Summary: The Surprising Science of Meetings By Steven G. Rogelberg
Summary: The Surprising Science of Meetings By Steven G. Rogelberg

Summary: The Surprising Science of Meetings By Steven G. Rogelberg

So Many Meetings and So Much Frustration

The amount of time we are spending in meetings is increasing, especially when we look at those involving upper management. Although the statistics vary, it is important to realize that meetings take up an increasingly large amount of time in employees’ days.

Although there is evidence to suggest that meetings are a waste of time and are negative experiences for employees, there are also data to suggest that meetings can be productive and meaningful. This provides hope that we can truly solve the meeting problem.


The Image in the Mirror Is Likely Wrong

Realize—and embrace—the fact that you are likely not quite as good at leading meetings as you think you are. Evidence shows that we are likely to overestimate our abilities; accepting this reality is key to self-awareness and making improvements.

Given that we are likely to overestimate our abilities, take a pulse of your meeting leadership. How do others act in meetings? Are there side conversations? Are people on their phones? Have you tried administering a quick survey? Data like these will increase your self-awareness and give you more of an accurate picture than your perceptions alone.

Make increasing meeting leadership an organizational priority: start by suggesting that meetings be part of your 360-degree feedback for leaders; add a section to your yearly employee engagement survey on meetings. Do not try to make these improvements all on your own—make it a focus for everyone in order to create positive organizational change.


Meet for Forty-Eight Minutes

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to whatever time is allotted. Keep this in mind with regard to meetings, and take the time to conscientiously choose the length of your meetings (based on the goals, agenda, attendees, etc.). Perhaps even consider a nontraditional meeting length or start time, like the forty-eight-minute meeting, to push the envelope.

Consider shortening your regular meetings by five to ten minutes. Not only will this create a little added pressure, which is shown to make attendees more effective, but also it will reduce lateness to meetings and allow for breaks between meetings. And consider the idea of implementing daily or weekly short meetings or huddles. These ten- to fifteen-minute meetings should have a focused agenda and involve lots of concise interaction among attendees.

Although short meetings or huddles can be very effective, it is important to keep two things in mind: (1) certain emergent topics may need their own dedicated meeting time outside the huddle context, and (2) always start and end these quick meetings on time to maximize their effectiveness and attendees’ satisfaction.


Agendas Are a Hollow Crutch

Almost all business books on improving workplace meetings tout the meeting agenda as an instrumental tool. However, research shows that simply having a meeting agenda does not, in and of itself, result in a more satisfying or effective meeting.

In order for agendas to be effective, meeting leaders have to be intentional about their creation—agenda planning needs to be thought out carefully and approached with care, much like the process of planning an event. A good tip for making an agenda that is tailored to the needs of the team or organization—and will also increase accountability—is to reach out to attendees for agenda items

In addition, keep your agendas fresh! Refrain from using the same agenda with only a new date. If you do not normally have time allotments, try including them. If you always have status updates at the beginning of the meeting, consider moving them toward the end. If you have employees who never participate, consider assigning them an agenda item to own. Agendas and meetings should not become stale


The Bigger, the Badder

Although it may seem that as meetings increase in size they would be more effective because of the greater number of ideas, resources, and brainpower, research shows that, unfortunately, this is not the case. To the contrary, having too many meeting attendees can actually reduce effectiveness because there can be too many voices, logistical challenges, and even social loafing.

While having too many attendees can be problematic, it is also important to realize that employees not receiving a meeting invitation can feel excluded. Thus, cutting down the invite list—in an effort to reduce confusion—can actually result in some unhappy employees. In an attempt to advise on the “right” number of meeting attendees, first consult your meeting goals to help you determine all the relevant and necessary parties. Thinking about who the key decision makers and stakeholders are for accomplishing each goal will help you make decisions about the invite list.

In addition to thinking through the goals of each meeting, consider a timed-agenda approach; this technique involves inviting different groups of employees to attend only a certain portion of a meeting that is most relevant to them. Another technique designed to make others not invited to the meeting feel included is to consult them before the meeting to get their input. This helps them feel involved, without being in the meeting itself.

