How to Avoid “Death by Meeting” in the Workplace
Best practices from the field of meeting science.
Posted Nov 30, 2018
What’s the part of your job that you dread the most? If you’re like most people, those pesky mandatory meetings are one of the worst aspects of your workplace. When well done, meetings can be a highly effective form of teamwork in which major problems are solved and important decisions are made, thus energizing the team and aligning its members towards productive goals.
Far more often, however, meetings are perceived by employees as a waste of time that could have been better spent working on their assigned tasks. Moreover, poorly conducted meetings have lingering negative aftereffects on organizational productivity. Employees are in a bad mood, so they don’t work hard or carefully at their jobs, and they waste time complaining with their colleagues about what a waste of time the meeting was.
What then are the characteristics of an effective meeting? This is the goal of the new science of meetings, as outlined by University of Nebraska psychologist Joseph Mroz and his colleagues in a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Although organizational psychology is one of the oldest applied fields in the disciple, dating back more than a century, psychologists have only recently turned their attention to the science of meetings. However, researchers such as Mroz and his colleagues have delineated a set of best practices for conducting effective meetings. Most of these will sound like common sense, but unfortunately, they’re not commonly practiced.
Many organizations set meetings at regular intervals on their organizational calendar. For example, the sales meeting is every Monday at 9:00, or the planning committee (which meets to plan meetings?) is scheduled for every third Thursday at 2:30. While regular meetings can establish a group identity for the attendees, they can devolve into senseless ritual if no clear purpose for the meeting has been determined in advance.
Mroz and colleagues have identified four main purposes for calling meetings:
- Share information. A weekly round-the-table in which team members report on their progress during the previous week can be an effective way of keeping the group up to date, and it can be a bonding exercise as well. However, meetings where managers run through a list of announcements to their inattentive employees are time-wasters, and it’s far more effective to distribute this information through emails and newsletters.
- Solve problems and make decisions. When knowledgeable persons are assembled to brainstorm ideas for a special problem that needs to be solved or a decision that needs to be made, meetings can be quite effective. But this effectiveness can be disrupted when non-stakeholders are compelled to attend.
- Develop and implement organization strategy. The average employee spends about six work hours a week in meetings, but upper-level managers can spend up to 80% of their work time in administrative meetings. This is the way that running an organization gets done, but it can also lead managers to the mindset that meetings are always a good thing, as for example when they want to communicate with their subordinates.
- Debrief a team after a performance episode. When a project has been completed, it’s good for team members to get together and discuss what went well and what could be improved next time. Giving all members an opportunity to express their view enhances the overall sense of group unity, energizing the team for its next project.
Thus, planned meetings that have a clear purpose can be quite successful, but ritualized assemblies are often perceived as time-wasters.
Even the best-intentioned meetings can be derailed by the behaviors of the attendees, and Mroz and colleagues list several rules of meeting etiquette:
- Arrive early or on time, as late arrivals are disruptive to the meeting already in progress and can lead to negative social reactions that interfere with the productivity of the meeting.
- Stay on task during the meeting, and avoid multitasking on electronic devices. (I confess, I’m a frequent sinner on this count!)
- Keep the discussion on task, use humor judiciously to lighten the group mood, and avoid complaining at all costs.
While these are all good suggestions, in the end group behavior is determined by the culture established by the leader. In other words, attendees are more likely to engage productively in the meeting when the organizer follows best practices. These include:
- Creating a detailed agenda and distributing it well in advance of the meeting. This sets clear expectations for the discussion, and it enables attendees to prepare for it.
- Keeping meetings to a minimum. Well-planned meetings that accomplish their stated goals can energize the group. But too many meetings—especially when they’re perceived as time-waters—increase employee fatigue and stress, and they decrease morale.
- Nipping complaining in the bud. Complaining is contagious, and it poisons the mood for the entire group. As tactfully as possible, thank the complainer for sharing their opinion and then turn the discussion to the positive. And as a leader, never join in the complaining yourself.
- Maintaining an atmosphere in which all members feel free to voice their opinions. For example, when an attendee starts to complain with statements like “What’s the use?” or “Things never change,” the skillful leader can reinterpret the complaint as a practical problem that the whole group can work on solving.
In the end, meetings done well can yield tremendous benefits for the organization. The result is a sense of group identity and team spirit directed toward greater productivity. But poorly executed meetings can destroy group morale, causing employees to perform below their abilities. Leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the meeting and ensuring that its outcome is successful.
As an attendee, you have little control over the meeting’s climate. Yet there are things you can do to make the meeting more worthwhile to you. Don’t completely disengage from the discussion, and keep at least one ear open for opportunities where you can make a contribution. And as a participant, be especially wary of building a reputation as a “squeaky wheel.” However, a tactfully posed question or suggestion on the topic currently under discussion can go a long way toward impressing your colleagues and even your superiors. And having done your part, you won’t feel the meeting was such a waste of time after all.
Mroz, J. E., Allen, J. A., Verhoeven, D. C., & Shuffler, M. L. (2018). Do we really need another meeting? The science of workplace meetings. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0963721418776307