Emma: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with optional meetings — nor do I think that managers who invite people to them are trying to be malicious. But anyone who has ever hovered their cursor over that Decline button, wondering if this is a test, knows how wrong they can be.
Andy: Oh, I’ve hovered before. And I’ve also optionally invited before.
Emma: We all have! I totally understand the impulse to + some in to an optional meeting. It often comes from a place of generosity: I know you’re slammed — would love you to join if you have the time! Sometimes it comes from a place of ass-covering: I don’t want you to feel cut out of this thing, even though I know you’re too busy to participate.
Andy: Or maybe it’s a visibility strategy: We aren’t going to schedule this around you so… this is when it is, come or don’t!
But do you see how those are almost exclusively managing-up impulses? (Or, at least, managing-sideways impulses?) One of the many micro-luxuries of power is the option of saying yes or no — to a meeting invite, to anything. And unfortunately, that’s not a luxury for your direct reports. There are consequences and, as their manager, you control them.
Emma: I think every Good Boss wants a team that’s accountable: direct reports who understand what’s at stake, know when to say no, are making decisions because they are the right decisions, not what they are guessing we think are the right decisions. I think that’s honorable. No one wants to baby their team, and teams don’t want to be babied. But I also think it’s an idealized goal for managers who maybe don’t remember what it’s like to be one notch lower on the power totem — to have a little less freedom to say yes or no without fear of consequences.
Andy: Totally. That “come to this meeting, or don’t” can feel a lot like “or else,” even to the smartest, most accountable, self-assured person.
Emma: If this all sounding a little bit dramatic for something as silly and low-stakes as an optional meeting, let’s do a little thought experiment.
Imagine you’re working at a company that gets acquired and your new parent company invites your whole team down to a company-wide retreat at a resort in sandy paradise. Imagine that two days before the retreat, the personal assistant to your new CEO sends a team-wide optional invite: 30 minutes of mingling over cocktails with the CEO. The invite explicitly says: Please do not alter any other sandy paradise plans you may have made — definitely don’t skip the whale-watching pontoon boat ride that’s scheduled at the same time if you’ve signed up for a spot.
Imagine that invite landing in your inbox. What do you do?
Some of you might say: It’s obvious! The new CEO wants to mingle, you mingle — the whales be damned. Some of you might say: It’s obvious! The invite specifically says, “Don’t skip the pontoon boat” — so go on the pontoon boat. Lots of you will probably say: Well, it depends. What are the expectations?
The fact that there are different answers to this question is entirely the point.
Andy: I say: the invite says to pontoon, go pontoon!
Emma: I say so, too. In fact, I did say so. Even though the correct answer to this optional meeting was resoundingly Option A, which I learned because this nightmare of an example is taken from real life.
Andy: Honestly, even knowing the right answer, I’m still pro-pontoon. I’m not one for trying to find the subtext of a meeting invite. The real work at hand requires enough mental effort that a layer of “Is this a literal or non-literal use of language!?” shouldn’t get smashed on top.
An optional meeting is a meeting where you truly do not care what the reply will be. The optional attendees can come or not come and the world will be exactly the same. Anything more or less than that? Do not mark the invitation as optional. It’s preferred, recommended, prioritized, pointless, a waste of time — some other adjective that’s not “optional.”
Criteria of a Truly Optional Meeting
If any of the following has even a flicker of truth, you need to set explicit expectations about how the optional attendee should respond.
● You will notice whether or not they go
● You have an opinion on whether or not they should go
● Their decision will prove something about them to you
● You have an opinion about what qualifies as a good reason to skip
● The outcome of the meeting will be worse if they do not go
Andy: “Preferred” and “pointless” aren’t options in a calendar invite. You have to explain those things. Luckily, you already know that sentence.
Emma: All you gotta do is add it to the invite.
Write Better Emails: Explain What You Mean By ‘Optional’
It only takes 1–2 sentences to make your meeting invite a better email. And you probably already have those sentences in your head. Here are some examples for you to crib for your next optional meeting:
There are four training seminars scheduled this quarter. I’ve invited you as “optional” to all four — please choose one to attend and RSVP yes so we have an accurate headcount.
This brown-bag lunch hosted by the UX Research team reminded me of our conversation last week. I think you should go. Let’s figure out a way to shuffle your schedule so you’ll be free.
This meeting is to revisit last year’s holiday fundraising strategy. It is optional and only necessary to attend if you have specific questions for the team. A recap of the meeting and the fundraising team’s report will be sent out after for those who are interested.
The design team has a daily stand up. You are welcome to sit in anytime you have a question or want to weigh in on a choice. The agenda and the meeting notes live here [link] in Asana.
Join us for a meet-and-greet with your new CEO! Please attend. If you’ve signed up to go on the whale-watching pontoon, let me know and I will help you reschedule for the one earlier in the morning.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Optional Edition