Productive Team Meetings – How to stop wasting time and money

Meeting of five people sitting at a table in a modern office with coffee, laptops, coffee and printouts with a woman standing talking to them holding her phone

This is the sixth in a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These articles are designed to help. This article was written with Dr John Waters and focuses on holding productive team meetings.


Having effective team meetings is an important part of creating the “sound team structure” that researchers Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman identified as a condition for teams to be successful. See Leading Teams and Senior Leadership Teams. (My previous article Creating Effective Teams6 Conditions that deliver outstanding performance provides an overview of their model.)

I have worked with numerous teams as an executive coach over the past 12 years. One reliable way of sensing the quality of a team is by discussing and observing its team meetings.

In my experience, when participants talk about team meetings being “a waste of time” or “something I try to avoid”, the team has underlying problems. In contrast, if people speak about their meetings in terms of progress and achievement, and attend them well prepared and motivated, you know that you are likely dealing with an effective team.

Early in my career as a lawyer, I was seconded into a temporary role as Corporate Affairs Manager for Pioneer International. At the time Pioneer was one of Australia’s leading building materials manufacturers. The leadership team was headed by the CEO Dr John Schubert, who subsequently went on to chair the Business Council of Australia.

I remember walking out my first Pioneer meeting thinking, “this is a seriously good team”.  Everyone in the room had come prepared. Everyone was excited to be there and knew that the meeting would be productive. Schubert was a consummate Chair/Facilitator – making it clear what was expected of team members and working through the agenda while calling on everyone to contribute. Everyone leaving the room felt they had been personally involved in making the decisions. They were motivated by having been part of making progress.

How do productive team meetings reinforce a high-performance culture?   

Katzenbach & Smith in their popular book The Wisdom of Teams (1993) defined a team as a small group of people “who are committed to a common purpose”. They suggested that “high-performance teams” reflected “strong extensions of the basic characteristics of teams” through their “intense commitment to the team’s mutual purpose”.   In other words, “high-performance” teams are “high-commitment” teams, and this puts the generation of commitment at the centre of a high-performance team’s thinking.

So, whatever the formal purpose of a high-performance team’s meeting, the meeting’s process must also fulfil the informal purpose of generating and reinforcing the team members’ commitment to the team’s goals by:

Creating cohesion: The team meeting is the one time when the whole team can be together, (whether face to face or virtually) and when members can look around and sense the collective identity of which they are a part. That feeling of identity, togetherness and team support will engender a team member’s commitment to the team’s task.

Producing ownership and commitment: Being involved in discussion, contributing ideas and being part of team decisions produces the feelings of ownership and commitment to the decision, which in turn helps drive the team towards its goal.

Reinforcing the team’s ground rules: High-performance teams develop rules to help them work well as a team. It is at team meetings that these rules are seen in action and can be reviewed, renewed, or enforced.

Celebrating the team’s success: In their research for The Progress Principle (2011), Amabile & Kramer found that “the single most important thing leaders can do to improve morale” is to help team members feel they are making progress. Teams that feel successful increase their ambition and commitment.


Creating productive team meetings

At the formal level, team leaders can do the following seven things to promote the meeting’s efficiency while developing a team culture that uses meetings to drive the team’s performance:

  1. Prepare for the meeting
  2. Be clear about the meeting’s purpose
  3. Be clear about what you expect the team to do at the meeting
  4. Have clear ground rules for how the meeting is run
  5. Manage meeting processes to create commitment
  6. Facilitate “psychological safety” and “constructive conflict”
  7. Record agreed actions and expectations


  1. Prepare for the meeting

To begin with, you need to circulate an agenda and any relevant information  in sufficient time before the meeting so that members have time to read and do some preparatory thinking about the points they may wish to make or consider.

  1. Be clear about the meeting’s purpose

Everyone in the meeting room must know why they are there. As the leader, you need to clarify the purpose and objectives of the meeting as well as ensure that everyone you invite is equally as clear.

For a high-performance team, a formal meeting’s purpose will usually be aligned with the Team’s Purpose (see my earlier article What’s your Team Purpose? You need to make this clear!) and justified by the meeting’s expected work outcomes. However, the team bonding that is important to build team commitment is rarely on the formal agenda of a meeting, and yet bonding is an important purpose for every successful team and should not be overlooked.

