that we are far from a decision. I will find 30 more minutes on our calendar. What do you need to be ready to make one then and there?” Hear from each person and assign next steps to get each person “there” by the next conversation. 
  • Make real agreements. Healthy teams make honest, time-bound, specific requests of one another. Honest requests are those that are truly necessary – “I’m not just creating work for you, here’s why we need this” – and can be upheld. This requires self-awareness from the person asking for the action item and the person agreeing to do it. Save 15 minutes for this step, and if needed, talk trade offs to get crystal clear on the implications of each person taking on a new to-do.
  • Set aside time to debrief with key collaborators shortly after the meeting, ideally that same day. Affirm one another for what went well. Get immediate feedback, and identify necessary follow up conversations or next steps to ensure progress actually happens between meetings. Smart managers schedule the debrief time, knowing that it otherwise might not happen.
  • Circle back on all agreements. Celebrate when agreements are met! When an agreement is not kept, acknowledge, diagnose, and create a new agreement to move forward in earnest. Build this check-in process into your agenda, especially when reporting out on each agreement still feels new and awkward. This lets you and your team rely on the bones until you build the muscle.

Honesty and integrity are virtues that we universally admire, in and out of the workplace. A clear agreement offers structure and invites each person involved to live more honestly, with greater integrity. What a joy to know we can rely on one another to get important work done. And what a relief, especially when few other factors in our lives feel reliable. 

Wishing you a week of kind accountability that elevates you and those around you into being people of your word. And in turn, a week of dynamic collaboration, that refreshes your sense of purpose and momentum, as you bring your organization’s mission to life.