The art to a good meeting? It’s science

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It’s easy to get bogged down in endless staff gatherings that serve little purpose, but there are proven ways to make them more efficient and worthwhile – and teachers already have all the skills to put them in place, says Grainne Hallahan

The science behind meetings

A meeting is an event where the minutes are kept but the hours are lost.” This has become a popular refrain in the world of work and, no doubt, many teachers see the truth in that statement. Days rarely seem to be improved by the addition of meetings yet teachers’ lives are full of them: meetings with parents, meetings with your faculty, whole school meetings...the list goes on.

As meetings clog up calendars, they can often create a mix of frustration and ennui among those in attendance, and rarely achieve anything more than the basic requirements. But does it have to be this way?

Not according to Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organisational science, management and psychology. In his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, he says meetings can be transformed into more effective beasts with a few easy tweaks that, fortunately, teachers are already skilled at using.

“What it takes to be a good teacher in designing a class is very akin to what it takes to be a good meeting leader,” says Rogelberg. “Good teachers think about the plan, how to deliver the lesson, the seating plan, and they want to mix up their delivery to keep it fresh. All of these elements are the same things that make meetings work.”

So, how can you ensure that the meetings you hold are productive and efficient? Here’s a quick guide.

1. Mix up the meeting agenda

If you’re putting out the same agenda week in, week out, you’re probably not using that tool effectively, suggests Rogelberg.

“So many agendas are just recycled from meeting to meeting, and agendas in themselves don’t promote meeting effectiveness. What matters more is what is on the agenda: are the topics meaningful and relevant?” he explains.

If you have just checked your next agenda and it reads “data reports, behaviour reports, any other business”, you may be in trouble, he says. “Rather than thinking of your agenda as a set of topics to be covered, you should consider sometimes framing it as a set of questions to be answered instead,” says Rogelberg. “This is an interesting exercise as it makes you think more carefully about what you’re trying to achieve. You don’t have to answer that question in the meeting, but you might break it down so you have one question that is separated into parts that you will answer over a series of meetings.”

For example, the agenda may read:

  • Has the progress of pupil premium students increased since last term?
  • Have we reduced the number of behaviour incidents during transition periods?
  • Is the intervention for literacy having an impact on key stage 3 English outcomes?

Why would such a structure make a difference? “Posing questions makes you more goal-oriented, and we know from psychological and educational research that goals motivate people,” says Rogelberg.

2. Change up the meeting place

Meeting inertia can not only be due to repetitive agendas but repetitive locations, too, with teachers forced into the same tired, cold, poorly lit room week after week. This can have definite repercussions for meeting effectiveness, says Rogelberg.

“Playing with location can keep people energised and put them in a better, more positive frame of mind,” he says. “It’s OK to mix things up: meeting in a new location, a standing meeting, a sit-down meeting, a walking meeting. There are things we can try, and it makes sense to give them a go to keep it fresh.”

Will you end up annoying some people? Maybe, but that isn’t necessarily a problem.

“Typically, some people like some locations more than others,” says Rogelberg. “So, when you mix it up, some people will be pleased, and others displeased some of the time, which is fine.”

3. Shake up the seating plan

There is a whole psychology behind the chair you sit in at a meeting. There has been much debate about which seats have the most power in a meeting while some people often just want to sit in the corner and say nothing.

Wherever you choose to sit, says Rogelberg, what matters is that you ensure teachers don’t always stick to the same place.

“There isn’t a magical seating location but it’s recommended to change the patterns across the meetings. By mixing it up, it’s healthy and it gives it variety,” he says.

Teachers can become just as tired by predictability as children, so think of the changes as being akin to switching your classroom around. “Sometimes you just need to move the kids around; the same applies for meeting dynamics,” Rogelberg claims. “Sometimes it’s good to have people sit in different places because seating locations affect the dynamics and the flow of information and communication.”

4. Change your delivery

Delivering a whole-school meeting can make you feel less like a rock star performing to adoring fans and more like you’re preaching a sermon to a snoozing congregation. So, rather than always using the “stand and deliver” approach, Rogelberg suggests engaging with technology to minimise the time wasted sitting and listening to information in unison.

“Leaders could record the information on their phone or laptop, and send it to everyone so staff can listen to it at their own pace, such as on their commute. I think people generally prefer that to someone just dumping information on them.”

Presenting the information in this manner allows you time to use the meeting in a more productive way. “You could think of it as a flipped classroom, and then ask if people have questions, as opposed to just throwing out information and then answering questions,” he says.

5. Don’t cut out the meetings

Far from advocating a world with fewer meetings, Rogelberg sees such get-togethers as a great example of democracy in action. Without meetings, we’d all just be following one person’s vision without any consultation. So, the answer to poor meeting motivation is not fewer meetings. Instead, what we need to do is make sure meetings work for us.

“What people want is fewer bad meetings,” says Rogelberg. “People want meetings that are improved, shortened and tightened.”

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes. She tweets @heymrshallahan

This article originally appeared in the 4 OCTOBER 2019 issue under the headline “Put the science behind meetings on the agenda”