Meeting Referees

The NFL is back! And with that, Public Enemy #1 is back as well: NFL referees. With that in mind…

Last year I read Michael Lopp’s collection of essays titled “Managing Humans” (book review). Recently I’ve been thumbing through it again, going over chapters relevant to my current work. I reread “How to Run a Meeting” and particularly enjoyed Lopp’s thoughts on one of the most basic units of company communication: the meeting.

Lopp discusses the two critical concepts to a meeting: the agenda and the referee. The agenda is straightforward - it should clearly define what this meeting hopes to accomplish, provide context for all participants, and set the structure of conversation. The agenda is the map for the meeting and (in theory) if perfectly defined, should usher the meeting along in a straightforward, timely fashion. However, agendas are never perfect and human beings are fickle, so the map of the meeting often turns into something more closely resembling directions given by a local to an out-of-towner (“two miles up, take a left after the gas station, go past the convenience store, take the third right…”).

That’s where the referee comes in. The referee knows roughly what direction this meeting should go. They are usually the one who called the meeting originally. Their job is two-fold: ensure that progress is being made throughout the meeting, and ensure that all participants are being, well, participants. The two are quite related.

People hate having their time wasted. If they’re involved in a meeting in which they don’t think their time is being used effectively, it becomes much harder to have those participants engage. They may feel this way because the meeting doesn’t wholly relate to their work or they have no incentive to participate. The momentum of the meeting also plays a large part - if progress is not being made throughout the meeting, and it doesn’t appear that the meeting will reach a reason conclusion, participants will be frustrated and checked out. Similar lapses happen when a conversation becomes tangential to the discussion at hand, or specific to only a subset of participants. Bored or frustrated participants may mentally wander, check their phone, fire off a quick email, anything but engage as a participant. As Lopp explains, “If they’re doing anything except listening, they aren’t listening. There are lots of exits from a meeting that look nothing like a door.”

The referee must be highly aware of all participants in the meeting. The referee must know which participants are at risk of checking out and which are derailing the conversation flow. The most important thing is to make sure most participants think progress is being made in the meeting. For those that don’t, the referee needs to engage them in some manner and include them as an active part in this meeting. Referees are ensuring all participants are mentally present, keeping the meeting momentum moving forward and inbounds.

Lopp underlines that this is extremely hard to do. Each meeting is circumstantial, with different players, purposes, and points. It’s tough to keep track of multiple participants while partaking in the meeting yourself. It’s a pivotal skill to be developed over time. Lopp does provide us with a few tools we can use when we know a participant has checked out.

  • Silence - count back from 10 and let silence fill the air for a bit. This resets the meeting and pulls those who have checked out back in.
  • Change the scenery - change the way you’re participating in the meeting. This might involve standing if you’re setting, changing seats, writing on a whiteboard, or any other physical change in the room
  • Direct engagement - steer the conversation in their direction, asking a direct question that related to the current topic being discussed.

The referee must maintain the flow of the meeting. They can and should enforce the meeting agenda with the authority of a referee on the field. This might mean ejecting an “oversharer” or empty participant (in reality, just asking them to curtail their input temporarily). It may mean throwing a flag on a conversation that has taken a left turn from the direction of the meeting. In rare cases, it may mean cancelling the rest of the meeting as it’s clear from the get-go that progress toward the stated goal cannot be made.

The referee’s duty is to ensure the game gets played the right way. Don’t forget your whistle.