If meetings are widely considered a waste of time, that’s because, well, they can be a waste of time. Paul Godin, a mediator with Stitt Feld Handy Group in Toronto, says that too often meetings have no clear purpose, plan or outcome. “People are happy to talk about what’s wrong, what could be done, what should be done, but without ever committing themselves to a plan of action moving forward. Meetings can be hijacked by verbal chaos that makes people feel like pulling their hair out.”
Jeff Gibson is vice-president of consulting for the Table Group, a California-based company. He’s heard more than his fair share of hyperbolic statements about workplace meetings. “People often say to us that they’d really love their job if they didn’t have to go to meetings and manage people, which is really a little tragic. If you think about it, at a certain point in your career, what else do you do?”
According to Andrew, a Web designer, we get sucked into the system early in life. “When you’re a little kid they make you gather on the carpet to listen to a story and then in university you have three-hour lectures. This is all to train human beings to keep their mouths shut and look interested.”
Andrew points out that while he doesn’t mind attending the occasional meeting –”a meeting for me can sometimes be a little mini-recess” — he doesn’t envy his boss’s meeting schedule. “My boss spends 85% of her day in meetings. While I have the desire for more power, prestige and money, I don’t want to spend all of my time in meetings.”
Not everyone hates meetings as much as they claim. Steven Rogelberg, professor of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has studied feelings about meetings.
He argues that face-to-face meetings are typically effective — even if they have yet to realize their full potential. “You could have an hour-long meeting, and people could believe that they got something done, but they also believe that they could have got that done in a half an hour. It’s not that people see it as a complete waste of time; it’s that they haven’t maximized the time.”
Part of the problem, says Prof. Rogelberg, is that everyone believes they have an innate ability to lead a meeting. “I generally believe that individual effectiveness in meetings is a blind spot. If you look at organizational systems — performance-appraisal systems, feedback systems, employee surveys — there is nothing about meetings. As a result, people don’t have the awareness and they don’t have the ability to make positive change.”
Mr. Godin recommends four simple guidelines to more effective meetings:
1. All participants should be clear on the purpose of the meeting.
2. Only the necessary people should be present.
3. Streamline the process through pre-circulated agendas, an effective facilitator, timing guidelines and by distributing materials in advance by e-mail.
4. Enter the meeting with some sense of the desired outcome and leave with a concrete action plan.
Andrew concedes that meetings do sometimes help him do his job better, but says a strong leader is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of the collective brain.
“When people are all in a room together, there usually has to be someone who says, ‘OK, we’re wasting too much time listening to Andrew make barnyard animal noises — we’ve got to get some work done.’ “