Meetings Going Nowhere

Has it really been eight months since we shifted to a different way of working?  Somehow…it has!   In fact, it’s been long enough that email tags have shifted from “working from home” to “back at work,” “in and out of the office” and “still at home.”

We’ve talked to people through the different iterations of virtual work, and some interesting trends have emerged around how people work and communicate with each other.

In March, the early response we heard was: “This really works!” “This is great.” “We got this.” “We’re much more effective than we thought we would be.”

At the time, we assumed virtual work was going well because people knew the work they needed to do.  Big initiatives were already in place for 2020.  Most people were in a phase of execution, and once home, they focused on the things they had to do.

Fast forward six months, and the insights have shifted significantly.  Now we hear:

  • “This is really hard to do.”
  • “It’s impossible to get the input you need.”
  • “I feel like I’m missing direction.”
  • “I’m so sick of working alone.”

People hear about others going back to work and seem envious. They say they want to go back to the office.  I think they really want to go back to working with each other. Because one consistent theme we’re heard all along is: virtual communication is harder.

People say:

  • “There’s just no response when you lead a meeting.”
  • “I can’t get people to participate.”
  • “It takes twice as long to get a decision.”
  • “I’m always misunderstood.”

And it’s why we’ve dubbed this a trend: meetings going nowhere.

Virtual meetings aren’t as effective as they need to be.  In fact, they seem a little chaotic when you ask people what’s going wrong.

  • “There are too many people talking.”
  • “Agendas aren’t clear.”
  • “No one seems sure what the point of the meeting is.”
  • “There are too many people in the meeting.”
  • “No one seems to be in charge.”

A virtual meeting is different than an in-person meeting.  It can be run effectively, but it takes a lot more work to get it organized.  And even though it’s been eight months, few people have built a skill set for leading virtual meetings well. They’re relying on skills they’ve used for years, and from a listener’s perspective, they don’t translate well.

Here’s the root cause: while the “work from home” setting made everything about communication feel more impromptu and casual, it’s actually the opposite. An effective virtual meeting requires more structure to keep a group focused and on task. The discussion itself may be informal, but it takes work to get a group involved.


Here are a few of the differences that we’re helping managers and leaders consider.


This is the hardest format to transfer to a virtual setting.  Hard to believe, because most people love these meetings! They start with a few concepts and quickly build to some great ideas.  It’s the strength of an in-person discussion, and it works because people are 100% focused on being in the room, and they build off of energy and enthusiasm of others. People are very visible, and they work hard to contribute. In fact, they feel a little pressure to show up well.

Virtually, it’s much harder to build on ideas and attach to someone else’s energy. Instead, we tend to stay wedded to our own thought and we just reinforce it when we have an opportunity to speak. And reflection time is dead time in a virtual meeting. If you tell a group to take 10 minutes to write down their thoughts, they’re more likely to take ten minutes and get a snack.

A virtual discussion has to have guardrails and direction to be productive. A virtual group does better with choices of concepts and focused work on supporting a recommendation for a choice versus trying to come up with the broader concepts.

We learned this ourselves as we transitioned to virtual workshops. We gave groups one of  our standard exercises and quickly saw they did very little with it. When we modified the scope of the exercise to making a choice between options, they were able to collaborate better. They needed defined roles and specific instructions of what to do. Their input was very good, but they got there differently.

The same may be true of your discussion sessions.


Do more of this for virtual meetings. Everyone seems exhausted and overworked, but people miss connection. And it will simplify your discussion if you have people work together prior to the meeting instead of in the meeting.

Plan ahead and assign partners to discuss prework together. It’s a benefit from both perspectives. This makes the large meeting discussion easier on the leader because you have reduced the input by half. And, it ensures everyone feels heard because they shared perspective with a partner prior to the larger meeting.


It’s the routine meetings that people dislike the most. The feedback is lack of structure, lack of direction and just no real takeaways. If you’re leading standing meetings, you owe it to a group to improve the takeaways.

Meetings have become more transactional in a virtual setting, but people still want to feel as if their attendance mattered.  It takes more formality and structure to help it run well.

Our rule of thumb is cover less. Simplicity over complexity. These virtual meetings are a hybrid of conference calls and in-person meetings. There’s still a lot of clunkiness in how we experience each other online. So, keep it simple.

Agree on a flow of an agenda and stick to it in every meeting. A consistent structure makes it easier to follow a meeting and easier to hear what’s being said. Agree on how to participate. It’s like learning a new game. Give everybody the rules, and they’ll get a little better each time you hold a meeting.


Companies may have sent the wrong message about the video early on. It was with the best of intentions because they knew that people were dealing with a lot in their homes. But the camera is a signal of focus. It says, “I’m here and focused on this conversation.”

