Meetings: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

They interrupt flow, and pop up unbidden on your iCal. They tend to convey all of the information you already knew and none of the things you really wanted to know. Meetings have emerged as one of the most universally despised conventions of American work life, and they show no sign of letting up. But if workers and managers alike feel put upon by meetings, experts say it’s not meetings per se that are the culprit. The problem is bad meetings.

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard says that if we are meeting more often than ever, it may be because we are now so busy we have to schedule time to simply think. “There are so many demands on us that leaders are scheduling meetings to get people engaged in the problem at hand,” she says. “I think people call meetings so they can have people’s mindshare, when it might have been more efficient to work through a problem independently.”

“We’ve accepted mediocrity around our meetings, and that permeates everything,” says Patrick Lencioni, president of the Table Group and author of the books Death by Meeting and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. “The problem is too often they are boring, and boring in a meeting happens for the same reason as in a book or movie — when there is not enough compelling tension. Meetings should be intense. Twitter  There should be this sense of angst, that if we don’t make a good decision in this meeting something bad is going to happen to us.”

Bad things, in fact, can and do spring from bad meetings, says organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz, president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. “When people are attending bad meetings and that is the pattern, they either check out or they act out,” he says. “By checking out they may be physically there but not engaged and contributing.”

Checking out could mean that a group is meeting virtually and “I’ve got you on mute and I’m doing several other tasks,” Schwarz adds. “Or it could be I find reasons not to go to the meetings. In the act-out category is people acting ways that are ineffective. And there are organizational level outcomes. If you have people at the meeting who are not fully engaged, that means they are not sharing relevant information. And if you don’t have full commitment, it takes longer to make decisions and your costs will be higher.”

Meeting Saturation

“A meeting is a place where you keep the minutes and throw away the hours,” author and former Xerox executive Thomas Kayser has said. It’s a widely held view. Many workers would rather be doing something else — anything else, according to one sampling. Nearly half, or 46%, of 2,066 American adults polled in a Harris/Clarizen poll said they would endure “any unpleasant activity” over sitting in a meeting, with 18% of that 46% saying they would prefer a trip to the DMV, 17% preferring to watch paint dry, and 8% stating that they would take a root canal over sitting in a status meeting.

“People call meetings so they can have people’s mindshare, when it might have been more efficient to work through a problem independently.”–Nancy Rothbard

Leadingly tongue-in-cheek questions aside, respondents to the 2015 poll said that each week they spent 4.6 hours preparing for and 4.5 hours attending general status meetings — up from the same poll conducted in 2011, but only slightly. In fact, meeting-weary workers are nothing new, says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “Meetings have been a big part of organizational life for a long time,” he says. “Maybe 10 or 12 years ago I remember a friend at a credit card company telling me the joke that you knew you had arrived when not only were you spending all your time in meetings, but all the people you were meeting with were also spending all their time in meetings.”

Meeting time studies have charted a rise for more than half a century. Executives were spending an average of 3.5 hours a week in planned meetings, plus more in informal meetings, reported a study by Rollie Tillman, Jr., published in 1960 in the Harvard Business Review. By 1973, the number had doubled, according to results of a study by P.L. Rice published in Business Horizons. By 1989, the typical manager was spending between 25% and 80% of his or her day in meetings, according to “A Profile of Meetings in Corporate America: Results of the 3M Meeting Effectiveness Study,” by P. Monge, C. McSween and J. Wyer.

What might be adding to greater meeting misery today are the dual — and perhaps interrelated — factors of time and technology. There is a general perception of a speed-up in the workplace — that workers are just busier, and that tools like email, Google Docs and instant messaging can get the job done more quickly and efficiently than meetings. (Novelty company Buyolympia sells a blue ribbon with the gold-embossed message: “I survived another meeting that should have been an email.”)

“One of the things that I think is driving people to feel put upon by meetings is that people are generally working longer hours and they’ve got more demands on them, and they are being expected to multitask,” says Schwarz. “And so people look at meetings with an eye toward, ‘Is this is a good use of my time?’ It’s a reasonable question to ask, and for a lot of people the answer is no.”

Rothbard says two factors might be contributing to an increase in meetings: globalization, and the jobs themselves. “Work is becoming more complex and interdependent,” she notes. “When we have more interdependence in work, we have to interact with each other — ‘I can’t do my work without you.’ Complexity entails multiple different specialties coming together. In thinking about what it takes to put together a semiconductor, it is not just one person working in a garage. All of the innovation that comes about to make those chips better comes about because of the interaction with a lot of folks.”

Such interaction often involves meeting across the span of many time zones. “We’re not meeting with the person down the hall; this is not necessarily the person who has the expertise we require,” Rothbard says. “So we are trying to bring the best people to the table, the virtual table, and too often we are having meetings at terrible times. People are twisting themselves into pretzels for a time slot that works for a global team.”

Technology is, she continues, a double-edged sword. “It’s enabling us to actually reach the best people and allowing things to happen that could not happen before, but it is potentially making things more burdensome from a process standpoint.”

Bidwell — who admits that his heart often sinks when he sees a meeting on his calendar, particularly a large meeting — says that meetings can feel burdensome, “because they don’t feel like proper work,” but in fact, they are. “The rationale is coordination, which is a function of organization, to bring together a lot of different people who do a lot of different things. Rules are one way of achieving coordination, but the more complex the issue, the more you have to sit down and work through things. Face-to-face you get the richest communication — you read body language, you learn much more and faster.”

