Meetings. Working hard or hardly working?
It’s conventional wisdom that actions speak louder than words. At a meeting, either inter-personal or boardroom-type, your body language reveals more than you might realise. We’ve all sat in meetings wishing the next person, the one across or the one behind us would give up some annoying habit. On occasion, that person has been the one in your seat. Some professionals have come to despise meetings, primarily because of the time they consume.
Many a person in the corporate world has left meeting room shaking their head and thinking, ‘Yet another meeting that could have been an email!’ In a recent interview with Entrepreneur magazine, world-renowned South African tech billionaire Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, Space X) revealed that he hates meetings. ‘Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time,’ he was quoted as saying.
As a professional, are you selling yourself short by exhibiting the mannerisms detailed below?
Whether you are at a board meeting, a quick briefing, business lunch or even at a big conference, here are some of the habits that are unprofessional and rude. We’ll tackle them in reverse order:
- "What's that you are drinking?"
- "Is it for weight loss? I smell the garlic."
- "Can I have a quick sip, Jane would like some too?"
Snacks and drinks can hijack the meeting – their colours, noises and smells. Chewing gum (and worse - popping bubbles) is definitely off the table. Plus, if you are the only one munching or sipping, that act itself distracts fellow attendees. We've heard of meetings where individuals bring peanuts, pizza and even eggs. Chewing your pen falls in this category too.
9. Reading a newspaper
The intention is usually noble – to read as you wait for the meeting to start. However, very often we can’t put that page-turner down, especially at conferences. Not only is it a visible indication that you are ignoring the speaker, but it also blocks those behind you from seeing the said speaker.
8. Offering very long prayers
It’s typical, especially in the African culture, to kick off meetings with a word of prayer. We should keep it at that – a word. Succinct. Mainly because we can all appreciate that it’s more of a customary gesture as opposed to a ‘time of worship.’
7. Nodding off (and worse, leaning on your neighbours)
The meeting could be boring. True. A recent meme doing the rounds on social Media posed the question, ‘Have you ever been so bored at a meeting that you ended up asking yourself such mundane questions as, “How did they get this huge conference table to fit through that regular-sized door?”.’ Still, as a professional, it is no excuse to drift off or make up for lost sleep when your colleague/speaker is labouring tirelessly at the front of the room. Slouching makes it worse: a lazy drooping posture that that says ‘this is not an important meeting.’ Please sit up and lean forward. Appear to be invested in the goings-on. Offer some support with some nodding (with eyes open) and some writing – and yes, ensure there’s coffee - for all, not just you!
(If you are the one sending colleagues off to slumberland, join us for the SpeakEasy Forum to find out how to keep your audience awake and engaged)
Do you leave right after you got in, e.g. for a toilet break, for pens, for water? Going in and out portrays a disorganised nature. It is disruptive. I have had that experience too when my throat felt patched, but disrupting the entire meeting to jostle for that jug of juice was not an option. I kept my thoughts private and shelved my intentions.
In the same breath, don't keep checking your watch. Arrive early. Arrive ready to stay. Get your ducks in a row beforehand.
5. Public Grooming
Ladies, we take the first fall for this one. What with our lip balm and tiny bottles of lotion from the last hotel we visited. It is innocent, yes - to the groomer. To the observers, quite a performance. Anything, including all the points above that detract from the agenda, is called ‘noise’ - Mirrors, lipsticks, retouching hair and nails ... For men, the big one is tacking in their shirts. They don’t even bat an eyelid. They casually saunter into the meeting room, put their papers/laptop down and proceed to investigate their ties, belts, and how far down that shirt can be pushed. All these are washroom activities – including, wait for it – using a toothpick to pick your teeth!
4. Chatting (or flirting) with your neighbour a.k.a having your private meeting
Then there is the tendency to speak your mind while the speaker is speaking his mind because there’s something within you has been sparked. Other times, you may go off at a tangent, to the point that you and your neighbour are in a parallel universe. If we are present, let’s be present. Jot down those juicy ideas to share afterwards or when you have the floor.
3. Arriving late
This is a biggie. Not keeping time dishonours other people and their time. It also betrays a lack of time management skills. Making excuses can add insult to injury. For instance, ‘There was traffic’ implies that you did not plan for there to be traffic, which is always the prudent thing to do – especially if it was not your first time experiencing this. Remember, everyone in the room had to contend with traffic – it’s not a unique challenge. The truth is, it’s an integrity issue (you don’t usually honour your word or honour others), or it’s a priority issue (something else was more important). On the other hand, when it is a real emergency – why not call ahead to let them know so? If you genuinely, on that rare occasion, can’t get there on time, let your apology precede you.
Choosing to blatantly be somewhere else, while the meeting is in session. Engaging with other people and events that are outside of the current sitting or preferring to entertaining yourself - and possibly a neighbour. You get into a meeting and bend down, fingers running over your Smartphone under the table. The speaker ends up speaking to the hair on your head! Professional etiquette implores us to leave our devices behind or keep them out of sight, especially at a lunch meeting. Save for when the events of the meeting called for their use.
This one is so big that cancels the need to have the meeting in the first place. Telling lies during your session, whether by commission or omission, renders the face-to-face interaction pointless. When we say we are committed but are not, did it but did not, are interested but are not – why even meet? When we withhold information or deliberately give false information – aren’t we just wasting each other’s time? At times, it could be challenging to speak up in public; I understand that. Public speaking can be daunting. Even so, the onus is on you to learn how to build your confidence and become more resourceful. Other times we are engulfed by fear of losing the deal. Even then lying will only serve to birth more significant issues that will need bigger lies and so on. Lying is worse than being on your phone or coming late (unless you lie about that, too).
We meet for reflection and to determine our next course of action. If we lie here, we shall have to meet again, for the same reason. If we lie there, we shall have to meet yet again to see what we are missing etc. When we meet and lie about what we shall do, the only thing we are doing is not doing the thing we meet to do. Each lie will need to be addressed, eventually, at a fresh encounter. So, we keep meeting and cheating, meeting and cheating some more, and meeting again … until the day we shall accomplish the librating accuracy of transparency.
There we are! The cat is out of the bag. Are you brilliant at human interaction, or do you stand poised at the edge of brilliance? Over to you.
By Caroline Nderitu, a Certified Behavioural Consultant, Life-Career Coach and Professional Trainer
“For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualised; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organisations....
Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality).
We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle.”
― Alain de Botton,