How to Avoid Distractions and Make Your Meetings More Productive

It is always interesting to see people unpack their belongings when they arrive for a business meeting. Just a few years ago, those items included a spiral notebook, daily planner, and a Cross pen—pulled from a leather attaché case.

Now most people are will carry an over-the-shoulder canvas bag loaded with a tablet, laptop, and smartphone.

One things remains constant: Everyone carries a personal agenda into the meeting, whether it’s on the published program or not.

It reminds me of the school board that proposed a new chandelier for the principal’s office. When the proposal was put to debate, one board member—an elderly man with a hearing problem—angrily stood to his feet and spoke against the project. “I just want to go on record as being totally against this waste of taxpayer money!” he said pounding his fist on the table for emphasis.

The member’s reaction came as a surprise to others. This was the first time their colleague had responded in such a negative way. After a long period of silence, the chairman politely asked why adding the chandelier would be wasteful.

Again the irate board member stood and took a resolute stance. “This principal only lives a couple of miles from the office. If the teachers can drive themselves to work, so can he. In my opinion, he doesn’t need a paid chandelier to drive him to work.”

The gentleman evidently needed a new Energizer battery for his hearing aid. But it gives a bit of insight into what leaders might face when personal agendas sneak into a meeting. You never know quite where they’ll come from, or what will drive them.

The risk is that one team member’s personal agenda may derail the entire meeting. Everyone’s time may be wasted when a pet project or point of view is allowed to dominate.

Here are four ways to deal swiftly and smoothly with personal agendas and keep any meeting on track.

Politely. Honey is a better solution than vinegar. Kindness is a solvent that soothes friction. When personal agendas appear, politely move the meeting back to center. “That’s an important need, and we may be able to consider it at another time. For now, let’s get back to the project.”

Objectively. Though it’s frustrating to be interrupted, even a mistimed comment may shed some light. Strong leaders sometimes miss a good idea because of their laser focus. Be objective about the interruption and ask yourself what might be learned from it.

Purposefully. As leader, your job is to keep the team on task and on purpose. Ask leading questions to help the team member (and the entire team) determine whether the suggestion takes you further toward the goal or down a bunny trail. “How would that fit with our mission?” “Do you see any conflict with our core values?”

Firmly. When all else fails, play the traffic cop and give directions in a firm but respectful way. “This simply isn’t the time to get into that subject. Let’s return to the agenda.” Other team members will thank you for making the most of their time by keeping the meeting focused.

Even the best team members get sidetracked once in awhile, and nearly everyone has a pet idea or project that inserts itself into discussions. Keep your team gently, firmly focused on the goal, and you can avoid death by distraction—the fate of many good ideas.