Media richness theory confirms as much. The framework developed by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel is no less true today than when it was introduced three decades ago — that the more ambiguous the task, the richer the communication medium required to get the job done. While email and calls may be appropriate for certain kinds of questions, they lack the social cues of face-to-face meetings — glances, intimation and bonding — and are therefore not always efficacious to working through other issues. “The potential to have misunderstandings in a less rich media format is huge,” says Rothbard. “When people have these misunderstandings they can blow up, and that’s when you get email flaming, or people sending email back and forth and nothing is getting resolved.” With each step removed from face-to-face communication, something gets lost.

“When people are attending bad meetings and that is the pattern, they either check out or they act out.”–Roger Schwarz

On the other hand, technology may be catching up. Tools like Skype, says Rothbard, have “an amazing ability that allows you to get a lot of information that you weren’t getting over email or over the phone. It allows you to develop a sense of knowing the person better.” Large-scale immersive video screens like Cisco’s TelePresence — which are set up to create the illusion that people in different locations are in a single conference room — provide a richer array of cues. Says Rothbard: “The only thing you can’t do is kick the person under the table.”

We Must Stop Meeting Like This

Workers will go to great length to avoid meetings, and to convince their bosses that they are a waste of time and money. Apps such as Meeting Calc allow users to enter the hourly rates of attendees to come up with a grand total for how much meetings are costing. “It takes a really good meeting to be better than no meeting at all. And this app makes it clear how costly meetings can be,” says the sales blurb. But rather than striving for fewer meetings, workers and managers should focus on being smarter about when meetings are really needed, and on how to conduct the much needed managed interdependence they offer in a more concise, organized manner. “Meetings are the linchpin of everything,” says Lencioni. “If someone says you have an hour to investigate a company, I wouldn’t look at the balance sheet. I’d watch their executive team in a meeting for an hour. If they are clear and focused and have the board on the edge of their seats, I’d say this is a good company worth investing in.”

Lencioni recommends sorting out meetings into four types, each with its own objective. The first is a once-a-day meeting for five or 10 minutes. “Standing up and checking in with each other saves so much time and energy,” he says. “Teams that do this for 28 days realize it’s crucial to keeping everyone from going off the rails.” The second type is the staff meeting. “This is the meeting people always think they are having, but really should be on a tactical subject you’ve already agreed to, to see how progress is — ‘how are we doing on customer service?’ ‘What are our key metrics telling us?’ And that’s all you’re doing.” The third is a longer meeting, a couple of hours long, for big, strategic topics. “This is for ‘what are we going to do about the competition’s new product?’ — to wrestle that issue to the ground. This is why people go into business, but business professors would be shocked to learn that nearly all those meetings happen for only 15 minutes. You need to carve out time to do that right.” The last kind of meeting is a quarterly one, when “the team needs to step away and ask, ‘how are we doing?'”

If done right, Lencioni says, all these meetings combined should take up no more than 15% of staff time. “Do you really think that 15% of your time — if administered with real clarity, solving problems that are preventing the organization from succeeding — that anyone would say that’s not worth it?”

Schwarz notes that “people hate going to meetings and find all sorts of creative ways of avoiding them.” And yet, he says, there is a series of remedies — starting with “really asking the most fundamental question, which is, ‘What does this group have to meet about?’ A lot of times people find themselves in a room where they are not interdependent with the other people around the task, and that is the first sign that you are about to not use your time well and, for that matter, not use other peoples’ time well.”

“Face-to-face you get the richest communication — you read body language, you learn much more and faster.”–Matthew Bidwell

Once you have the right people in the room, the next question is: What is the purpose of the meeting? “That may sound pretty obvious,” notes Lencioni, “but it’s amazing how many times people come together and are not really clear about the purpose. One is to make a decision or have a discussion that will lead to a decision. Or is the purpose to give updates and share information? A lot of times people find themselves in a meeting where the primary purpose is to receive information, and that’s a poor use of people’s time. Those meetings can be easily dispensed with and can be an email instead that people read in their own time. The majority of meetings should be discussions that lead to decisions.”

It helps to give people the agenda of an upcoming meeting in advance, and in the form of a question, says Schwarz. Rather than putting, say, “space allocation” in the subject line of an email, it is more helpful to frame the issue as a question — something like, “How are we going to allocate space on our floor given the new hires?” That way, “people can come to the meeting having thought about the question, and they can figure out during the conversation how to contribute in a way that’s on track. You know when the conversation is finished — it’s when you’ve answered the question. That simple technique can be very powerful.”

Rothbard says preparation before a meeting is key — preparation by everyone attending. “We’re so busy that we just don’t prepare, and when we don’t prepare there is a lot of wasted time. And that’s incredibly frustrating, because the problem is … it’s not across the board. Some people come in super prepared, and those are the people who are most frustrated, while the people who are less prepared are thinking, ‘thank goodness we’re meeting; I finally have time to think about this.’ That’s really challenging, and it’s partly because of all of the pressure on us in the way that the world has sped up.”

Technology has opened up potentialities for meetings that did not exist before, but the development of even more sophisticated technology does not hold out the promise of a rescue from bad meetings. “Because the amount of information flying at people is going to distract them and get them off track,” says Lencioni. “And so having good meetings and getting them to resolve issues is more important than ever. Despite all of the technology out there, the table is still the most important piece of technology.”

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