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Effective Department Meetings: Advice from the Trenches

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
1770

In sum, although there are general recommendations that are likely to apply to most departments, effective meetings happen in the context of the unique qualities of each department.

Folks:

The posting below looks at ways to make department meetings more effective. It is by Deborah South Richardson[E1] , Angela Morgan, and Rich Griner, and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2020, Vol. 30, No. 3. Copyright © 2020 [E2] Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770 or see: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/ntlf. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/DCH

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Stanford Researchers Propose 'Human Screenome Project' to Study the Impacts and Promises of Digital Media

 

Tomorrow’s Academy

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Effective Department Meetings: Advice from the Trenches

Lundquist and Misra (2016) point out that most faculty members spend 17percent of their workweek in meetings. At any given time in their careers, 35 percent of faculty serve on five or more committees. Everyone risks spending too much of their working day in meetings, so it is imperative that we learn to make meetings as effective and efficient as possible. Olson (2010) argues that a well-run and productive meeting is a true act of collegiality. 

Meetings can be a major challenge for department chairs, whether they are new to the job or veterans. New chairs may be especially intimidated by the prospect of calling a department meeting to conduct routine business, and they are likely to be terrified at the thought of meeting to deliver unwelcome news or to discuss and vote on a contentious issue. New chairs are especially at a disadvantage if they have “inherited” a meeting culture that is dysfunctional, perhaps characterized by absences, contention, disengagement, and a general lack of accomplishment. Even experienced chairs may struggle to run effective meetings, perhaps because of challenges in the department or because of lack of skills for conducting effective meetings. Such skills include the ability to draft relevant agendas, effectively maneuver conversations to appropriate endpoints, establish a culture of mutual respect, and set guidelines and expectations for faculty. Lundquist and Misra (2016) note that several midcareer and senior faculty leaders felt that their own meetings were badly run and a waste of time due to their lack of knowledge about how to run an effective meeting. They lamented their own lack of training and administrative skill. 

What Chairs Say about Effective Meetings

In an effort to help department chairs develop those critically important skills for running effective meetings, we facilitated a workshop at the Academic Chairpersons Conference in February 2019. Participants discussed practical scenarios and meeting guidelines culled from the literature on effective academic department meetings. The discussion revealed that a diversity of approaches is common and effective, depending on the size, faculty composition, and administrative structure of the unit. 

We presented chairs with two kinds of stimuli for discussion about effective meetings. First, we asked them to work in groups to come up with solutions to three different scenarios: (1) a faculty meeting disintegrating into a gripe session in which faculty members vented about issues that may or may not be on the meeting agenda, (2) faculty unwillingness or inability to attend faculty meetings, and (3) resistant, opinionated, long-term tenured full professors sabotaging faculty meetings with interruptions and comments. Chairs also discussed in small groups a set of guidelines for and attitudes about effective meetings that were based on our limited review of the literature. They were asked to indicate whether they would be likely to follow. Although their responses varied by their context (i.e., department size, experience in the position, governance structure), there were some common themes in their responses to these stimuli—and some creative suggestions, which follow. 

• Do get faculty in the habit of attending meetings by scheduling meetings at regular times and expecting everyone to be present. If faculty members are chronically absent, the chair should take responsibility for making it possible for people to attend by polling faculty to find good times, alternating days, offering a dial-in alternative, or recording meetings so that people can catch up. They suggested setting the meeting schedule well ahead of time, preparing a detailed agenda, and having meetings only when necessary. One chair proposed sending Google invites so that responses would be made public. Another suggested that faculty might think, “I didn’t go to a meeting because nothing important happened, and no one asked”; it may be necessary to let them know that their presence or absence is noted. 

• Don’t have one executive committee to advise on a variety of issues and to serve in a variety of roles (e.g., promotion and tenure, budget, hiring). Such an approach could lead to some faculty members feeling excluded from the business of the department and set up a situation where meetings become simply a series of reports. 

Do have more shorter meetings rather than a few multihour meetings.[E3] 

• Do use email to conduct minor business. Save face-to-face time for more important tasks and issues. 

• Do establish a clear agenda. The chair should distribute the agenda in advance and invite input and additional agenda items.

• Do set a clear goal or set of goals for every department meeting. Achieving goals during a meeting can provide a sense of accomplishment for the group. There was much discussion about, but no real consensus regarding, whether faculty meetings are for discussion and debate or for decision-making. 

