Hate meetings? Join the crowd. Bain & Company found that 75% of people hate meetings they deem unnecessary, and somewhere between a third and half consider meetings a total waste. The estimates of productivity, time, and money 'wasted' from meetings are nearly unfathomable.
On one end of the spectrum, economists argue that most meetings could be eliminated and, on the other, middle managers insist on meetings to gain alignment before committing to any plan of action. So, it’s like farting: meetings are a natural occurrence, sometimes necessary, and they usually generate a negative reaction.
Recently, I had a conversation with a global events client on a variety of different behavioral issues. As the topic drifted to meeting effectiveness, they shared their biggest concerns:
- Managers host meetings to show value and to maintain the status quo
- Employees resist (but usually attend) even though they don’t make sense
This got me thinking about a more novel approach to make meetings more effective. So, I’m going to offer you some new ideas and fresh ways to think about your meetings that may make them more productive. I’m using a behavioral lens, informed by three disparate approaches:
1. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality
2. Paul Batalden’s work on co-production in healthcare
3. Google’s Project Aristotle on how teams function.
Each of these offer insights not featured on the standard buffet of reasons why meetings fail.
To begin the conversation, let’s unpack the primary underlying causes for concern.
When managers host meetings mainly as a way to show value, they’re pandering to political or organizational forces. Robin Hanson, PhD from George Mason University, argues that we're all political animals and that it's our nature to use meetings for political/turf-advancing reasons. While valid in part, additional reasons why these kinds of meetings exist are (a) superiors don’t intercede and (b) attendees don’t object. Alternatively – and bluntly – meeting organizers aren't thinking through whether they really need a meeting; they’re just scheduling one because it’s in their power to do so.
Just because it’s in our nature to be political doesn’t mean we must. It’s also our nature to flatulate after we eat. We don’t do that at work, or we look for ways to conceal it because it's not socially acceptable. What if we applied similar discretion to meetings?
Turf-ism and political agendas are counter-productive — literal wastes of time — and could be minimized if the social norms didn’t reward them by allowing them to continue. If the culture of the company, division, department, or team establishes a social norm where turf-ism is not rewarded, then meetings intended to 'show value' won't hold any…value.
That’s How We Do Things
The status quo bias shows up when employees are told, “This is the way we do things,” or even worse, “Because I said so.” While corporations are cultural entities comprised of traditions and values, the vast majority of meetings don’t need to be sacred cows. Too often, meetings are treated like holy water and incense when they don’t deserve it.
Corporations, whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit, cannot do (all) things the way they’ve always done them. Survival requires change and adaptation. Over time, meetings need to be rethought and reshaped. The status quo, as powerful as it can be, tends to be more related to laziness than honor for the way things are done. Process meetings, such as regular team meetings and project-related meetings, can get bogged down in predictable agendas that grow stale, and defeat the original purpose. Traditions like these need to be questioned from time to time.
This Makes No Sense
Humans are reason-seeking machines, and if good reasons don’t exist for the meeting we’re in, we either make them up or we surrender and hide our disinterest behind a laptop or smartphone. Too often, agenda topics don’t pertain to everyone in the room, and those on the fringe feel like they have a pass to check out. That pass is a ticket to Boredomville, when what we want is for everyone to go to Engagement Town.
The founder of a company I worked for once observed me looking disengaged in a leadership meeting. He approached me afterward and said, "If this doesn't work for you, don't come. Spend your time doing more productive things." That advice, and release from a low-value activity, was well received, and it added satisfaction to my job.
The point is to find ways to make meetings more meaningful. Let’s start by dismissing the standard storyline. These four horsemen of meeting efficiency have little to do with actually making your meetings more meaningful.
Set clear objectives for your meeting
Have a clear agenda
Don't have too many people in the room
Use visual stimuli such as videos and presentations
Don't keep trying to wrap your head around this tired lot of recommendations, because you’re likely already doing them. If you’re not, do them. Then move beyond them.
The ways to build meaningful meetings for both organizers and the attendees reside in three fundamental cues:
1. Be Vulnerable
A couple of years ago, Google launched an internal analysis called Project Aristotle as a way to identify what characteristics embodied their high-performing teams. Project Aristotle taught us that effective teams rely on psychological safety. This finding is consistent with years of research. The bottom line is that no one is going to speak up or engage if they have any degree of doubt that the group, or even individuals on the team, will be open to receiving their message. Meeting organizers must guide the team dynamics and discussions to send clear messages that anyone can share an idea safely.
Organizers, who are commonly managers and directors, use meetings to dole out assignments with the flick of a wrist. They often say they’re meeting “to get shit done,” which is code for a myopic focus on the organizer’s pre-determined solution. Such a mindset can lead to a lack of consideration for alternative approaches and sends a message to attendees to avoid any signs of vulnerability.
Recent research indicates that the most effective solutions happen when they are co-created or co-produced. In the healthcare industry, Paul Batalden, PhD is improving health outcomes with physicians who co-produce diagnoses with their patients. This also applies in the corporate world: meeting organizers can co-create meetings with their attendees to generate better outcomes.
But to collaborate like this requires vulnerability, and to be vulnerable requires an environment that is – you guessed it – psychologically safe. Rewarding meeting organizers (or attendees) for being tyrants only fuels the fire of disengagement. Remove the bully pulpit and the behavior will evaporate. Stimulate a safe environment for vulnerability, and your attendees will show up, engage, and deliver exceptional results.
