11 ground rules for effective meetings, plus establish your own!

These 11 ground rules for effective meetings are offered as food for thought. 

Your own ground rules will work much more effectively if they’re just that, your own (find out how to develop them at the bottom of this article).

Ground rules help to define expectations and drive productive behaviors, it’s important that they’re aligned to the realities of life in your company. And 11 ground rules is probably too many!

11 ground rules for effective meetings

1. Finish 10 minutes early

Get into the habit of scheduling meetings to finish at :20 or :50, and make sure you finish on time. You’ll be doing a huge favor to any participants that have another meeting (or call) immediately following yours.

Back-to-back meetings, constantly through the week, are a cruel and unusual punishment that should be avoided!

Here’s more on the 20/50 rule and other rules for productive meetings.

2. Bring a smile

Meetings are a great opportunity, with a bad reputation. As a result, many people join meetings with a sense of foreboding: “how bad is this one going to be?”. This kind of mindset can be self-fulfilling. Turn on your video (assuming it’s virtual!), bring a smile, an optimistic outlook and seek positive outcomes.

As one of my previous companies expressed it:

Be a radiator, not a drain. Be a hand raiser, not a finger pointer.

3. Be present

Avoid multitasking, not using your other devices during a meeting is a fairly basic requirement. Being present is much more than that. It’s about being fully focused on the meeting. 

One of the challenges we face is that we can think much more quickly than other people can talk. The spoken word is usually about 125–250 words per minute, but we can think at about 1000–3000 words per minute. We use all that spare capacity for additional thought, make sure those thoughts are productive and focused on the meeting, (not what’s for dinner, weekend plans, favorite grudges, etc!).

Which brings us to the 4th of our ground rules for effective meetings.

4. Listen actively

Use your spare mental capacity to do more than just understand the words being said. Listening actively is not just about nodding, ‘leaning in’ and encouraging the speaker with your comments. 

Listening actively is listening for the meaning behind the words, listening for the emotion, listening for the intent of what’s being said. Be a better listener.

5. Encourage contributions

Don’t interrupt. Build on other people’s ideas. Thank people for their contributions. Smile. Ask questions.

These are all great ways to encourage contributions.

6. Consider what’s not being said

One of the most helpful things that you can do in a meeting is consider what’s not being said. There may be an ‘elephant in the room’ (the big unspoken topic that everyone can see, but nobody wants to mention). Or there may simply be fresh perspectives that nobody has considered. Either way, reflecting on what’s not being said, and being willing to raise it, can be a great contribution.

7. Be brief

When it’s your time to talk, be brief. Make your points clearly, don’t ramble. Then stop and let everyone else contribute.

8. Tackle the topic, not the person

This is the classic. All the points above become worthless, if, when someone else speaks and you disagree with them, you attack the person. Hostility breeds hostility and the meeting will rapidly go downhill. If you disagree, then disagree with the ideas they’re expressing.

9. Explore interests, not positions

This idea comes from the Harvard Consulting Project and the ‘Getting to Yes’ book on negotiation by William Uri, but it applies just as well to meetings. Often in meetings the participants are dogmatic about their position “I need this to happen!”. This idea is simple, explore the ‘why’ behind this type of position. “Why do you need this to happen?”. Explore the interests behind the positions and it becomes much easier to reach agreement.

10. Make decisions

Explore the topic, welcome contributions, listen, but ultimately make sure that decisions are made. If you don’t the time is wasted.

Which brings us to the last of our ground rules for effective meetings.

11. Own the actions

Someone must own the actions that flow from the decisions. And as the owner, this person, the ‘responsible person’ must ensure that the actions are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Relevant and Timebound.

How to establish your own ground rules for effective meetings

Here’s how you can establish your own ground rules for effective meetings:

  1. Look around your organization for any existing and relevant resources. Look at your company values, any guidance around expected behaviors within the company, anything related to culture, leadership styles, etc. These can provide ‘food for thought’ as you’re developing your own meeting ground rules and will help make sure that you’re aligned to existing guidance.
  2. Decide who should be involved in establishing the ground rules.
  3. Schedule an idea generation meeting (see our step-by-step guide to effective meetings to help you do this).
  4. Reflect on and refine the ground rules. Craft the language to make them engaging and memorable. Think about what you want to call these ‘rules’. Maybe in your company ‘best practices’ works better (not everyone likes ‘rules’!). Maybe ‘Our meeting mojo’ – whatever is appropriate!
  5. Make sure they’re short, impactful, relevant and appropriate for your own company.

And as an example, take a look at the meeting ground rules at Amazon. There are only 3:

  1. Two-pizza teams
  2. No PowerPoint
  3. Start with silence

Short and impactful! Perfect for Amazon. What’s perfect for your business?

What to do if someone breaks the rules?

With a new set of ground rules you’re driving change. You’re asking people to change the way they behave in meetings (that’s the only value of having the rules!). It may be small and simple change, but never-the-less it is change.

To implement the change effectively, we recommend the following:

  1. The most senior people must live the rules relentlessly. If you’ve developed the rules, and you’re that senior person, you’d better make sure you’re a perfect role model.
  2. In the first few meetings, be very explicit. Make it clear that everyone should be practicing the ground rules.
  3. Once they’ve been established in this way, call out any behavior that doesn’t align to the rules.
  4. For ‘first offences’ just provide some immediate feedback after the meeting. If someone continues to ignore the rules, raise this with them in 1-1 discussions to get them back on track.

Key takeaways

Develop your own ground rules, they’ll be most effective if they’re aligned to life within your company.

11 ground rules for effective meetings is probably too many! Consider aiming for 5-6, they’ll be easier to implement.

Use the 5 steps above to create your ground rules (remember, they don’t have to be called ‘rules’!).

As you’re implementing this change in behaviors, make sure you live the rules yourself.

Give people a little time to deliberately ‘practice’ the new behaviors.

On an ongoing basis, provide immediate feedback if people don’t follow the rules. If someone continues to ignore the rules, raise this with them in 1-1 discussions. Focusing on the benefits to the company and the team of everyone following the rules.

And finally, once the new behaviors become routine, don’t forget to celebrate this with the team!