Only Attend Meetings That Count

Are your team members attending every meeting they are invited to?  Should they be?  I’d argue that most people should be actively declining a large swath of the meetings they are invited to.  In fact, if your team members aren’t declining meetings, I’d argue that they may just be along for the ride and willing to be taken where the wind takes them. 

Before accepting a meeting invite, always ask, “What is the expected outcome of this meeting?”  This sets up clear meeting expectations which can then be used to further evaluate the need for the meeting.  Once the expected outcome is clear, we may be able to get to the expected outcome without meeting at all.  Sometimes, we may even realize that a different meeting with different people is needed altogether. This helps to ensure that the meetings we do have are focused and productive and helps eliminate the unnecessary ones.  

Practice declining meetings that you’ve decided that you don’t need to be in, and be unapologetic about it.  If you are laser focused on the end goal, you’ll have a good idea on which meetings are important enough to attend.  Most meetings are less productive and less important than the tangible work on your plate required to reach the end goal.

The more meetings you can identify as wasteful and eliminate, the more productivity and time is gained all around. A single meeting with 8 people tied up for an hour costs a total of 8 hours.  You want to make absolutely sure that those 8 hours are worth it.  By ensuring you understand the desired outcome of the meeting, you can ensure that the meeting is absolutely necessary. Often you can get to the desired outcome without the meeting altogether saving an exponential amount of burn.

Eight hours of time might not seem much to you, especially as it’s spread out amongst many different people, but it adds up.  To put it into perspective, every single person in the organization is invited to multiple meetings daily.  I’d argue that they don’t need to be in all (or most?) of them.  

Consider regular team meetings of a larger team where 30 people attend for an hour every day.  

– 30 hours of project time burned per day

– 150 hours of project time burned per week

– 625 hours of project time burned per month 

– significant amount of dollars burned

“But, it’s just an hour a day to make sure everybody is on track”; maybe so, but you should be able to make reasonable evidence based arguments to justify this burn.  It’s important to consider the spend of the payer for these meetings because unless it the importance can really be justified all of this time adds up to burn.

I am not saying this type of meeting is wrong; there is a time and a place for these things.  However, this kind of burn should be temporary at best.  These types of meetings may be needed to ensure everyone is going in the right direction during critical project junctures.   Once you are on-track, reduce them, reduce who attends, and eliminate them in-favour of less obstructive approaches.

In general, most of the people in really large meetings (20+ people) are not doing anything but wasting time by being there unless the purpose of the meeting is solely to disseminate information that is of significant importance to a large group of people.

Meetings Shouldn’t Be Mandatory. It’s Your Time – Own It.

Mandatory meetings are just other meetings, and there is (almost) no meeting that is important enough to be ‘mandatory’. What is an “mandatory meeting” anyway and who decides that?  It certainly shouldn’t be the meeting organizer who decides what and who’s attendance is mandatory . 

Regardless of intentions, sometimes people tell other people that their attendance is mandatory.  This could easily be construed as trying to exert control even though that may not be the intention.  “Mandatory meetings”, especially when they are regular, raise red flags for me.  I recognize that most requests for attendance at a “mandatory meeting” are by people who do believe it is in their or the organizations’ ‘best interests’; this is a fallacy. It’s important to strive for mutual understanding between parties to ensure a better balance and boundaries when it comes to meetings, interactions, and exertion of control.  

The best leaders will take the first important steps to create an environment where people are empowered to own their time. However, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes we’ll hear: “Why weren’t you in the meeting?” – this is sometimes (not always) an attempt to exert control. It might work with people at the expense of their silence, participation, and morale, and perhaps that’s partly why this approach is used, but it’s not the right approach. If someone inquisitions you with this kind of question, these statements may cause you some distress, but try not to let it cause you any at all.  Meetings are the choice of the attendee and organizations should empower that choice. 

This is not to say that I’m promoting some kind of insubordination. However, if you are asked by someone of whom you are subordinate to to attend a meeting — and you confirm — then go to the meeting. However, you are doing a disservice to both yourself and others if you are wasting time by being there. If you are not providing value but you should be — that’s a problem. If your time is better utilized in another way, discuss it with your superior and make a case to them so that they understand it.

Each person should understand their own priorities, and should have enough conviction along with the critical reasoning skills to evaluate when a meeting requires their attendance or does not.  If  questioned about it, I employ everyone to turn the questions into constructive dialogue, so that the other person understands your reasoning and that you understand theirs, instead of just conceding.  Conceding isn’t a winning proposition, and it’s your time and your deliverables that ultimately get put at stake when you grudgingly submit to participate in wasteful activities . 