• Don’t place the responsibility for keeping with the agenda on the entire group when someone attempts to assert their own agenda. This is the chair’s responsibility, and younger faculty members may be taking a risk by speaking up. 

• Don’t shut down engagement by insisting on sticking to the agenda when faculty have concerns they want to address. If the meeting goes off the agenda with gripes, give faculty an opportunity to discuss their concerns. Then make adjustments to the agenda or arrange additional meetings to assure that they feel they have been heard. Even when allowing discussion to go off the agenda, guidelines and a time limit should be established for such discussion. 

• Do empower junior faculty through committee assignments and allow them a place on the agenda. 

• Do deal with sensitive or controversial topics by having faculty teams put their ideas on flip charts and having faculty members individually “vote” for their preferred ideas. 

What Meeting Science Tells Us about Effective Meetings

It’s difficult to give advice that suits all chairs because of the diversity of departments. Challenges vary. Some chairs say faculty members talk too much; some say no one will engage. Some chairs find a supportive group of faculty members; others find that their faculty members take advantage of any opportunity to try to undermine the chair’s efforts. Some find that senior faculty are on board; others find that senior faculty resist. Some find that their colleagues aim for collaboration; others find that a competitive spirit overcomes productivity. 

The psychological science of meetings provides some guidelines that can advance the goals of any organization. Findings from meeting science provide evidence-based recommendations that can apply to the functioning of an academic department. Based on a summary from Mroz and colleagues (2018), one can identify a set of factors that promote good meetings. 

General approach to meetings: 

• Call meetings only when necessary. 

• Schedule meetings for the length of time needed to complete the items on the agenda, with the goal of avoiding long meetings. 

• Occasionally have meetings with a subset of the faculty who have the expertise needed to deal with a specific issue or solve a specific problem. 

• Make sure that the meeting is relevant to everyone who is invited to attend. 

• Allow faculty members to participate in the decision-making process. If a decision has already been made, let everyone know. 

Preparing for meetings: 

• Set clear goals and desired outcomes for the meeting. 

• Prepare an agenda and circulate it in advance. Follow it. 

• Expect those attending to prepare for the meeting by reviewing the agenda in advance. 

During the meeting: 

• Start the meeting on time; do not wait for (i.e., reinforce) late arrivals. 

• Make sure to have the appropriate technology for the meeting, arranging for richer media (e.g., videoconferencing) for virtual attendees. Ensure that technology is working and ready prior to the meeting start time. 

• Avoid distractions and discourage multitasking. 

• Actively encourage everyone to participate. 

• Intervene when interpersonal communication patterns become dysfunctional or disruptive. 

After the meeting: 

• Send out meeting minutes and action items immediately following the meeting. 

• Assess meeting satisfaction and quality immediately following meetings to inform future meeting design. 

Conclusion 

Most of the recommendations made by the chairs during our session mirrored the findings from meeting science. Differences between their recommendations and the research were typically attributable to the wide variety of contexts, such as individual faculty members and the composition and mission of the department. In sum, although there are general recommendations that are likely to apply to most departments, effective meetings happen in the context of the unique qualities of each department. The chair’s flexibility and skill in that context will determine how effective a meeting is likely to be. By applying these recommendations judiciously, new or experienced chairs can develop their skills and improve the effectiveness and productivity of their meetings. 

An ideal meeting should conclude with all participants feeling invested in the outcome and that their work and time will further a common goal. The result of the development of skills for running meetings will be strong engagement and an environment in which faculty members work together effectively to advance the goals of the department. Better trained administrators will produce more efficient and effective meetings. 

This article is based on a presentation at the 36th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 6–8, 2019, Houston, Texas. 

Deborah South Richardson is associate dean in the College of Science and Mathematics, Angela Morgan is chair of the Department of Music,
and Rich Griner is chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Augusta College. Email: derichardson@augusta.edu ,  amorgan1@augusta.edu , richard.griner@augusta.edu  

References 

Lundquist, Jennifer, and Joya Misra. 2016. “Making Meetings Less Miserable.” Inside Higher Education, April 14. 

www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/04/14/tips-making-academic-meetings-valuable-and-productive-essay

Mroz, Joseph E., Joseph A. Allen, Dana C. Verhoeven, and Marissa L. Shuffler. 2018. “Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27: 484–91. 

Olson, Gary A. 2010. “How to Run a Meeting.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13. www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Run-a-Meeting/66237