How to say 'NO' to meetings at work.

Are you drowning in meetings at work? A sad reality is that the average person spends approximately six hours every week in meetings (more if you manage people), and people consider about 50% of them to be a waste of time.

If people spend a significant amount of time at work and most of them are useless, what do we do about it?

There are a few things we could do:

  • Improve the efficiency of the meeting
  • Hold fewer meetings
  • If you aren't a key dependency, politely decline the meeting invitation.

In this article, we're going to provide tips and coaching on how you can politely decline meetings at work.

I've done this before and it's a tricky balance; learn from my mistakes by reading the rest of this post.

Part 1: Determine the meeting category

First up, we need to determine what the meeting type is.

In the best management book we've ever read, Andy Grove categorizes them in the following ways:

  • Process-oriented meetings (i.e. - regularly scheduled meetings like 1-1s, weekly staff meetings)
  • Mission-oriented meetings (i.e. - ad-hoc meeting designed to produce a specific decision)

Process-Oriented Meetings

Process-oriented meetings are regularly occurring meetings at work, so it will be difficult to politely decline these, as your request/decision has the baked in assumption that it will happen again in the future. You will probably get pushback from others.

Therefore, we recommend that you focus on improving the efficiency of the meeting vs. declining the meeting. Put simply, process-oriented meetings are tough to decline - you'd be better off focusing your attention on the next category of meeting.

Mission-Oriented Meetings

For mission-oriented meetings, the structure and attendees are much more fluid, which means the probability that you are required for the meeting is much lower. These ad-hoc meetings are focused on a particular project or decision. 

Unlike regularly occurring meetings, less time and thought has been put into making these meetings effective. This ambiguity creates meeting pain.

Mission-oriented/ad-hoc meetings are the ones you can say "no" to.

Part 2: collect information to guide your decision

Now that you've identified the meetings to say no to, the next step is to collect enough information to make an education decision and avoid looking like an idiot.

If you don't collect enough context beforehand, you may miss an important meeting that is worth your time. 

If you'd like to avoid this, ask for an agenda beforehand. Email the organizer and ask for an agenda. Here's a sample email you can send:

"Hey $name,

Thanks for the invite to the meeting next Tuesday. I'd like to get a better understanding of my contribution and if it makes sense for me to attend this meeting. As I'm sure you already know, meetings can be expensive, so I'd like to make sure this is the best use of company resources.

Do you mind sending an agenda?"

Most meetings do not have an agenda passed around beforehand, which is unfortunate.

This email may require the organizer to create an agenda; worst case scenario, you've improved the efficiency of the meeting by asking for this agenda. It also gives you the information you need to make an educated decision. Here's inspiration from Charles Dickens on how to say no to a meeting request:

“It is only half an hour’–’It is only an afternoon’–’It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”


Part 3: Make a decision

Now it's time to make a decision. I recommend making a decision and giving enough advance notice to avoid potential downside.

If pushback happens, you want to be able to address it BEFORE the meeting happens. For example, I rejected a meeting invitation and assumed that was enough. Nope. I was still dialed into the meeting as if I was attending. It was awkward.

In this scenario, I should have given enough notice beforehand in a way that was obvious that I would not be attending. The worst case scenario to avoid is when people show up to a meeting and ask, "why isn't ________ here?"

If you get pushback, simply outline the process for determining if your attendance was required. You did your homework!

The first couple times you will feel weird doing this, but if you have sound logic for declining an invitation, you are saving hours of your life and freeing up time to do more meaningful work

More advice

Here's a few final bits of advice as I wrap up this article:

Some organizations love to have meetings; it's engrained in the culture of the organization. If you aren't aligned with this and try the strategies above, it may be time to go work somewhere else.

When interviewing for a job, ask, "what is your meeting culture like? On average, how many meetings do you attend on a weekly basis?"

If you lead a team, do everything you can to select the most relevant people to attend a meeting. If you want work to get done, try to avoid holding meetings all week long.

I hope this advice is helpful. If you'd like to laugh about meetings, see this satire. It's amazing.