Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to hold respectful meetings and still get things done

12 recommendations for humanizing the agenda

Dr. Sue Fitzsimmons, NAIT vice-president academicAs NAIT’s vice-president academic, spending the better part of a day in meetings is simply part of my job.

Meetings can be places where people come together to have critical conversations, where people do the important (and sometimes hard) work of listening, thinking, generating ideas and making decisions. They’re where common understandings are built through dialogue.

But sometimes meetings are like hamster wheels, where topics are visited over and over, with no resolution. And other times, meetings generate potentially dangerous “group think” that leads to decisions that don’t serve teams or organizations over the long term. (I once saw a funny mock-inspirational poster that featured a very positive image of hands coming together. Underneath it read: Meetings – None of us is as dumb as all of us).

One group I have the privilege of working with comes together twice a month to discuss priorities related to NAIT’s education mission. Like all groups, we sometimes mess up our footwork. But we’re trying not to step on each other’s toes too often.

To do that, we’ve worked out and agreed upon a set of behaviours – dance moves, as it were. They keep us moving in the same direction, together, and remind us to bring our best selves to the table. Listed below, they allow us to do that important, and sometimes hard, work we’ve gathered to do.

What works for us at NAIT

meeting at NAIT

  1. Put the good of the organization before the good of a department or team. Recognize that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. People have to learn to be very purposeful about the lens they look through.
     
  2. Start with the assumption of trust in each person around the table.
     
  3. Be fully present at meetings. Don’t check email; keep your cellphone turned off.
     
  4. Interact according to your group’s values. At NAIT, these are respect, collaboration, celebration, support and accountability.
     
  5. Make space for everyone to participate. Don’t talk over each other.
     
  6. Focus on the solution, not the problem.
     
  7. Debate decisions during the meeting and champion decisions when it’s over. Don’t continue the former in the hallway or coffee room later.
     
  8. Honestly and respectfully challenge each other. Be willing to tolerate the discomfort that comes with that. Without that, the best decisions can’t be made.
     
  9. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. While it’s relatively easy to critique an idea, the far more difficult work is to truly imagine the perspective of another, and consider the decision you might make if you were in their position.
     
  10. Seek to understand – not win. The stance people take in meetings impacts the kinds of conversations that happen, and ultimately, the outcome.
     
  11. Believe in the team. While the lone genius has a place, there are things best accomplished by groups of people who bring different perspectives to a task or topic.
     
  12. Strive for consensus. Ensure that everyone present feels as though there has been sufficient opportunity for open and honest debate, and is willing to enact the decision – even if it’s not the decision individuals would have come to on their own.
     

We don’t always get things right in our meetings, but they feel productive and collegial. So here’s to meetings (I honestly never thought I’d hear myself say that!), and here’s to everyone who is willing to take the time to sit down with colleagues to discuss decisions large and small.

happy, well-run meeting


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