Teams may need to have different types of meeting and each may have a different purpose.  For example, task-focused teams that may normally hold frequent short meetings because of the need for close collaboration on operational matters, may also need to hold infrequent but longer meetings for periodic reviews or problem solving.

  1. Be clear about the nature of the work you expect the team to do

The Team Diagnostic Survey, an instrument for assessing team performance developed by Ruth Wageman, Richard Hackman and their colleagues, identifies five different types of work that teams perform at meetings:

  1. Presenting Information – updating the team on individual work
  2. Providing consultation – providing advice to each other to improve work effectiveness
  3. Coordination – integrating individual tasks
  4. Joint Decisions – making decisions on issues together
  5. Collective Work – performing interdependent work as a team

It’s important that yous identify what type of work you expect your team to perform, and ensure the meeting is structured to allow the work to happen. If the team is expected to do more than simply share information, then the meeting agenda must allow sufficient time for the other types of work to take place.

Further, everyone should understand their role in relation to the agenda item – that is, if they are to share information, advise or consult with others, be part of the decision-making process, or simply listen to gain understanding.

Recently, I had a team complain to me that they didn’t do much more than present information at their meetings, and as a result weren’t working as a genuine leadership team. One problem was that they didn’t have a clear team purpose. A second was that the allotted meeting time was not enough to do much more than share information and react to the latest hot issues. Critically, there was no time allowed for strategic discussions or meaningful dialogue.

  1. Have clear ground rules for how the meeting is run

An effective team has ground rules to make its meetings more efficient and to improve how it solves problems and makes decisions. In high-performance teams, the team itself creates these ground rules and agrees on how to use them.

Harvard academic Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator (2002), is a well-known advocate for the use of ground rules, and his ideas inform the following discussion. According to Schwarz, meeting ground rules tend to be a mixture of two types: procedural and behavioural.

Procedural rules are intended to sharpen meetings with rules such as “Prepare properly for meeting”, “Start on time and finish on time”, “Phones Off and laptops open for meeting tasks only”. Procedural rules can promote efficiency and reduce frustrations, but are less helpful in generating creative and productive behavior within and beyond the meeting.

Behavioural rules are aimed at influencing the eventual outcomes of the meeting by describing the specific actions that team members can use to make the meeting process effective. They do this through reinforcing positive working relationships and commitment to the team’s goals. Rules such as: “Listen to what others have to say”. “Ask questions to gain clarity and understanding”. “Challenge each other respectfully”. “Ensure that agreed actions are clearly understood and communicated”. “Ask how we can be better at doing this”. These behavioural rules can lead to better team decisions and, importantly, less frustration for team members.

A few years ago, I conducted a leadership development program for 120 managers at a leading Australian construction company.  These managers developed a list of 16 essential rules for successful meetings from which the above rules were extracted. I have refrained from providing the entire list, for they are only relevant to their work context. But it was interesting that the rules were equally divided between procedural and behavioural types.

Is there an optimum number of ground rules? Schwarz’s work puts emphasis on behavioural rules and revolves around eight research-based examples of them.  However, it is the team itself that must be comfortable with the rules it has set for itself, for rules are both enabling and limiting. Rules that reduce frustration and are few enough that members can easily become “unconsciously competent” in their use, are helpful and enabling. But every extra rule restrains future creativity to a limited extent, so it is important that the team strikes the appropriate balance.

5. Manage meeting processes in order to generate commitment

High-performance teams meet to get things done, but nothing will happen unless team members are committed to action. That raises the question of where does a team’s commitment to action come from?

To create any organisation, leaders need people who can communicate with each other through language and are willing to contribute their action towards a common goal. To have people understand the common purpose and inducing people to cooperate can only be done by communication. Consequently, if we accept that a team is constituted and driven by communication, it is logical to then expect that its commitments to action are generated through these same communication processes.

Researchers into communication in successful organisations confirm this. The modern view of communication process goes beyond the “everyday” view of messages being sent from one person to another. Rather, researchers view communication as the result of interactions between people in which they create understanding through resolving their differences in values. These interactions, or “transactions”, are treated as the fundamental building blocks of communication.  They are just as relevant to creating understanding during a purchase at the supermarket as they are when a team gets together to agree on future action.

