It’s pervasive enough to have inspired David Grady to make a couple of videos on the topic, including this one:
For one thing, they’re easy. Sure, for a meeting to be effective, it requires some planning. Even the smallest meeting needs to have a time, place, and agenda. But a project discussion between three or four people can be set up on the fly. And it’s usually the fastest way to share details about a change in project direction or schedule. Try to do that in an email, and I guarantee at least one member of the team won’t see it in time.
Bring on the meeting-hate
Think over the meetings you’ve had in, say, the past three days. I’ll bet you sat through at least one that felt like a huge waste of time. You either felt like the information could have been disseminated via email, or didn’t understand why anyone thought it was necessary to share in the first place.
It’s frustrating, because you feel like your time could have been better spent elsewhere. On the phone with a client. Or at your desk, writing a project brief. Or on a beach in Bermuda.
Loss of productive time at work is one of the down sides of meetings. When you tie in the dollars and cents, it’s easy to see how an organization can incur losses.
An article in Forbes1 breaks down the calculation this way:
“If you’re a Fortune 500 company with 5,000 employees with an average salary of $60,000, and they spend 25% of their time in meetings, that’s a $75 million annual line item expense. How many of us are really getting a positive ROI from that human capital?”
And Business Insider puts the cost of meetings in 2014 at close to $ 37.1 billion.2 That’s billion, with a “B.”
What happens in meetings unfortunately sometimes stays in meetings
When you’re in a meeting, even if valuable discourse is taking place, how much are you getting out of it? People’s minds drift. Others engage in “sneak-working,” slyly working on another project while making it look like they’re taking notes. You won’t ever wipe these behaviors out completely. But they’ll happen more or less under specific conditions.
Let’s look at the seven conditions that cause people to dislike, avoid, and otherwise tune-out meetings — the 7 Big Meeting Fails — and how to set things right.
Fail #1: Your company abuses its meeting privileges
Someone once said, “It is the inalienable right of all businesses to schedule meetings at will.” Someone must have, anyway, because that’s how a lot of companies operate.
Business Insider estimated that about a third of meetings are counterproductive, for any of a number of reasons. To cut down on unproductive meetings, before you hit “Send” on a meeting invite, try following a ritual consisting of steps like:
- Challenge yourself to cut from one to three attendees, based on the size of your invite list.
- Automatically drop the length of the meeting by 15 minutes.
- Identify one point on your agenda for attendees to address prior to the meeting. For example, you might ask them to come prepared with a list of possible solutions to a problem you’re going to discuss.
- Ask yourself, can I communicate what I need to via email rather than holding a meeting? If the answer is “yes,” start writing.
If your organization can cut down on the number of meetings happening each day, you’ll find you get better attendance and participation during the few you have.
Fail #2: Meetings take place without facilitators
A meeting facilitator doesn’t just send out the invite. This person guides the meeting by setting the ground rules and keeping discussions on topic. And, as with any skillset, some people are better at it than others.
If your meetings get off track on a regular basis, that’s where you lose people. Creating an agenda in advance of your meeting can help you become a better facilitator. And if you don’t have time to get better at it before your next meeting, enlist a co-host. (Think Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Or Kelly and Michael. Or Michael and Dwight.)
Fail #3: S/He who speaks loudest rules the roost
A research conducted by the University of Utah3 suggests that, in a meeting, most of us have a hard time distinguishing between the subject-matter expert (SME) and the person who likes to hear themselves talk. Without knowing who’s who, meeting attendees can end up leaving with the wrong takeaways.
Once the group finally figures out what’s going on, they start to tune out. They may even decline meetings if they spot the attention-seeker’s name on the invite list.
If you’ve identified this personality type within your organization, see #2 above. A good facilitator will keep your resident diva from taking over your meeting. And they’ll do it with diplomacy.
As an attendee, you also must keep your biases in check. Listen to what’s being said, and pay less attention to who is saying it. Don’t fall into the trap of judging the speaker based on gender, race, or personality. Charisma does not equal intelligence.
Fail #4: You rely on coffee as a source of fuel
Starbuck’s fanatics beware: Studies done on caffeine consumption in meetings have shown it has an effect on productivity, and it’s not all good.4 While it seems women fare well after a jolt of java, men tend to be less productive on caffeine. And when the meeting is stressful, the effect is magnified.
Offering refreshments is a great way to boost attendance and keep people alert. Just make sure to offer healthier options than coffee.
Fail #5: Meetings aren’t “called” until all tasks are checked off
If you were ever in one of those classes where the instructor refused to acknowledge the end of the period until he had made his point, you know exactly where I’m going. Some people just give more weight to the idea of getting their message across than they do to the clock.
If you’re one of these people, I hate to break it to you, but people hate your meetings. The topic you need to cover may be important, but so is being respectful of others’ time. Here are a few tips that can ensure your meetings end on time:
- Always begin with an agenda, and set time limits for discussion of individual meeting topics
- Keep discussions on track so you can be sure you hit all your topics
- As you near the end of your scheduled meeting time, if you’re not close to the end of your agenda, it’s time to embrace the concept of the follow-up meeting.
Fail #6: Attendees are disrespectful
People who are habitually late to meetings or can’t put down their phones create disruption, which equates to wasted time. It’s behavior that communicates, “What I’m doing is more important that what you’re all talking about,” and it can be a real turn-off.
Insist unilaterally that people be on time, and that phones are turned off or left at desks. It makes for more effective meetings, and people will respect you for it.
Fail #7: There are too many people!
It’s a matter of odds: The more people you gather in one place, the greater the likelihood you’re going to experience the negative behaviors we’ve already discussed (latecomers, phone addicts, know-it-alls, etc.) So by keeping the attendance to a minimum, you help minimize your chances of things veering off course.
With fewer people, decisions can be made faster. And remember those dollars and cents! The fewer people in a meeting, the lower the cost to your business.
1 Nazar, Jason. “Your Meetings Are Awful — Here’s How To Fix Them.” Forbes.com, April 2014.
2 Johansson, Anna. “Why meetings are one of the worst work rituals ever.” Business Insider, April 2015.
3 Baer, Drake. “Why Everybody’s Meetings are Distracted, Egotistical, and Pointless.” FastCompany.com.
4 St. Claire, L., Hayward, R., and Rogers, P. “Interactive Effects of Caffeine Consumption and Stressful Circumstances on Components of Stress: Caffeine Makes Men Less, But Women More Effective as Partners Under Stress.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (12), 3106-3129 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00693.x. 2010. Quoted by Jarrett, Christian, in Research Digest, “Coffee helps women cope with stressful meetings but has the opposite effect on men.” January 2011.