How can I encourage my talkative boss to stick to a meeting agenda?
January 16, 2008 3:24 AM   Subscribe

How can I encourage my talkative boss to stick to a meeting agenda?

My boss, while a nice person at heart, loves to talk (and talk and talk) and also loves to schedule numerous meetings where she talks some more. I'm tired of being stuck in endless unproductive and incredibly dull meetings with her and would love to find a way to encourage her to stick to a meeting agenda.

If you've been in a similar situation yourself and have any advice for me I would be eternally grateful! Please note that being blunt with her probably won't do any good as she seems to have low self-esteem and can be very touchy, I need a subtle solution if at all possible.

A huge thank you in advance for any help you can give!!
posted by katala to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Write the agenda on a whiteboard or flipchart at the start of the meeting, and put big tickboxes beside each point, and a column for action initials. When you decide on what to do about something, put a tick in the box and the initials of the person(s) who will take it on.

If your boss is meandering and talking about non-work related things, I've found that having a dedicated five minutes to do that kind of thing at the start of the meeting (i.e. write it down on the board too - 'Five minute catchup') gets it out of people's systems, and lets people get settled. Then a quick 'On to point one', gets things going.

If she's going off on work-related tangents or ramblings, draw a big box at the bottom of the flipchart/board and put 'Any Other Business' as the title. Any time a tangent starts which distracts from the key point at hand, say 'that's something we need to talk about for sure, let's park it until we hit Any Other Business'. Scribble a reminder in the box at the bottom. If it really is important, it'll get the time it deserves. If it's not, it'll get a two-sentence rehash and get dropped, instead of derailing your actual points.

Remember, if people are leaving a meeting and no one has been given an action they must carry out, that they will then report on at the next meeting, there's no point having the meeting.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:56 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let's call the time you think the meeting should end X
  • Book your own meetings to start at X.
  • Set up an alarm on your phone or PDA to go off at X.
  • Organise someone to call you, or knock on the door and ask for you at X.
  • Say you can't attend the meeting because you have a deadline/client meeting/important phone call/sick spouse/friend arriving on a plane.
  • Express your concern to other senior people you trust.
Mix and match the above, and don't always use them as excuses to leave. For example, when the alarm goes off, check it quietly then return your attention to the meeting without saying anything.

Note, only try the above if the meetings are in fact useless and you won't be disadvantaged if you do leave. Careful though. She might get the hint, or she might come to think you're an arsehole.

Frankly though, if she's your boss you're pretty screwed. I had a managing director that liked to blow out meetings by talking for 45 minutes without breathing. ("I'm glad you're all here, it's an exciting time and I'm excited to be able to talk to all of you, who are here...") I, and I believe other staff, complained when she had us all stay back on a Friday evening for one of these crap sessions and we were at least able to keep future meetings within normal business hours, but the length of general staff meetings increased by about an hour after her arrival and became significantly less productive. (And she simply wouldn't entertain the idea of using non-realtime, computer-mediated communication technologies like forums, wikis, or even email to make the process more efficient because she believed "there are just some things that need to be done face to face".)
posted by krisjohn at 4:44 AM on January 16, 2008

Tell her about stand up meetings--they are meetings, but you do them standing!

Be REALLY REALLY excited about it!
posted by sondrialiac at 5:15 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to steer your boss back into business by interjecting with questions, and using a friendly and nonantagonistic tone?

Very generally speaking, I've found that the more a person loves to talk and talk and talk, the less likely they are to be offended or even notice if you interrupt -- I presume this is because outside of the workplace, it's the only way friends and family can get a word in edgewise.

It feels rude, but desperate times, etc.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:09 AM on January 16, 2008

Can you schedule a task or tentative task immediately after the meeting? Then, at the beginning, make it clear to manager that you have to do X at specific time. Depends on your work environment, of course. If I'm really stuck in these type meetings, I scribble notes to myself (brain dumps, grocery lists, errands, etc). We have a sweet, lax, and rambly manager, but it seems like we all (unplanned) take turns guiding him through the meeting. If she's really sensitive, she'd probably openly welcome more involvement from the team. She might literally not know what you want to discuss. I wouldn't do it, but if you want to be blunt, do it kindly and privately. Expect the result to be temporary. She might make agendas for a few meeting, but she will fallback into her old ways.
And, it could be much worse. I had a super evil manager for awhile who liked to have meetings about meetings. It infuriated me to no end and senior management refused to help. I literally worked on my resume and other personal tasks during these unnecessary, condescending, and kindergarten-ish type meetings. Eventually, I found my way to a different manager.
posted by ick at 6:35 AM on January 16, 2008

We used to have deathly status meetings here which seemed to go on forever. We switched to using SCRUM project management which features status meetings. We follow the rules and the script for each person:
1. Yesterday I did _______
2. Today I'm doing _______
3. My impediments are ______

meetings take no more than 15 minutes. Meetings start on time (those who are tardy do not get fruit cup pay $1 into a slush fund). The SCRUM master is responsible for actively making sure the meeting happens quickly and efficiently. There are rules for who can and can not participate.

