The Real Reason Meetings are Unproductive
The psychological explanation for mediocre meetings may surprise you.
Posted May 11, 2017
Unproductive meetings have become a worldwide epidemic. From Boston to Budapest, they clog calendars, crush souls, and prevent progress towards our most important goals. The reason has always appeared obvious: People don’t know how to conduct good meetings. Organizations assume that if they fill in the knowledge gap, meetings will improve.
So we’ve spent a fortune teaching leaders effective meeting practices: create an agenda, articulate a clear purpose, call meetings only when absolutely necessary. But, surprisingly, the training has made but a dent. Why? Because, by and large, people already know these meeting fundamentals. Don’t you?
The problem is not that people don’t know what to do; it’s that they don’t do what they know. But why? I’ll explain with a metaphor.
Imagine you’re the driver of a car. Your goal is to get from New York to the sunny city of Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Meetings are like the pit stops you make along the way, to refuel, tune up, get directions.
It doesn’t take long, however, to realize the pit stops are dreadfully drawn-out, inexplicably inefficient, and there are, frankly, way too damn many of them. Seems like a simple problem to solve, so you promise to create an agenda, set a time limit, and make stops only when absolutely necessary. But 24 hours later you’re mystified to find you’ve largely not followed through on your promises. You vow to try harder this time, but the next day, after frustratingly meager change, you’re still hard pressed for an explanation.
That’s because the true explanation, the one you’ve not even thought to consider, is both unsettling and rather unbelievable: sabotage.
Unbeknownst to you, sitting beside you in the car is a passenger. An invisible bloke who, every time you try to make the pitstops more productive, actively undoes your work. The passenger doesn’t want to get to LA. To you, inefficient pit stops are a bug. To him, they’re a feature.
If you want to solve the problem, you can’t just naively try to optimize the pit stops. You have to address the problem lurking behind the problem. You must deal with the passenger.
Who is the passenger?
Have you ever found yourself cleaning your fridge instead of preparing for a presentation? Binging the entire first season of Stranger Things instead of doing your taxes? Skipping the gym because today is your half birthday, and sleeping in, you’ve suddenly decided, is a gift to yourself?
After each of these events, you no doubt looked back at your irrational behavior with disbelief asking, “why in the world did I do that?” The question was meant rhetorically, but it deserves an answer: the passenger.
Across the years, the collective psychological forces that have prevented us from doing our work, the ones I’m now calling the passenger, have gone by many a name. The Greeks called it akrasia, loosely translated as “weakness of will.” The acclaimed author Stephen Pressfield named it the Resistance, “the most toxic force on the planet.”  Psychologists call it procrastination, delaying an action despite expecting to be worse-off for it. 
An extraordinary number of productivity problems throughout history have been caused by this formidable foe. As Piers Steel chronicles in his book, The Procrastination Equation, hieroglyphs dating back 4000 years suggest the ancient Egyptians struggled to plant their crops on time. Centuries later, the Greek poet Hesiod, warned his countrymen to “not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” More recently, writers from Kafka to Hemingway to Foster Wallace have fallen victim.
Today, while the passenger still plagues farmers, writers, and artists, its target du jour is the organization, and meetings have become its weapon of choice. But before we can understand how, we should ask why; why exactly is the passenger so intent on preventing us from doing our work?
What does the Passenger Want?
No one knows exactly when the passenger first arrived on the scene, but it was probably a long, long time ago—born with a simple mission: help humans survive. For our earliest ancestors, a focus on rewards that could be realized quickly was critical to survival. Most important were the four basic drives: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and mating.
The passenger, with his impulsive preference for smaller pleasures now over larger pleasures later—in short, instant gratification—afforded humans an evolutionary advantage.
Today, however, we live in a world where the key to thriving is delayed gratification. To write a book, build a skyscraper, learn to perform cardiac surgery, all require a heavy dose of real, sweat-inducing work. Work, I define as any activity that causes us some unpleasantness now, but moves us significantly closer to our long term goals. These are exactly the kind of tasks that the passenger, still foolishly stuck in the past, doesn’t want anything to do with.
But how exactly does the passenger get human beings, a species with such high ambitions, to avoid our work? By deceiving us. 
