We educators are fond of meetings, so as a teacher and an active parent in my child’s school, I attend a lot of meetings (in fact, I need to stop writing at about noon to prepare for a back to school meeting.) I actually consider myself somewhat of an expert at meetings because I attend so many, both good and bad.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes at meetings and have seen my coworkers make some snafus: one of the more memorable of last year, for example, was when a colleague ran out crying, apparently upset at the direction of the meeting. I’ve also seen people smoke or erupt in anger at meetings: such violations of business etiquette are common, although perhaps not so extreme. Because meetings usually occur in a more relaxed atmosphere—there is usually food offered, and some joking takes place—there may be a tendency is to think of meetings as “off the record,” or not really work. However, they are indeed on the record, and that should not be forgotten as employers and colleagues may be observing the newcomer to the worksite and judging his or her behavior, so major mistakes in business etiquette should avoided. Meetings are in fact an integral part of American life, going back to our beginnings—I think the founding of the Union was probably discussed in a series of meetings in the various parlors of our Founding Fathers. When conducted well, meetings and committees are critical to group governance and a democratic society. However, meetings have their own distinct culture and come with their own unwritten rules. The odds are that students will eventually serve on a committee, attend meetings, and will want to avoid violations of meeting “rules.”
What are some common mistakes in business meeting etiquette for students to know and how can they be avoided?
Not Being Prepared
Not dressing correctly, not knowing what the meeting is really about, and not bringing important documents or handouts are common concerns. I’ve seen fellow committee members ask to borrow pens and necessary handouts sent out beforehand—these are materials that professionals should have with them. Such lack of preparation creates a poor impression and wastes the time of other participants. The problem can be addressed by preparing each evening and/or morning before a meeting: think about what will happen at the meeting, who will be there, how to dress, and what to take with you.
Not Focusing on the Meeting
There is a lot of inattentive behavior at meetings, the American attention span being notoriously short: cell phones ringing, participants texting under the table, whispering and off-topic conversation between members, etc. Some of this is just human behavior, but avoid excesses in these areas. Turn off your cell phone for the duration of the meeting, skim through the agenda and other handouts, listen attentively to the conversation, and contribute to it. Participants who do this enough will be noted for their strong group participation.
Although friendliness and some humor are almost always appropriate and welcome, avoid excesses in these areas. I once was on a school committee in which two of the group members apparently saw the weekly meetings as an occasion to try out their comedy routines. I began to dread going as nothing got done as everyone who spoke up on committee business was interrupted with joking. Others apparently felt the same way as I about the time drain, and the committee disbanded not long after—too bad, as it had the important mission of strengthening standards of ESL classes. Other nonprofessional behavior to be avoided includes extreme emotion: if you really feel you can’t control your anger or tearfulness, it might be best to excuse yourself from the meeting. Excessive complaining about the organization and its clients is also unprofessional and a drag on the committee, affecting attendance and commitment to the committee. Don’t be the committee killer!
Lack of Respect for Committee Members and Mission
All of these rules could probably be summed up in the reminder to respect the committee, its reason for being, and the people who serve on it. It’s very common for a committee to take on a life its own and for its participants to get so caught up in the attendance of the meetings and their routines that the overall mission gets forgotten. By staying focused on what the committee’s mission is, what you can do toward the mission each day, or week, or month, you can begin to shift the focus back to where it belongs: the critical purposes of the committee and how you and your colleagues fit within that purpose and what that means about how you relate to fellow committee members. So, for example, if I am focusing on the committee and its purpose, I won’t get tempted to be pulled into my colleague’s complaint session and will gently remind her, “Where on the agenda are we? Oh, yes. Let’s hear what our speaker has to say.”
How to Teach Meeting Behavior
Begin the discussion of what a committee and committee meeting are and their purpose. Some students may have actually served on committees; others may not even be aware of what they are. Introduce them positively, as a fundamental feature of democratic life and group governance. Have students share some of their experiences with committees and share your own, both positive and negative.
List of Suggested “Rules”
From the discussion above, students can draft their own “do’s and don’ts” of committee behavior. They can work in groups and complete the task together, beginning the experience of group work.
Practice and Role-Play
Finally, students can organize themselves into their own mock committees, and using the rules they have drafted, conducted a “committee” meeting. This can be very informal, lasting only a class session, or more long-term and formal, with roles assigned within the committee, a purpose to the committee claimed, and a mission statement drawn up.
Actual Committee Work
Finally, some homework can be assigned in the form of real committee work, with students encouraged to join an actual committee—most schools, neighborhoods, and religious organizations have committees where students would be welcomed. Students can take a small role, such as “member-at-large,” but even this role will give them experience with committee life—and possibly awaken an interest in service.
Committees and meetings get a bad “rap”—a wit once observed that American football embodies the worst elements of American life, violence and committee meetings.
However, when well conducted and with etiquette observed, committees and meetings are an integral feature to our culture.