Meeting notes should be taken in real time, distributed to all relevant parties following the meeting, and should include owners of action items. The other, the “voices” technique, involves assigning a meeting attendee to represent the collective interests of a group of stakeholders, such as a department, that is not invited to the meeting


Don’t Get Too Comfortable in That Chair

Humans are inherently habitual. This tendency to favor routines also applies to the meetings we host: they can easily become stale. Our meetings pretty much look quite similar in process, composition, and setup.

There are several ways to introduce variety into your meetings; one technique is to change the seating arrangements in your gatherings. Although it may seem rudimentary, whom folks sit next to, across from, and far away from can absolutely affect their meeting experience and the overall meeting quality. As creatures of habit, people tend to sit in the same spots at these meetings over and over again. You can change seating arrangements by simply asking attendees to sit somewhere different, shuffling and placing name placards, or changing the table setup or meeting venue.

Another technique to use to introduce some variety into your meetings is having a walking meeting. Research has shown the benefits of walking: everything from reducing obesity and heart disease to increasing creativity and focus. It is important to keep in mind that walking meetings are best for two to four people, they still need to be planned, and, ideally, they should involve an outdoor, circular route (though slight variations on this are welcome).

Consider a standing meeting. Similar to walking, standing has health benefits and has been shown to be associated with increases in meeting satisfaction and efficiency. Standing meetings can work for larger groups of people, but they should be shorter—fifteen minutes or so.


Deflate Negative Energy from the Start

Emotions are contagious, and meetings are not immune to this phenomenon. Scholars have shown that positive and negative mood states can spread among meeting attendees; leaders are in a unique position to influence the mood of the meeting.

In order to create a positive mood and meeting experience for attendees, leaders should deliberately create a separation between what attendees were doing before the meeting and the meeting itself. There are several techniques for doing this, including intentionally greeting attendees, offering snacks, and playing music as they enter.

Another important technique for creating that meeting separation is discouraging multitasking during meetings. In fact, some companies have eliminated cell phone, electronic tablet, and laptop use in meetings altogether; remember, we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are. Finally, it is helpful to try different approaches, such as incorporating clicker quizzes, encouraging advanced role playing and partner discussions, and even stretching. These techniques promote good energy and mindfulness throughout the meeting.


No More Talking!

It is possible, and certainly ideal, to have a meeting that creates synergistic outcomes. In a meeting with true synergy, the interactions among attendees yield ideas and solutions that individuals likely would not come up with on their own; in these meetings, the whole is greater than the parts.

In order to achieve synergy, you can try unconventional methods, such as incorporating silence into meetings. Meetings with periods of silence, where employees are generating new ideas or forming their own opinion of ideas being presented, can be beneficial because they can counteract production blocking, groupthink, and social loafing.

One technique for building effective silence into meetings is to include brainwriting. Brainwriting involves silently writing ideas around a particular topic before sharing them in meetings; research shows that it can produce more ideas and increase creativity. In order to introduce brainwriting, have attendees write down their thoughts and ideas in response to a prompt and then sort them, vote on them, or have a written discussion about them.

Another technique that builds on silence within meetings is silent reading. The idea with this technique is to have employees respond to a new idea or initiative by silently reading the proposal instead of hearing a presentation; this can then be followed by a meaningful discussion. Silent reading can increase employees’ understanding and retention of the new idea, and it can save time by cutting out the presentation and decreasing pre-meeting preparation.


The Folly of the Remote Call-in Meeting

Although there are ever-advancing technologies that are being introduced into our meetings, it is imperative that we remember that the fundamental nature of the meeting remains unchanged. Even with sophisticated technology, the meeting is still essentially composed of work-related interactions, occurring between at least two individuals, that have more structure than a simple chat, but less than a lecture.

Most of the lessons in this book apply to all meetings, but there is a certain type of meeting that deserves special attention: the remote, audio-only meeting (e.g., conference call). It is important to remember that these meetings encourage social loafing—an individual’s reduction of effort when in a collective; they can also be fraught with communication issues, from misinterpretations to awkward flow.

In order to avoid the shortcomings of the remote audio-only meeting, the meeting leader in this type of situation needs to be a very active facilitator. The leader needs to keep the meeting on task, encourage everyone to participate (and say their names when they do so), consider banning the mute button to increase engagement, and constantly evaluate how these meetings are going.

If the meeting includes five or more people, it is also useful to consider alternative structures. These can include the use of subteams and leveraging meeting intervals.