A transaction consists of three separate and sequential psychological processes:

(1) sense making – making sense of a situation,

(2) understanding – coming to an agreement, and

(3) committing – bringing together the expectations and obligations of each party to take further action.

This sequence of events is typically presented in team management literature as the means for achieving understanding, but understanding’s crucial role in generating commitment receives little emphasis. For example, the understanding process is typically described in the simple terms of:

(a) Listening – said to be an important discipline in helping to achieve the goal and in strengthening relationships within a team,

(b) Clarifying and questioning, both necessary for clearing up confusion and allowing agreement to emerge, and

(c) Summarising to check that everyone understands the agreement and the way forward.

The means of achieving commitment is in managing the progress of these three sequential processes through the meeting, and it is important that the processes are kept separate. To begin with, the listening process (1) is most effective when all members are engaged and given a voice, and all views gathered before proceeding to evaluation.

The agreement or understanding process, on the other hand, (2) relies on the completeness and relevance of information gathered by the members in the earlier “listening” process.

Commitment (3) to a proposal cannot be achieved unless the prior agreement process has been completed. What is not fully appreciated in some of the team literature, we believe, is that the member’s personal declarations of agreement, and the formal recording of decisions, is what creates the commitment to the team and its goals.

Talented meeting facilitators such as John Schubert, who we mentioned at the beginning of this article, have an inherent understanding of how to orchestrate the three necessary processes for generating commitment. They ensure that everyone has their chance to introduce new information, ensure that everyone plays their part in clarifying the issues so as reach agreement, and ensure that everyone declares their agreement (or otherwise) to the decision. In this way, team members can leave the meeting satisfied with their own contribution to the decision and motivated by being part of making progress.

  1. Facilitate “psychological safety” and “constructive conflict”

As leader, you need to shape and model the behaviour that gives people the confidence to share their own opinions, explore possibilities, and engage in constructive conflict.

I have written previously about the importance of leaders creating psychological safety for their teams (see How do you create a “psychologically safe” team? – Balanced Curve). Successful leaders are proactive in creating a safe meeting environment where their people can have healthy discussion, express different points of view, and argue the toss on contentious issues.

Sometimes this means leaders need to pull people into line and remind them when they step outside agreed behavioural boundaries. Sometimes leaders need to be proactive in inviting people to express their views, and to be conscious of the need to hold back on expressing their own personal views! Often leaders need to ask challenging questions in order to bring out into the open the elephant in the room. At other times you  may need to admit you don’t know what to do, or worst still, admit you’ve made a mistake and ask for help. It bears repeating that as the leader, your behaviour shapes the team’s culture.

  1. Capture agreed actions and expectations  

Every team meeting should be a milestone towards achieving the team’s purpose. The managers I worked with at the construction company identified an important point. Unless everyone leaves the meeting understanding what has been agreed, and what are the future actions, then that milestone has not been achieved.

My experience is that when you ask for the meeting’s agreement, you should never rely on the assumption that silence is a sign of assent. This can be a dangerous fantasy, especially in important decisions requiring widespread commitment, when you should ask for approval or disapproval from each member. And it is always good practice to record agreements in writing.

If people are committed to the team’s goals, they need to know who is required to do what, by when and often how. And team ground rules might include that people need to account for whether they did what they said they would do at the next team meeting.

The bottom line for productive team meetings

There are several things leaders can do to have productive team meetings that will drive performance and reinforce a high-performance culture:

  • Ensure everyone attending the meeting is clear about the purpose of the meeting
  • Spell out clearly and specifically the work you want the team to do at the meeting
  • Have clear ground rules for how the meeting is run
  • Understand the need to manage the meeting process in order to reinforce commitment to the team’s goals
  • Take care about modelling the behaviours that create a psychological safe space where constructive conflict can take place
  • Make sure you capture agreed actions and have a process to follow up and hold people accountable for doing what they say they will do.

Enjoy your week.

For more information about building high-performing teams, please visit my blog at


Mark Rosenberg