Trust Your People to Make Decisions About Meeting Attendence 

As a leader, if you do not trust your people to make decisions about the use of their time, then you are basically attesting to the fact that you do not trust their capabilities.  Maybe you believe that you are in a better position to manage their time than they are? This is usually a fallacy, but in some cases this might actually be true. You may have people that do not show up, miss deadlines, and underdeliver because they don’t manage their time well or are simply underperforming for a myriad of reasons. Thus, you very well may need to set boundaries  such as more frequent updates and establish greater face to face interaction to get visibility into what’s going on, but that’s the exception and should never turn into the rule nor ever be the starting point.  In fact, when you take the same approach to high performing individuals, they get wary, uncomfortable, and feel they are being treated as if they don’t understand how to effectively use their time. What?  You don’t trust your team to make decisions about meetings they have license to make in order to manage their own time to meet  their objectives?.

Of course, there will also be people who don’t go to meetings, who miss important information, and continually disregard the needs of the team – regardless of their individual performance. If the team legitimately needs something from you, and you disregard it, that’s a problem. It’s important not to let your ego run amok and to find the right balance of useful meetings where you can have a positive impact. A positive impact may mean dropping into the meeting to provide guidance and leadership, or working directly with the team to resolve their immediate concerns and help put in mitigation and long term approaches where they can proceed in a self-sustaining way.  

I’m not saying to sit in a silo, work quietly solo, and never participate in meetings. I participate in plenty of meetings – some of which I orchestrate and other’s in which I attend where I feel I can provide significant value or when I will receive significant value. I have the tools and capabilities to effectively evaluate which meetings to go to and which meetings I don’t go to. 

Meetings Shouldn’t be “Just to Talk About It”

Meetings shouldn’t be created “just to talk”.  Time is money.  When creating meetings always include the expected outcome and only schedule the meeting when the expected outcome is absolutely essential.  Setting an agenda is one thing, but it’s not nearly as important as identifying the outcome you are looking for. Setting up a meeting with no clear goal just “to talk about it” is setting yourself up for meeting failure and wasting people’s time.

Conversely, if you want to schedule a meeting because you don’t understand something, ask yourself if you’ve really made an honest attempt to understand it.  Have you tried less obstructive means to understand it before deciding to call a meeting with 8 attendees? Are you sure you want to interrupt everybody elses work flow ?  Do you really think it’s necessary to burn 8 hours of total time just because you don’t want to take 30 minutes in an honest attempt to get up to speed with itl?   We don’t always think about it this way but we should.  Eight hours of an organizations time or money is a big ask, especially in consideration of the lack of time you spent trying to understand an issue before calling a meeting about it.

Don’t Measure People Based On Their Meeting Attendance

What about sports teams? Yes, everyone on a sports team needs to attend meetings and attend practice – I get it. I understand that mentality could loosely translate to the workplace – but only to a degree. Sports teams definitely track attendance in one way or another. However, I don’t like the ‘sports team’ analogy as it doesn’t translate well to an office environment where people are working on different projects and competing priorities. Empowering people to know when their attendance is required is much better. Yes, someone may need to miss a meeting because they have been empowered or have empowered themselves to understand that this other competing priority is more important than this other meeting. Think about how powerful that is as a skill in the workplace — your people optimize their time spent based on their priorities.

Feel free to track people’s attendance at meetings, but this should be for the sake of documentation and meeting minutes. Be wary of using this as some kind of gauge or metric to keep people accountable for their mandatory attendance or to track productivity. This is not to say it’s wrong; I can think of examples where this might legitimately apply, but I recommend exercising caution in when and how it’s applied. Let’s say you are on-site setting up lighting equipment for different clients every day; you may have a huddle first thing in the morning, every day, that the entire team needs to attend to understand the ‘game plan’.


At the end of the day, if the only constructive criticism about your performance is that “you don’t go to all the meetings”, then you are probably on the right track. Undoubtably, at times you will run into people who for whatever reason are more concerned about the meetings you don’t attend rather than the output of your and the teams work, and you need to engage with constructive dialogue with them in order to educate them on where the value is that you bring to the table. There is a place for focused and targeted meetings that contribute to the output of the team’s work, and those are the only meetings that should be entertained. 

You need to be unapologetic, you need to control and own your time, and you need to hold yourself accountable to it.  Never be subordinate to someone else’s desire for your time.  It’s yours.  You own it.  Not them.

Leaders, make sure to foster an environment where people are empowered to decline meetings — a little encouragement and support goes a long way.

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