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A direct report of mine walks into meetings and either keeps working on other stuff or chatting with other folks at the office. I know that this is a bad meeting etiquette and basically an insult to the meeting organizer, at least I feel that way. So, after observing this over multiple meetings, I sent an email explaining that this is not the best way to work, to which the response was that "I am doing multitasking...I don't miss anything in the meeting...and for chatting, I was helping the QA team in testing". Now all that is bull**** to me - not being fully attentive in a meeting where you are "required" is not a good thing and I can't believe that her multitasking skills are so great that she can chat/work/prepare other documents all while being attentive to the meeting. We are a small company, and if any employee is "optional" then that employee is mostly not included in the first place.

So, I would like to know what people here think and what's the best way for me to guide this person out of this habit? Are there any blogs/posts that you can share that help put emphasis on how bad working on other stuff is while attending important meetings?

closed as off-topic by gnat, Garrison Neely, Jan Doggen, Michael Grubey, Jim G. Nov 14 '14 at 0:07

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So, I would like to know what people here think and what's the best way for me to guide this person out of this habit?

If this person reports to you, then I assume you have regular one-on-one meetings.

During your next meeting, you need to convey that this is unacceptable behavior, and that her attention is required in future meetings.

You might choose to point out how this makes you feel, and how it adversely affects the meetings.

Don't accept an "I was multitasking" excuse if you don't want her to do so. While there are plenty of articles and reports debunking the myth of multitasking (google "myth of multitasking" to find them), that's not really the issue here. How you want your direct reports to behave is the sole issue at hand.

Every company, and every department has their own culture and expectations. If you are leading this group, then you get to decide how meetings involving your team should be attended.

  • Be careful, though. I know people who are MORE alert during a meeting if they can doodle or otherwise fidget, and some people can fidget productively. If it isn't disruptive, and isn't interfering with their participation in the meeting, you may want to adjust the expectations rather than the behavior. Or you may not, but you should consider it. – keshlam Nov 11 '14 at 17:19
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    I like to snore during any staff meeting that lasts more than 15 minutes. I wake up fully refreshed :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Nov 11 '14 at 17:45
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    Agree. When giving feedback, you need to describe the behavior, describe the impact of the behavior, and state your expectations. The impact of her behavior is that she is disrupting the meeting with her chatting, that she is not giving the meeting her full attention, and that she is showing disrespect to her coworkers who are presenting the meeting. Maybe if she sees the impact, she will be more understanding of your expectations. You need to be clear that your expectations are not negotiable if that is the case. – MJ6 Nov 11 '14 at 17:51
  • Joe: If they're quiet and nondistracting, eating/knitting are fine in my book. I frankly don't want to get into arguing about the difference between texting and other fidgeting; if they're alert and participating, it's their problem. Newspaper no because it's distracting. Keyboarding gets into the "I don't want to police whether they're coding or taking notes" space; if they're alert, participating, and nondistracting it's Their Problem. Unless this is an I Must Certify That You Have All Understood This legalish presentation, not paying attention automatically exacts its own penalties. – keshlam Nov 11 '14 at 22:10
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About 20 years ago a manager of mine had a talk with me. When I went to meetings I frequently had my head down doodling the entire time - this is WAY before iPads or even smart phones. It wasn't because I wasn't paying attention or even "fully there". That's just how I am: constantly in motion.

Eventually my boss had had enough of various people complaining and he sat me down for a talk. He said,

I know without a doubt that you are engaged in these meetings. The questions you ask are always on point and generally cut through a lot of garbage. I've seen you sit doodling for 45 minutes looking completely bored but I know you were obviously taking it all because your project designs consistently meet every stated requirement along with others they didn't bring up.

Your work isn't the problem. The problem is that some people don't understand and it makes them feel like they haven't been heard. They think you'd rather be anywhere but there. I need you to make a conscious effort to appear like you are 100% engaged. If you can do this I know you'll go far; if you can't well, I won't be able to put you in front of our clients anymore.

At the time I had no idea how people saw me. Quite frankly I didn't even care as I believed all that mattered was what I produced - obviously I was much younger then. However, my manager showed me that perception was as important, if not more so, than reality and my job, at the time, depended on it.

