Roberta's Rules: Meetings and More

February 28, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 8:02 pm
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One of the cardinal rules of meetings is that they should start “on time”.  This is assumed to be the moment that the meeting was announced to begin – like 8:00 AM.  Have you even been to a meeting that was suppose to start at 8:00 AM and looked around?  Is “everyone in their places with bright shining faces” like in the school rhyme? Not often.

Being “on time” is often a cultural issue.  The dominant culture of the US was originally Western European – and this still influences our meeting norms.  Typically, punctuality is a virtue and tardiness is … well… close to a crime.  When everyone is from the same culture – or similar – then “on time” has a shared meaning.  In multicultural situations, like most business meetings, “on time” is subject to many interpretations.  Different cultures have a different “take” on time. Now that minorities are the “new majority” in some states, so we can anticipate changes in these norms.

While linear time is important to business management, it may not be equally important to everyone in a business environment. Unfortunately, those who don’t follow the “norm” of a linear time culture, intentionally or not, are often chastised.  A “minority” woman I worked with years ago was often late to work due to driving daily across town to take her child to day-care at the height of commute traffic.  Those who didn’t know her situation this assumed her tardiness was cultural.

Here are a few observations – have you seen these occur in your workplace?

  • Not everyone is consistently “on time”
  • Not everyone will think being late is a problem (“they’ll start without me”).
  • When those who missed an important discussion try to “catch up”, others get frustrated.
  • People who miss participating in a decision may try to reverse it.

If these are generally true, how can we work with this in meetings? Commuting to work on public transit or by driving is unpredictable.  Almost everyone has trouble knowing what each day’s commute will bring. Perhaps it’s time to give everyone a break from the pressure of punctuality.  Here are three suggestions:

  1. If you want a meeting to begin at 9:00 AM announce a start time of 8:45 AM. Have a “gradual start” to the meeting by using the first 15 minutes to “catch up” with something to eat and drink.  (Rotating who brings food or picks up coffee is a good way to involve people who will quickly become heroes.)  Ask people to “chip in” or take a turn treating to share the expense.
  2. At 9:00AM start the meeting with a “check in” (30 seconds to 1 minute each) for everyone to (1) either make an announcement or (2)  “brag” about something good that has happened, professionally or personally, or (3) give an “unsolicited kudos” to someone else (everyone can think of something!).  This will give people a time to arrive and get settled.  (Someone who wants to share news or hopes to be acknowledged will not usually be late.)  Also, this gets the meeting off to a positive and often light-hearted start
  3. Structure the meeting to “ease into” the most important topics.  Make sure they are at least a half-hour into the agenda – and are completed before the meeting is scheduled to end. (Watch for more about ending meetings in a future Roberta’s Rules Blog.)

There are many other ways to start a meeting that acknowledges different norms about time – and works with it rather than against it.  Let’s take the pressure off everyone by not valuing punctuality over productivity.

What do you think?  Please let me know your thoughts – whether you agree or not – by commenting on this Blog.

(c)Alice Cochran, 2010


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