No camera or darkness around someone’s name, says the person isn’t fully there.

And it changes the very essence of communication: Connection. No matter what your role is in a meeting, turn the video on and be fully there as a communicator.


We aren’t as chaotic as we were eight months ago. We’re working differently and we’ve learned a lot from our experiences. If your company is headed into another six months or more of virtual meetings, then learning to lead a meeting that’s going somewhere will be an important skill in 2021.

If you’d like a little help resetting your annual planning session or your team’s routine  meetings, we can help you transition to an effective virtual model.

Call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson

The Spirited Leader – Passion vs Intensity

The last six months have been different, and the next six months may continue the trend. And our response to that is beginning to show up in language and communication.

We’ve said a lot about blurred lines between workspace and personal space, worktime and down time. But we’re also hearing some blurred lines between appropriate and inappropriate language and experiences.

Most of us are stressed with uncertainty and have felt a little frayed along the way. It’s a very confusing picture when some companies and individuals are overworked, and some are out of work. Some managers are pushing to make quotas and others are pushing to deliver products and services faster than they ever have before. And both extremes seem to bring out bad behavior.

Here’s what we hear:

“He just snapped on our sales call. He yelled at me and called me an idiot who would be lucky to still have a job on Monday.”

“She glared at me and told me I was the dumbest product manager she’d ever had to work with. She just didn’t think she could put up with me through the conversion.”

 “He called me out in front of all my peers.  He said his ten-year-old could have done a better job than me. And I was so upset that I burst into tears on the call. Then, I was mortified.”


And while the tense times may bring out the worst in some, the spirited leader wasn’t born out of the pandemic. And the language above isn’t passion; it’s intensity. It’s lashing out with the intent to make someone feel badly. And it’s wrong.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of intensity, you know how it makes you feel. We’ve all had our feelings hurt by a personal friend who’s a little too honest or a little too direct. But, when your boss takes a shot, it’s different. It’s someone in a position of power and influence who makes you feel belittled.

We meet a lot of leaders who are intense. And we sometimes meet leaders who need a little help recovering from outbursts similar to those above. In most cases, I don’t think they mean to belittle anyone.

Their roles are stressful. If an employee feels pressure, you can assume the pressure only intensifies when you talk to their manager or the manager’s boss. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation for what happens.

The spirited leader is someone who blends thoughts with emotions and expresses them in a tangled outburst. For a moment, emotion gets the better of them and they say things they shouldn’t say.

Through coaching, we can help someone recognize that emotion and thought have been smashed together. As a leader, you have to be intentional about what you say. And sometimes, you have to be careful about revealing how you feel. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have emotional reactions to people or situations. You are a spirited leader, and that spirit or passion may have gotten you where you are today.

But you can’t release that on someone else. You have to stay intentional about what you mean to say, and you have to own how you make someone else feel based on what you say. By separating your emotion from your thought, you can talk through what you’re thinking without always sharing what you’re feeling. You can also share what you’re feeling and then put it aside before you share the thought of what you want an employee to do.

Here are coaching thoughts for the leaders who shared the emotions above:

“He just snapped on our sales call. He yelled at me and called me an idiot who would be  lucky to still have a job on Monday.”

“John, I’m very frustrated right now, and I don’t want that frustration to be the only thing you hear.  So, let me put that aside and tell you this. (Breathe!) You aren’t delivering on our agreed upon expectations.  You had three things to accomplish this week, and they have not been accomplished. So, you need to figure out how to get out of a rut in order to stay in your role.”

“She glared at me and told me I was the dumbest product manager she’d ever had to work with. She just didn’t think she could put up with me through the conversion.”

(Breathe and exhale as you relax your face. Don’t send emotion forward through nonverbals.)

“I am feeling very defeated by our mistakes on this conversion. And I’m not sure how to improve things. Do you have better insight on why we’re struggling to work well together?”

“He called me out in front of all my peers.  He said his ten-year-old could have done a better job than me.  And I was so upset that I burst into tears on the call. Then, I was mortified.”

It doesn’t take a spirited leader to get this one wrong. Good leaders give positive feedback in front of a peer group and give constructive feedback only one on one.

We have blended workspace and personal space and work time with down time. But intensity has to stay out of the work conversations. In personal relationships, unleased emotion may hurt someone’s feelings. In a work relationship, it could cost you your job.

If you’re a spirited leader, try the concept above. Recognize what’s happening and manage through it by talking about emotions and thoughts separately. And if you work for a spirited leader, see if you can get this newsletter in front of them.

Maybe they’ll call us when they need us.

Sally Williamson