In the eighteen years since Jurassic Parliament began, we’ve seen a lot of dumb things happen at meetings. Here’s our dirty dozen—a list of the twelve stupidest meeting mistakes. If you have more to add, let us know!
- Failing to give notice
- Poor agenda
- Ignoring the quorum requirement
- Chair acting like a dictator
- A few people dominating the discussion
- Rude behavior
- Speaking to personalities
- Talking off topic
- Not writing motions down
- Not voting
- Failing to follow up
1. Failing to give notice
It is a fundamental rule of good procedure that the people who are entitled to be at the meeting need to know about it enough in advance that they can actually be there. Proper notice is essential to good meetings.
2. Poor agenda
A well-crafted agenda makes a huge difference to any kind of meeting. It has to follow a reasonable “order of business.” It has to list the topics with enough detail that people know what is going to be discussed. And it has to be realistic about the time needed for each item. Preparing a good agenda requires an investment of time, and it pays off.
3. Ignoring the quorum requirement
A “quorum” is the minimum number of voting members who must be present for business to be done. If you don’t have that minimum, you don’t have a meeting. Most groups are good about starting with a quorum, but some continue to do business even after people have left and the quorum is lost. This means their actions are null and void and they could be personally liable for the consequences. The quorum number doesn’t change, even if there are excused absences.
4. Chair acting like a dictator
The chair—the president, the mayor, the presiding officer, whatever she or he is called—is supposed to run a meeting in the service of the group. This person is a facilitator, not the boss. This means that the chair can’t take arbitrary action just because they feel like it.
Examples of arbitrary action: refusing to allow a member to propose a given motion, not allowing certain people to speak, cutting off discussion prematurely, or announcing a result that is different from the actual outcome. I’m sure you can provide us with many more such examples!
The workplace is a different story. But even when the chair actually IS the boss, the meeting will go better if they don’t act like a tyrant.
5. A few people dominating the discussion
This happens all the time! A member of the group says something, another member takes issue, and they’re off and running, back and forth, back and forth, while everyone else is left out. The solution is to follow that excellent rule, “No one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once.”
This single rule can cut your meeting time in half. It is both efficient and fair. BUT it is a big cultural change for many groups. Everyone has to agree to follow this rule, and the chair has to have the moxie to enforce it.
In our everyday, ordinary American life, people interrupt each other often. Superiors interrupt their subordinates, parents interrupt children, men interrupt women (and the other way round, but less frequently). Don’t let this happen! At a good and fair meeting, no one, not even the chair, interrupts another speaker.
There is one exception—when something is being said that is so outrageous that it has to be stopped (see below).
7. Rude behavior
Rudeness and lack of respect are fatal to good meetings. When people start throwing nasty words around, they fry the brain cells of everyone in the room. It is the duty of the chair and the right of any member to put a stop to this. Read our post on the motion “Point of Order” to learn more.
8. Speaking to personalities
It is a basic requirement of good meetings that discussion must be about the issues, not about personalities. Don’t let anyone make personal or insulting remarks. If you’re the chair—stop them! If you’re a member, raise a Point of Order.
9. Talking off topic
Keeping discussion to the matter at hand is vital for a good meeting. The chair and the members must be alert. If something comes up that is not germane (relevant) to the issue, gently remind everyone about what is actually being discussed. If there is a question, the chair decides, subject to appeal, or the chair can just ask the group to decide. (Read our post on the motion “Appeal” to learn more.)
10. Not writing down motions
Any motion (proposal for action) that is longer than a few words should be written down BEFORE DISCUSSION BEGINS. If you haven’t managed to do that, at a minimum it should be written down before the vote is taken.
There are too many times when a group talks about something, takes a vote, and then someone says, “What did we just approve?” Don’t let this happen to you! Get it in writing. And don’t ask the clerk/secretary to formulate it in the minutes afterwards. That’s not fair.
11. Not voting
This doesn’t happen in the public bodies we work with, but it can occur on private nonprofit boards. The board discusses something and then roughly agrees to a course of action, without bothering to take a formal vote. This can be disastrous!
As a member of a board, you have a right and duty to ensure that action is taken and recorded in the proper way. This can protect your board in case of a problem, and protect you from individual liability.
12. Failing to follow up
Again, public bodies are good at follow-up, private nonprofit boards not so much. The secretary should keep a list of action items, including who they are assigned to, and when they are due. The president should follow up. Everyone should refer to the list between meetings, in order to carry out the tasks included.
Gentle reader, I’m sure that your group is innocent of each and every one of these meeting mistakes, but just in case… if you have stories for us, we welcome them! Write to us here.