2. Be Intersectional
Civil Rights lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw recently introduced the idea of intersectionality. Her concept attempts to counter implicit discriminatory practices rooted in stereotypes by bringing our fullest selves to work and respecting others for doing the same. Intersectionality says that humans are more complex than just our color, age, ethnicity and that we should bring it all to work. Intersectionality directs us to be who we are and respect who others are in their fullest sense. However, it only works under psychologically safe conditions, and when it does, it contributes to excellent outcomes.
Project Aristotle also taught us that diverse teams are more productive than more homogenous ones. This message has hardly been noticed by most corporations, judging from a glance at the tableaus of similar-looking people in meeting rooms. Diversity, as Google shared it, is manifested by people with a variety of job functions, ages, ethnicities as well as tenure with the company. Adding intersectionality to the mix adds depth to diversity. And keep in mind, a broad degree of diversity is unlikely to happen spontaneously, so meeting creators need to be intentional about whom they invite and why.
Intersectionality is an underpinning to the diverse team. It’s the way the diverse team works. It’s about more than just representation, though. It requires presentation, meaning organizers and attendees need to show up authentically and to be willing to accept others in the meeting as they are. The lead UX engineer might have a love for English literature; the junior designer on the team might be teaching yoga classes; the communication lead might be a community organizer.
A corporation that enables intersectionality fosters relevant and meaningful employee interaction, which leads to better outcomes over time. And, when this happens, it contributes to a feeling of psychological safety, compounding the positives.
3. Be Empowered
Changing group behavior starts with individuals. James Coleman PhD, while at Columbia University, studied social change and the relationship between an individual (micro) and a group (macro). His model was fancifully called “Coleman’s Boat,” because of the shape. He posited that the group and the individual do a dance of sorts to change the world. At some point, following the metaphor, they both agree on the music to dance to.
Derek Sivers, the founder of the music distribution service CD Baby, spoke in his TED talk about how individuals contribute to changes in a group. Coleman’s theories informed Sivers' model and emphasized the importance of the first follower giving 'consent’ to the originator, affirming that they’re on the right path. Both models require the “okay” of the group to allow someone to be different or to start the change. Without that one person who starts (and the next person to follow on), change sputters.
It's one thing to challenge you to be empowered or to "give you permission" to be empowered. The reality is more complicated than that. It’s best when you have support – formal or informal – from a colleague or, ideally, the meeting organizer. You need a follower to support you in making a change, but you’ll never know if it’s possible unless you try.
You probably know the feeling of silent gratitude when someone asks a question in a meeting along of the lines of, “I’m not sure I understand…could you explain that differently, please?” How often have you felt the same question inside you but didn’t ask? You don’t have to be the one asking the original question, but you could be the first follower. You could certainly be one making meetings better at your organization.
In some cases, what’s needed to make a meeting work is context. A meeting organizer can lay out new rules about listening and supporting ideas. The organizer can set the proper context for a newly revised meeting. With the proper environment, humans are more likely to interpret what is said correctly. None of this is exact science, so if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Meeting agendas, curated attendee lists, and a diverse and safe environment won’t make meetings better in and of themselves. Of course, you need good agendas, and you need to be thoughtful about who attends. But a good agenda is like a fresh coat of paint: it will brighten up a stale room but is soon overlooked. Good meetings are more than that.
To fully engage your fellow attendees and your organizer, you first need to be willing to bring your whole self to the meeting. If you don’t do this, you ought not to expect anyone else to transcend political partisanship on their own.
Attendees also want to make sense of the meeting, so they need to feel that they have a role. Their role might be paying attention while someone else shares an idea, and to give it serious consideration. To do that, they need to embrace (more than just acknowledge) psychological safety, a diversity of views, and the willingness to co-create. And they can only do that if you’re leading them in that way.
Psychological safety is often found in respectful disagreement and introducing additive ideas (as opposed to random) using the tried and true, “Yes, and…” instead of “But.” Organizers and attendees can demonstrate reciprocity and curiosity by building on ideas, rather than deconstructing them.
Human beings are at their best when we cooperate and work in groups. Meetings are places to demonstrate how well we can work together and to accomplish tasks with a group that we can't do alone. Bring a fuller representation of ourselves to the meeting and watch the magic happen.
About the Author
Tim Houlihan is the founder and chief behavioral strategist of BehaviorAlchemy, LLC, a consultancy using a behavioral lens for improving the actions of workers, customers and policymakers. He co-founded Behavioral Grooves, a meetup and podcast with listeners in more than 80 countries. Previously, Tim was Vice President of Reward Systems at BI WORLDWIDE where he was responsible for a $300 million global portfolio of reward systems, acted as the firm's thought leader in behavioral sciences and was the chief liaison to research partners around the world. Tim believes people underestimate the role of the unconscious in our behaviors. The application of good behavioral science can remedy that.
Batalden, Maren; Batalden, Paul; Margolis, Peter; Seid, Michael; Armstrong, Gail; Opipari-Arrigan, Lisa; Hartung, Hans. "Co-Production of Healthcare Services," https://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/25/7/509
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mapping-margins.pdf
“Economics 101: Why Do Productive People Hate Meetings So Much?” https://www.thenational.ae/business/economy/economics-101-why-do-productive-people-hate-meetings-so-much-1.731811
Economy, Peter, “A New Study of 19 Million Meetings Reveal that Meetings Waste More Time Than Ever (but there is a solution).” https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/a-new-study-of-19000000-meetings-reveals-that-meetings-waste-more-time-than-ever-but-there-is-a-solution.html
Project Aristotle, Google. https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/
Sivers, Derek, TED Talk on “How To Start a Movement,” https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement?language=en
“Why People Hate Meetings So Much,” https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/why-we-hate-meetings-so-much