Why you should have no attendees at your next meeting

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Some people are surprised by the research that has been done into meetings. When they discover it, they will often ask questions including a very common one...what is the ideal number of attendees in a meeting? Unlike most answers in this space, where there are a range of variables to consider, my answer to this one is simple and emphatic.

Zero. None. No attendees at meetings. Ever.

Seriously.

Participants, however, are essential for a good meeting. I'll get to the ideal numbers for that next time (there's some cool research that will help out a lot). For now, the point is that our meetings need participants, not attendees. Is it just semantics? Maybe, but I don't think so.

The way I see it is that being an attendee is a passive process where all you need to do is be somewhere (physical or virtual) at the right time. Being a participant, by definition, is an active process where you are involved and engaged. As an attendee, you have little influence or contribution to an event. As a participant, you shape and change the outcome. 

Thinking about it more broadly, my initially bold statement starts to make more sense. Think about where we have attendees in other parts of our life - a concert, a movie, a sporting event, a wedding. In those contexts, the actual event could happen without us attending - attending is the optional extra. The participants in those events - the musician, the film stars, the sportspeople or the married couple - are essential to the event taking place.

In many of instances, the attendees tend to make the event more enjoyable for the participants. A full house is normally a good thing. The worst part in the case of meetings? Unfortunately, attendees make a meeting worse. They make it worse for the participants who are there. Attendees distract by being distracted and generally reduce the effectiveness of the productive conversations. It's also worse for many attendees, who (according to recent research by Clarizen) would prefer to be doing any number of unpleasant things to being in a bad meeting.

A great way to disengage your team would be to have them attend meetings that they make no contribution to.

The idea of Attendee vs. Participant is encapsulated the idea that Active Participation is essential for better meetings. It is one of the five key elements I have identified in my SPACE model. You can download a PDF version here. As I often say in workshops...if it's useful, feel free to use it! I'd love to hear your feedback.

In the meantime, some questions for you to consider:

  1. Would you prefer to be an attendee or a participant in meetings?

  2. What is one thing that you can do to encourage active participation in your meetings?