Now I generally don't doodle anymore. Well, not unless I'm purposefully trying to torque someone.


Getting to your specific situation of an employee trying to perform multiple acts at the same time, you need to let them know they are failing the perception game. Being in a meeting means that they have your full and undivided attention. If this person can't give that, then they shouldn't be present.

More than this, you need to let her know that she is failing in the most public way possible and that this is a CLM. Others will understand they have to wait for her help while she's engaged in the meeting. Not only will they understand, but they'll quietly approve as they will believe they can get her full attention on their issue when the time comes. This is a personal PR issue and she needs to own it.

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This is a hard thing to do politely. It is, however, worth doing. If your company doesn't blanketly ban all side-work in meetings, then you probably can't ban sidework in your meetings. However, you can minimize it by:

  • making your meetings compelling, interesting, and worthwhile for everyone who is in them. Sidework says "I have better things to do than this." The worst is that meeting where nothing is ready so 10 people watch 3 people finish the thing that should have been done before the meeting started. What can you do to get rid of the long stretches of boredom?
  • distinguish between sidework that is equivalent to leaving the meeting and sidework that could distract others. If you would be ok with the report leaving, and arranging to email and say "ok the 3 people have finished the spreadsheet, come back to the meeting now" then you should be ok with the report quietly working on some other task and tuning out the boring part of the meeting
  • have zero tolerance for disruptive sidework such as loud chats, or for not listening when something was relevant. You can even commit the mild sin of criticizing in public if you need to say "X, can you keep it down or take it into the hall please?" or "well X, that's what Y has been explaining for the last 5 minutes. Turns out that we just had the part of the meeting you needed to be here for. Y, can you repeat that now that X is listening?"

Between reducing the urge for sidework by having a meeting X wants to be in, and slapping the wrist when the sidework affects the meeting, you should be able to get it down to a small amount of consequence-free time filling. X may even be slightly more productive if you accept that some other work will happen during less compelling parts of the meeting. And you will have one less thing to argue about.

That will leave you with the "rude" part of the behaviour. Your description about entering the meeting with a conversation going, and keeping it going, or entering and starting sidework immediately, is a little disrespectful to the meeting organizer. For that particular behaviour I would have a private conversation and say "many people find it rude not to give your full attention to the organizer for the first few minutes. I understand you may want to quietly work on other things during parts of the meeting that are less relevant to you, but as a matter of politeness, please don't do anything else for the first 5 or 10 minutes while we are establishing the purpose and agenda of the meeting. It will make a big difference to the feelings of the other people in the meeting." This is clear direction with clear explanation, and it applies only to the first few minutes of the meeting.

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Although it is great that she wants to be productive, but it is not acceptable to do it at the expense of the others at the meeting. The goal there is for everyone to benefit.

I don't think email is as effective. You should have confronted her in person if you feel this strong about it. It can be difficult for people to understand your full intent of a request. Sometimes email comes across as blunt and impersonal, but in this case it may be seen as not a big deal. It is easy to give a quick reply with excuses.

Next time it happens. I suggest you request a one on one meeting right after the next meeting this occurs. If the problem is solved, you should thank her in person. It is important to keep up appearances. She actually may be getting many things done, but the impression by others in the office may not agree.

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Taking at face value your assertion that this employee's participation and presence is required for every topic under discussion at the meeting, I would have little to add to the other answers. However, there are a couple considerations from the employee's perspective:

  1. Her presence may not truly be as required as you think it is, and she knows it. I have no way of knowing whether this is the case. However, she may not feel comfortable telling you her presence at the meeting is not beneficial to your organization.
  2. Her presence and participation truly are required at least some of the time. However, she may feel she is having trouble meeting deadlines or taking time away from other parts of her job for the meeting. If that is the case, it may be beneficial to work with her to determine what the roadblock is.
  3. If it is possible that she needs to be present for questions, she could be less disruptive by attending the meeting remotely, even if she is actually in the office. We do this all the time at my current client's office: for example, software developers working on one of the major business projects are part of the weekly status meeting for the project, but they typically remain in their cubes (or remote, if necessary) with the headset on, listening for questions to answer. That way, the development work does not disturb the meeting.

