Another week, another great question from an audience member. This time, “What do I do if a colleague from another department keeps skipping the meetings I schedule and then complains about the decisions later?” Add this behavior to the list of the most annoying things about teamwork and collaboration. It’s infuriating when you make the effort to engage a stakeholder and they can’t be bothered to show up but don’t hesitate to criticize after-the-fact. Grrrrrr.

Dealing with the Meeting Skipper

Imagine their World

First, remind yourself that there is a lot going on in your organization and the person is not likely skipping your meetings to have a nap. For many people, accepting one meeting invitation means turning down another; and if not another meeting, at least turning down the one hour between nine and five that they might get some work done. So, have a little empathy and make an effort to get informed about what else is going on for the person who is ghosting you.

Describe the Value you Need

In my experience, the most common reason for someone to skip a meeting is that they don’t think it’s going to be valuable. As the host of the meeting, it’s your job to clarify the purpose of the meeting and to describe what would be missing from the planning or decision-making process if the person wasn’t there. The more clearly you can articulate to them that they have something unique to contribute to the discussion, the more likely they are to make time for it. For example, you might say, “Without you in the meeting, we have no one to represent the supplier perspective.”  Alternatively, you might highlight what’s special about their knowledge or experience, such as, “This is the first system implementation I’m working through and I need your wisdom from leading the Oracle implementation.”  The more important and unique the contribution, the more likely the person is to prioritize your meeting over other activities.

Flex the Schedule

Now, make it as easy as possible for the person to add the value you’re counting on them for. Maybe they’re skipping your meeting because they typically add value on only one or two agenda items out of a long list. If the meeting is two hours and their input could be contained to 30-minutes, offer to put that agenda item first so that they can leave sooner. No need to spend the whole day at the races if you only have a horse in the first race.

Run a Great Meeting

Here’s where you might need to take the person’s chronic absenteeism as feedback about your meetings. Reflect critically on whether you’re running an effective meeting or not. Are you clear about the agenda and do you stick to it or is your meeting more like an improv routine? Do you use primer documents to set up an evidence-based discussion or do you let people pontificate endlessly? Do you actively manage bad behavior like interrupting or rambling when it happens or do bad actors take things off track? If the dynamics of your meeting are excruciating, it won’t be enough to make the content more effective. Take a quick survey of those who do attend and ask how you might improve the quality of the discussions.

Accept the Write-in Ballot

One of the important reasons to be clear on the value you need your truant team member to add in your meeting is that in doing so, you might realize that they don’t actually need to be in the meeting at all. If they need to provide expertise, or highlight risks, or discuss implementation steps of a plan that’s already hatched, those things can be done outside the meeting. Where a quick discussion or an email would suffice, there’s no point in forcing the person to sit through a full agenda. Only when the necessary contribution is some form of co-creation or dynamic tension does the person actually need to be in the room. If you flex so the person can add value without always attending the meeting, in those instances where you really do need them present, you’ll have more credibility in asking for their participation.

Give Direct Feedback

If none of those techniques is working and the person’s chair continues to sit empty, try giving them feedback about how their absence is affecting you. As always with feedback, avoid judgment and drama and be as objective as possible. “When we were making the calls on the new store opening at the meeting yesterday and you weren’t there, we had no one who could bring the insight from IT. I’m really concerned that there are risks in our plan from a technology perspective that we don’t know about. How might we make this meeting a priority for you in future?”

Whether you can dial up the consequences of the person continuing to be a no-show depends on your roles and power in the situation. If you’ve tried everything on this list to no avail, you’re justified in going to the person’s boss to ask, “We need IT input on our store ops meeting and we’re not getting it at the moment. What are our options?”

It’s infuriating when an important stakeholder fails to show up for a meeting, especially if they do it regularly. Start with the positive assumption that they have important competing priorities. Describe exactly what you’re counting on them for and make it as easy as possible for them to add that value (inside or outside the meeting). At the same time, take the opportunity to ask yourself whether your meeting is worth attending. If it’s a bit of a slog, make the effort to improve the quality and flow of the discussion so it’s a better investment of time for everyone.

Further Reading

8 Quick Tips to Shorten Your Meetings

Dealing with a hold out

How to get a juicy conversation