The subtle art of leaving a meeting

Dec 20, 2023

4 mins

The subtle art of leaving a meeting
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.


With its non-stop stream of emails and endless meetings, professional life can seem like an obstacle course combined with a marathon. So how do you get out of a meeting or two and still look like a team player? To find out, Welcome to the Jungle asked meeting specialist and author Louis Vareille for his advice on how to escape without offending your boss or coworkers.

The hectic pace of work throws up a daily dilemma: How can you manage your time well when so much of it is eaten up by meetings? Sadly, meetings aren’t always synonymous with productivity and often feel like a waste of time. Yet they are ubiquitous. Some employees spend 7.5 hours a week in meetings, according to a Work Trend Index from Microsoft that looked at the experience of 31,000 people across 31 countries. So, many employees want to know how to leave early or even skip an occasional meeting without being perceived as impolite or disengaged at work.

The root of the problem: FOMO

An addiction to “meetingitis” is the scourge of many organizations. These gatherings, which were completely justified initially, have multiplied to the point of losing any meaning. “Meetings should advance business and foster individual progress,” says Vareille. Often, that doesn’t happen. So why do so few employees dare to stand up, speak out, and question the usefulness of these gatherings? Is it FOMO (fear of missing out), the social anxiety related to the fear of missing out on social interactions, that compels us to sit there without being honest enough to say that they’re eating up our time and attention?

Where are you, courage?

For several years, Vareille has noticed a lack of courage to speak out on this topic. “We’re faced with an endemic lack of courage: the courage to challenge the need for a meeting, to question its objective, and even to accept that we might not be needed at it,” Vareille says. He suggests thinking about the objective of each meeting and avoiding automatic email invitations, but notes that these simple principles are not respected enough.

These words ring true for Isabelle, a marketing project manager in a pharmaceutical laboratory. “As long as one meeting doesn’t conflict with another, I accept the invitation by default,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s true, I wonder why I’m there. Often, I tell myself that the meetings – even the useful ones – could have been covered in an email. But fighting bad practices is not my job, so why should I say anything?” Like many, Isabelle feels overwhelmed by the scale of change needed within her organization.

Vareille’s answer is that everyone needs to “communicate.” One of the key aspects of a healthy professional environment is the feeling that one is comfortable communicating openly with others. It’s essential to remember that each participant in a meeting is not just a cog in a machine but a person with real concerns and responsibilities. “Before the meeting, ask the person leading it whether your presence is required. By doing this, you are helping the person who called the meeting to clarify their intention,” Vareille says. “Ultimately, is it about being brave or restoring our humanity? Our coworkers have the right to know what’s at stake in the interaction. We’re not machines.” Deep down, perhaps Isabelle is suffering from FOMO – perhaps we all are.

The influence of FOMO on anything and everything

Initially, FOMO was used to describe feelings about our personal lives, but it has now crept into our professional lives as well. Fear of not being privy to crucial information or alarm about missing a networking opportunity can cause us to say ‘yes’ to too many meetings. “I admit I’m a careerist, so I need to show up. I often find myself in endless meetings even when I know I shouldn’t. I’m there just in case,” says Christophe, a financial manager. “But the sad reality is that it’s very useful for my career.”

Vareille says this fear is a symptom of inconsistent communication, a real problem within organizations. “The truth about FOMO is that people are afraid of not being the first to know,” he says. It is up to the company to implement fair communication processes to tackle this issue. “Let’s take the example of budget meetings. If each meeting provides a chance to extend the budget, then yes, employees will attend countless meetings for fear of missing out on this opportunity,” Vareille says.

Even those who suffer from FOMO, such as Christophe, need to learn how to get out of useless meetings occasionally. “For a long time, I used fake phone calls as an excuse to leave meetings, but that didn’t work. Today, with remote work, I attend online meetings, but I do other work on the side. I’m aware that this is counterproductive, but I’m not ready to slam the door on these meetings and reveal my dissatisfaction,” Christophe admits. So, what’s the secret to making your escape without tarnishing your reputation?

Four strategies for leaving a meeting (wisely)

Leaving a meeting is sometimes necessary, so you need to know how to do it tactfully.

Vareille offers this advice:

Be upfront about what you plan to do. “It’s generally well-received to say at the start of a meeting that you won’t be able to attend all of it,” says Vareille.

Suggest following a clear agenda. “If the meeting is sufficiently organized, ask if it’s possible to modify the order of business so you can be present for the parts you’ll add value to,” Vareille suggests. Saying that you’ll be leaving a meeting early, but you’d like to be there for the discussions you bring value to can be a subtle way of telling the organizer that a clear agenda is essential.

Be an active participant in the flow of a meeting. “Before you get up and leave, you should try to keep the meeting on track. If the objectives aren’t clear or the discussion is going astray, you could ask, ‘Can someone tell me what needs to be accomplished in the next 30 minutes?’” says Vareille.

Don’t slip away like a thief. “When you leave a meeting, it’s good to explain why you’re doing so. We need to be bold and admit we don’t feel like we’re adding value, or that we have perhaps misunderstood the agenda,” says Vareille. This approach has worked well for him, he adds.

Having courage and engaging in proactive communication can help you to avoid unnecessary meetings and positively influence the ones you do attend. “It’s time to break the complacency of mediocrity in meetings,” Vareille says. Meetings should be used as an opportunity to exchange ideas, make decisions, and have human interaction, he adds. They should not be a source of frustration or wasted time. “We need kindness, yes,” Vareille says, “but not complacency.”

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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