Although it is possible that none of these items apply, it may be worth considering whether the employee thinks they do and addressing her misconception from that perspective.

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Instead of debating over whether or not this is bad meeting etiquette, I would first find out if her behaviour bothers other participants, disrupts / slows down the meeting in any way or causes any noticeable concrete problem. If so, you can go back to her saying that she is wasting other people's time and/or causing problems and politely but firmly ask her to change. If not, you should just accept her behaviour. Meetings are about solving problems and making decisions, not about etiquette.

It is also possible btw that she is from a different cultural background than you, where her behaviour is completely normal and accepted, whereas in your culture it may not be. Then again, unless there is noticeable harm, you should try to accept that people and cultures are different.

Update

To clarify, and to reflect on comments: my point is that what the OP expresses above is basically his personal opinion (being annoyed by the other person's behaviour). He certainly has the right to be annoyed, as well as to ask the other person to change her behaviour to prevent that. However, the goal should be clear first. There is difference between

  • "When you do X, it makes me feel Y and I don't like it", and
  • "When you do X, it breaks our working agreement and disrupts team performance".

I also realized a deeper concern: the OP is asking about how to treat a symptom (report is not behaving on meetings), while it would be worth digging into the root cause(s) instead. There can be many reasons for her behaviour, including

  1. (as I noted above) she may be from a different culture / generation and is unaware of the unwritten local norms
  2. she may have a pressure on her to finish tasks asap
  3. she may feel the meeting is unproductive and is wasting her time
  4. she may be the single expert on her field, and is constantly in demand

Several of these tend to cause problems for the whole team or company in the long run if not identified and addressed in time. And each of these may require different actions:

  1. you need simply to educate her
  2. this sounds like a project management problem, so you should analyse why she is under pressure and is there a way to plan tasks better to even out her workload, or to free her for the duration of important meetings
  3. this may mean that the meeting is badly organized, there are too many people invited, the discussion is not focusing on the agenda and/or some participant has "hijacked" the meeting, talking endlessly and not allowing others to join in - so the meeting organizer / facilitator may need to become more active
  4. this is a long term risk for the whole company, which should be mitigated by helping e.g. pairing up on tasks

This is why I suggest not acting on personal feeling but talking to others (as well as her) first.

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    So, you are telling me that I can basically have a meeting where everyone's working on their own stuff - in the name of multitasking - and I should accept that because it is not bothering others and/or it's culturally OK for them. Awesome! If it's OK for one person to do this, then it should fine for others also, right? Please run a meeting with your team like that and let me know how productively it went. – legendofawesomeness Nov 11 '14 at 17:19
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    Some youngsters I know seem able to do exactly that, and the cultural standard is changing. If an individual is NOT able to handle the parallelism, you can swat them on a case by case basis for not paying attention. If they are able to productively participate in the meeting while fidgeting -- and some are -- it's becoming acceptable, just as doodling became acceptable before it. I think we're going to lose this battle at the general level. – keshlam Nov 11 '14 at 17:31
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    It is up to leadership to establish culture - guidelines for how work is accomplished in this place of employment. While solving problems may be WHY we have meetings, etiquette is about HOW we have meetings. If you want full participation, you have to have a shared understanding of how people should participate. – MJ6 Nov 11 '14 at 17:58
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    @keshlam: The OP is not talking about "fidgeting" or mindlessly "doodling", but actively participating in other conversations or working on other tasks that require thought. It's one thing to keep your hands/body busy while listening/thinking, it's quite another to attempt to reason on two topics at once. – Wayne Nov 11 '14 at 19:43
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    @legendofawesomeness, if everyone's working on their own stuff, there is no meeting - so why insist on pretending you are having one. IMO meetings should have a purpose commonly agreed on by all participants. If you have that common agreement, you may set up rules together based on that, including disallowing unproductive behaviour. – Péter Török Nov 11 '14 at 21:47

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