Meetings that ignite: How to end pointless, waste-of-time meetings for dental staff members

Aug. 1, 2017
Dorothy Garlough, RDH, comments on increasing the focus on team meetings for dental staff members.

By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

The 11 a.m. staff meeting started 25 minutes late ... again. The doctor, who is notorious for the gift of gab, is in a long-winded conversation with the last patient of the morning. In the meantime, his assistant needs to clean the operatory, and the business coordinator needs to collect payment and book another appointment. The remaining staff members, waiting in the office, are bored and getting frustrated that their time is not being used productively. The common theme that unites them at this moment weighs heavily on their minds - there is so much to do with not enough time. The negative undertones are palpable.

When the doctor finally arrives to begin the meeting, everyone is disjointed, unfocused, and has lost interest. The agenda will need to be slashed, and although they don’t express it, the staff is annoyed and feels disrespected. Many of the proposed subjects have already been carried forward from last month’s meeting, and likely will not be addressed today.

Everyone has learned not to take the office meetings seriously. What the team and especially the doctor do not understand is that meetings matter. Meetings are where an organization’s culture perpetuates itself. Meetings are how an organization says, “You are a member.” So, if every month we go to boring meetings full of boring people, then we can’t help but think that this is a boring office. Bad meetings are a source of negative messages about our team and us.1

Effective meetings have multiple facets, and one of them is good leadership. Without good leadership, the meeting will be rudderless, like a boat on a raging river, unable to hold direction. Meetings are supposed to offer the team direction. Without objectives in mind, unclear thinking, weak methodology, and disengagement of the staff will occur. Recognizing the purpose of the meeting will be the first step in making them effective and meaningful (see sidebar). Having a meeting without clear directives is pointless - but with directives, it is important.

In dental offices, time needs to be reserved for meetings months in advance. First thing in the morning is ideal. People are fresh and there will be no distractions to prevent the meeting starting and ending on time. A well-functioning office will book monthly meetings and use them to their maximum efficiency, addressing needs, concerns, and planning of the office proactively. In addition, they will follow this protocol:

Effective meetings are disciplined and there is a shared conviction among all participants that meetings are real work. Too often the expression, “Meeting’s over, let’s get back to work,” is used, leaving an underlying impression that meetings are not valuable. The discipline of well-structured agendas, clear goals, paths that you’re going to follow, and starting on time will make a huge difference in reaching the meeting objectives.

Meetings should be succinct but productive. Maximum value will be reached if meetings are no longer than 90 minutes, and shortening meetings to an hour can help to stimulate laserlike focus to drive the meeting forward. Maintaining discipline will help with a productive convening. Too often, team members wander off topic and spend more time in digressing than discussing the issues at hand. A competent facilitator will help keep the topics on track while noting worthwhile ideas and parking “possibility topics” for a future discussion.

Preparedness for meetings will ensure that outcomes are positive as well. Making sure that the data, information, and related research have been done and are presented in an organized manner will lead to positive meetings. Leaders and staff who are proposing changes will be more effective if they themselves are prepared with clear points.

Creating a safe environment where everyone can express him- or herself openly and even heatedly is the best atmosphere for productive meetings. In reality, people often do not tell the truth about what they really believe. They don’t speak their minds. Sometimes the problem is a leader who doesn’t solicit participation. Sometimes a dominant personality intimidates the rest of the group. But most of the time the problem is a simple lack of trust. People don’t feel secure enough to say what they really think. There is plenty of conversation, but not much candor. Until a cohesive trust-filled team can be developed, two alternatives can be followed:

  • Give equal floor time to each team member and allow him or her to express what he or she thinks. Limiting time to aggressive team members will result in other team members feeling less intimidated.
  • Vote on decisions anonymously. An exercise such as this may aid in sparking discussions of the pros and cons of proposed initiatives.

Lack of clarity around accountability is more often than not why it seems nothing happens once the meeting ends. People don’t convert decisions into action. The problem isn’t that people are lazy or irresponsible. It’s that people leave meetings with different views of what happened and what’s supposed to happen next. With technology today, staff can actually leave the meeting with written real-time minutes. The comments, ideas, proposals, decisions, and who is doing what, by when, could be projected for the entire group to see and approve before being printed while the team is still gathered. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page.3

Practice makes perfect. Meetings are like any other part of business life: you get better only if you commit to it - and aim high. Charles Schwab Corporation, the financial-services company based in San Francisco, has made that commitment. In virtually every meeting at Schwab, someone serves as an “observer” and creates what the company calls a Plus/Delta list. The list records what went right and what went wrong, and gets included in the minutes. Over time, both for specific meeting groups and for the company as a whole, these lists create an agenda for change.

When meetings run effectively, they will ignite and unite the team. The energy becomes not only collaborative but also inspirational. Knowing where you are going and how you will get there is only part of the reason for having meetings. Nurturing the office culture is key as well. Recognizing that meetings are an opportunity to recalibrate the team about why they are here will keep them inspired. Like a healthy diet, efficient meetings fuel a well-functioning team.

Reasons to hold meetings

  • Analysis2 - Often, new initiatives are introduced in the workplace but the team may not be speaking the same language. For instance, perhaps laser therapy is now one of the services of the office, but is everyone on the same wavelength? Meetings enable everyone to gain the vernacular to understand services and gain the skills to explain them to one another and to the patients.
  • Assignments2 - Roles, responsibilities, and norms are ever changing. Does everyone on the team understand the scope of each team member’s position? Do meetings outline who is responsible for what task and who is accountable for implementing a new initiative?
  • Decision-making2 - There will always need to be priorities in the decisions to be made. Limited resources and time dictate these priorities. Effective meetings will build consensus around the understanding of what needs to be prioritized in the time allocated.
  • Idea generation2 - Groupings of people generate and feed ideas more effectively than individuals. The best ideas are created with input from others and creativity is enhanced when others’ ideas spark us. Meetings will enhance both new ideas and creative problem-solving as well as creative problem finding.
  • Information exchange2 - Teams need to meet when there are questions about agreement, clarity, omissions, or the impact information will have on the behavior of the team. Exploring issues and addressing how to obtain a united stance will alleviate questions and help resolve problems.
  • Inspiration and fun2 - Meetings that reward or inspire teams often involve learning or building teamwork. These events are usually structured differently than an office meeting, but can be planned during office meetings.
  • Relationships2 - In-person meetings can help bind relationships and help engage others to work together more cooperatively. In a cohesive team, conflict and vulnerabilities along with strengths and weaknesses can be addressed effectively in a meeting. Done effectively, it can lead to powerful teams.


Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change within dentistry. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation, and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] or visit


1. Matson E. The seven sins of deadly meetings. Fast Company website. Published April 30, 1996.
2. Metz T. 8 meeting purposes - what tasks are you asking a group to complete? Fast Weekly Facilitation Blog. Published February 13, 2014.
3. Axtell P. How to get your team to follow through after a meeting. Harvard Business Review website. Published March 30, 2017.