Silent but Deadly: Make-Work
We’re already well aware of the most obvious way the passenger distracts us from our work, by seducing us with pleasurable distractions, or what I call not-work. Watching TV, checking Facebook, browsing an electronics store (for the technophiles among us)—they’re all examples.
The problem, for the passenger at least, is that pleasurable distractions are so obviously not work (hence the name) they’re trailed by an insufferable feeling of guilt that, before long, goads us back to work. And so the passenger has a more stealthy deception that keeps us distracted for much longer: make-work.
Make-work looks just like real work but it’s not, because it doesn't get you significantly closer to your long-term goals. Unlike not-work, make-work feels like real work, a hamster wheel onto which the passenger easily baits us. And the biggest problem is, because there’s no guilt, we don’t even realize we’re on one.
For writers, the most common form of make-work is research. Research can be real work, allowing a writer to better understand her topic, make her argument, and ensure her thesis intersects with reality. But, as the passenger so deftly understands, research without direction or specificity can be a place to hide. A not so obvious distraction, some writers research for years, convinced they’re doing real work, but in the end, never write the actual piece.
For individuals who work inside organizations though, the passenger lulls us with an even more dangerous activity: meetings.
For organizations, meetings can certainly be real work. There’s often no better forum for communicating, collaborating, and most critically, making important decisions. Unfortunately, the passenger knows that when meetings have an ambiguous or minor purpose, they go from levers of progress to the most powerful form of make-work there is. He only needs a couple of tricks with which to to fool us.
A manager needs to make a decision on whether to approve a new marketing campaign, so she e-mails her staff to setup a meeting. But in the e-mail, rather than stating the obvious, I need to decide yes or no on the new campaign, she writes let’s discuss the campaign, shall we? See what just happened there? I call this trick the Houdini, because the passenger makes the decision (poof!) disappear.
The passenger abhors decisions. He knows that nothing moves us more quickly towards our goals. And if he can channel us into conversations loosely related to a decision but obscure the decision itself, the result is a circular discussion that goes nowhere. What’s worse, one discussion turns into another and another and another, ultimately taking five meetings to reach a decision that should have taken one. Chalk one up for the passenger.
But if somehow we manage to identify the decision, the passenger has a backup plan: disappear the decision owner. We’ve all heard the stories, a dozen people on a street corner all witnessing a mugging, yet no one steps in to help. Psychologists call it a diffusion of responsibility: when it’s unclear who should act, no one does. The passenger exploits this psychological phenomenon by ensuring no one person is responsible for bringing the decision to a close, thus prolonging it indefinitely.
The other way the passenger fools us into make-work is by compelling us to meet for issues so minor, they never warranted meetings to begin with.
Every day, organizational leaders are bombarded with dozens of urgent matters. Though all of them may feel mission-critical, in reality, only a minority are vital enough to warrant the mass interruption that a meeting entails. But the passenger scares us into meeting for even the trivial. I call this trick the Mountain, because it has us make a mountain out of a molehill.
When a tech leader wants to make an announcement, the passenger warns him that if his staff doesn’t read the memo or even worse, misunderstands it, chaos will ensue (it almost certainly won’t). So he calls a meeting.
A weekly high school administrator’s meeting is supposed to focus on moving forward the education of all students, but the passenger convinces the team that a student’s embarrassing antics at last Friday’s football game deserves to be at the top of the agenda (it doesn’t).
A top salesperson is about to reject a meeting invitation for a topic that doesn’t affect him. But, alas, the passenger plants a seed of FOMO in his head, “What if there’s something discussed that you’ll be sorry you missed?” (they’re likely won’t be). And so, an hour that could have been spent engaging his most important prospect, is now spent on make-work.
Perhaps if one person were to spend an hour on a trivial issue, we could consider it real work. But when five or six or seven convene, much like deploying a bomb squad to rescue a cat from a tree, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs and it’s decidedly make-work.
Sadly, these individuals may never realize how brilliantly they were fooled into make-work, or that they were in fact, doing make-work at all. These tricks are good, but the greatest trick the passenger ever pulled is convincing the world he didn’t exist. 
