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


January 5, 2010


Filed under: meeting facilitation — Roberta's Rules of Order, author @ 10:01 pm
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I’m notorious for re-arranging meeting rooms –in hotels, classrooms, community centers, clubhouses and living rooms – you name it.  (You’re not going to do that again, are you???) Yes, count on it. Why?  Most meetings rooms are not set up for maximum eye contact.  Lack of productive interaction and engagement in the meeting can result.

Why is eye contact essential in face-to-face (and video conference) meetings? Reading facial expressions and reactions, including the movement of people’s eyes and eyebrows, gives us clues to understand them. We aren’t aware of how much active listening (from hearing) in meetings is dependent upon seeing people when they speak – and reading their lips.

Typically many tables are placed end-to-end, preventing eye contact with anyone beyond the person on either side.  Sometimes it’s a long “U Shape” (the bowling alley).  Even a short “U Shape” beyond a few tables is problematic.

For some reason hotels can’t grasp that tables don’t need to touch (and that attached “skirts” are unnecessary.)  It also seems to make some people a bit uneasy when tables don’t touch.  (OK, let one corner touch– but only that.)

At a university’s meeting of 16 subject-matter experts invited to shape the design of a management series, the room was initially set up as an “open square” of eight tables. (Two chairs at one table, on one side is ideal.) The meeting was intended to be interactive with an open sharing of information.  Although the square was a good start, people could only see those seated next to them, and across from them, but not the whole group.

As a simple last-minute solution (without disrupting things too much) I pulled each pair of tables to an angle with only the inner corners touching (yes!).  This resulted in an open octagon shape that allowed:

•    More elbow room for each person (on the right or left)

•    Eye contact with the entire group (and ability to see those speaking)

•    Easier movement into and out of the chairs for everyone

•    A feeling of connection to colleagues in the room – and more interaction

It takes a conscious effort to buck habits and arrange the room differently to foster engagement. For anyone wanting to encourage interaction and idea sharing, it pays to do something as simple as moving tables and chairs to facilitate maximum eye contact. (A diagram is available on page 29 in the QuickStart Guide to Roberta’s Rules at

Do you have a “pet peeve” about the meetings you attend?  Please comment and I’ll suggest possible ways change it.  Together we can improve the world, one meeting at a time. or

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