This format has been a blessing for status meetings. It also makes sure that everyone has an idea of what their team members are doing.
posted by plinth at 6:56 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of taking on the task of making an agenda too. You could just tell her it really helps you stay focused when you have the agenda in front of you, so you can follow better, and take notes right on the agenda. So you'd like to know what topics she plans to cover ahead of time, oh and while you're at it you'll go ahead and make enough copies for everyone. And you could be really anal and ask if she has specific time frames she has in mind for each point.

I also like the idea of setting some sort of alarm. Before the meeting, ask your boss roughly how long she thinks the meeting will last, because an important contact wants to call you as early as possible today/you really need to finish such and such today in order to stay on schedule for The Big Project going on right now, so you need to schedule accordingly.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:57 AM on January 16, 2008

You can forward her this article or something similar with a friendly note saying something like "Hey! Saw this and thought you'd find it interesting"
posted by sambosambo at 6:58 AM on January 16, 2008

I want to expand just a little. You said she seems to have self-esteem issues, so is this her first management role? I have to believe the sensitivities and confidence issues result from her own insecurities. I would avoid overt tactics such as Happy Dave's suggestion, since that would backfire horribly. Public ridicule, albeit accidental, is a fabulous way to not handle this. Her insecurity will only lead to defensiveness, possibly aggressive.

I really think the first action should be to get involved in the meeting. If you make an agenda, make it for You. She doesn't need to know you're participating from an agenda. She's the manager and you don't want to challenge her role accidentally. You need to stay far away from suggestions that might trigger her defensiveness. If you (and others) get involved in the meeting (in an organized way), she'll gain some confidence in her management abilities from your mere participation. That will go a long way when it comes to presenting new ideas (meeting related or not) to her.
posted by ick at 7:45 AM on January 16, 2008

You cannot influence your boss. Don't try. It's her meetings and she can do what she wants. If she is being ineffective, it will eventually get noticed by the broader organization. In the meantime, run your meetings the way you want them to be run and the organization will notice that, too.
posted by drinkcoffee at 8:02 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where I work, we're all doing our yearly performance reviews where we go over what we did last year and set goals for this year. If you have something like this, you could say that one of your 'development needs' is to work on your leadership and/or communication skills, and that to do that, you'd like to start running some of the regular meetings that you have. Get her on board with this, and then use Happy Dave's suggestions.
posted by happyturtle at 9:52 AM on January 16, 2008

We had that problem. Somehow it ended up that we had a MEETING TO DISCUSS THE FREQUENCY OF THE MEETINGS. Which then became a weekly "summary" meeting everyone had to attend, on top of the old meetings.
I wish I was kidding.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:01 AM on January 16, 2008

If the boss is supportive of employee development, another strategy can be to sign up for meeting facilitation classes through your company or similar. They will teach you most of the same techniques HappyDave mentioned. Then you come back to your boss excited and fired up about these amazing new techniques you learned in the class and ask for the opportunity to practice by facilitating some meetings yourself. This way it comes across as "I've just made this new discovery that can help us all, isn't that great?" rather than "Nobody wants to listen to you ramble for an hour, kthx."
posted by oblique red at 11:20 AM on January 16, 2008

Why am I suddenly on an Onion linking rampage?

These Time-Management Issues Will Be Easily Resolved With A Series Of Streamlined Meetings

I had a boss who has this problem and I addressed it heads on. It's really as simple as telling her that her team's productivity would increase if meetings could be completed in a timely manner. If she approves you could start some sort of practice where whenever she gets off subject you tap the table, make a loud yelp, whatever. It's most likely not intentional. It took a VERY long time to break my boss but she does much better now.
posted by Octoparrot at 6:01 PM on January 16, 2008

At my work, we basically share the same ideas about the way meetings are supposed to go (basically what happydave said), and whoever notices we're off track jumps in with, "SO, it sounds like we're all in agreement that Jessie will draft the memo and we'll get her feedback by Friday. Is there anything else we should discuss about this agenda item?" This is for meetings that don't have a designated chairperson.

In a situation where there is a designated person but they're not doing their job to keep us on schedule, I'd probably suggest that we rotate chairpeople. Maybe after a few rotations, I'd try to get someone good as the new permanent chair.

I think most people feel better when a meeting is productive, so she might start picking up your tactics.
posted by salvia at 7:28 PM on January 16, 2008

Chiming back in - we used the technique I mentioned above to manage senior clients that we had to get to make hard decisions. Before we started using this, getting them to decide anything was like nailing jelly to a wall. Constantly on their blackberries, asking about each other's weekends, going off on half-hour long tangents.

After we started doing this, we got average meetings down to half an hour, max, and if we didn't put up a 'decision sheet', they often did it themselves. It ended up trickling down to their own team meetings, and did a lot to break the pernicious 'let's have a meeting about the meeting' culture that had set in.

I agree with other posters though, this method does need to be brought in after some previous groundwork, or you'll come off like a naggy schoolteacher.

Good luck!
posted by Happy Dave at 1:06 AM on January 17, 2008

Thank you all for the many wonderful suggestions, much appreciated :)!!
posted by katala at 9:49 PM on January 19, 2008

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