But you don’t have to be so easily tricked.
The passenger's greatest strength is his ability to operate in the dark. Luckily, there are three simple, yet powerful questions that will help us turn on the lights.
Our Greatest Defense: The Three Questions
I. What decision(s) need to be made?
This question must be asked before calling or attending any meeting, but especially when you hear yourself or others utter any of these four danger words—discuss, review, update, plan. They’re telltale signs the passenger has already obscured the decision and make-work is around the corner.
To avoid this fate, ask: what decision(s) need to be made? Sometimes the answer will be obvious, other times the passenger has buried the decision so deep that you’ll need to do some digging.
The next time you call a meeting to review the proposal, stop yourself and ask: what decision actually needs to be made? You’ll realize that the whole point of reviewing the proposal is to decide whether or not to accept it.
When your boss says let’s plan the event, realize the word plan is hiding several decisions, so list them: Where should we hold the event? What date? Who will we invite?
Want to hold a meeting to update your staff on a new policy change? Asking why as relentlessly as a six-year-old will get you to the decision. Why update? To get feedback. Why feedback? To learn if the staff has any problems with the change. Why does it matter if the staff has problems? Because if they do, the policy will need revising. Bingo. There’s the decision: do I need to revise the new policy?
II. Who will own each decision?
Even when the decision is out in the open, the passenger can rest assured that as long as no one person is accountable, a circular discussion will ensue. That’s why, for each decision, you must identify a single decision owner.
Companies often object, claiming they make decisions by consensus. But it goes without saying that getting general agreement on a decision is usually the first step and naming yourself decision owner doesn’t change that.
Decision owner doesn’t mean sole-decision maker. Instead, it means shepherd of the decision-making process, the person whose job it is to make sure a decision is made in a timely manner. This is especially important when consensus is elusive. Hold a vote? Make a decision unilaterally? If the decision owner doesn’t make these hard choices, who will?
III. Does this meeting significantly contribute to our major goals?
In my shirt pocket sits a folded sheet of paper. On it, I’ve written my three most important goals and I carry it with me everywhere I go. Everywhere. Why? It’s my greatest defense against the Mountain.
The passenger desperately hopes we lose sight of our goals (or never identify them to begin with) because when we do, it's easier to make a mole-hill look like a mountain. Something that appears important is revealed as relatively unimportant in a side-by-side comparison with your goals. Spending an hour with your team debating a new brand logo can feel major, until you view it next to your goal: get 100 new clients by the end of the month.
The next time you receive a meeting invitation, assume the sender has already been compromised by the passenger and he’s unwittingly trying to get you to join him in make-work. Only respond after you’ve had a chance to consult your goals and ask “does this meeting significantly contribute to our major goals?”
Organizations all over the world will sadly continue to struggle with unproductive meetings unless they address the root cause, the passenger. A stealthy saboteur willing to use every trick in the book to prevent us from doing our work.
We have to remain vigilant. We have to ask the three questions relentlessly. And, most importantly, we have to be even more committed to achieving our mission than the passenger is to sabotaging it.
Free Download: Want even more ammunition to take on the passenger? The Conquer the Passenger Action Guide provides 8 powerful habits that will help you implement the 3 questions. Download the Action Guide now.
 - Thanks to Stephen Pressfield whose incredible book The War of Art was an inspiration for this article.
 - Thank you to Dr. Piers Steel, Tim Pychyl, and Alfred Mele for allowing me to interview them for this piece. Your contributions were invaluable.
 - To be clear, we deceive ourselves. The passenger is only a metaphor, one that represents psychological forces that operate in our own minds. The truth is we are the passenger. I should point out, there is a debate about whether or not we’re actually trying to deceive ourselves. As Al Mele, author of Self-Deception Unmasked told me, what’s actually happening is an unintentional process called “motivationally biased false belief.” His case is incredibly compelling, but in order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll let curious readers explore Mele’s illuminating book themselves. But regardless of the passenger’s intent, we must pretend he is, in fact, trying to sabotage us. Because, as even Mele admits, he behaves remarkably like someone who is.
 - If you don't recognize this movie reference, shame on you.
This essay was originally published at alpitt.com