Five Reasons Meetings Are Toxic

If you’re a knowledge worker, you’ve certainly felt the frustration and soul-sucking experience we call a meeting. You’ve no doubt reached the 5-minute mark in that meeting where you realize you’re about to sit through 55 more meaningless minutes that you can never recover.

No, not ALL meetings are toxic. It’s rare, but there are times you find yourself in a great meeting getting things done with productivity so thick in the air you can slice a chunk, put it on your plate, and enjoy the fruits.

Unfortunately, too many meetings are set up by default and not by design. Too many meetings are scheduled because someone thinks a certain amount of time passing warrants a new meeting, rather than looking at the needs of a project and deciding a meeting is needed because we have problems to solve as a team.

Five reasons meetings are toxic:

  1. Agendaless meetings are the worst. When a meeting has no clear direction, it’s not a meeting at all, it’s a captive audience for whoever scheduled the meeting, or the moron who takes it over to pontificate about their contributions and what “other people” need to be doing. Having that person lead a meeting is like asking a dog to lead a discussion about who, in fact, is the “goodest boy.” Guess who it always is?
  2. The wrong people attend — or the right people skip. I’ve heard it, and even participated in it myself, “If you can’t make the meeting, send a delegate.” As if actually having the meeting is more important than ensuring the right people attend. When you run a lean organization with few redundancies for those who do the same work (which is smart), sending a delegate is an ineffective approach to managing meetings. Think about it, if that person is so critical to the meeting, will a delegate who is ill-informed bring much value to the discussion, more than taking notes for the person who actually should have been there?
  3. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup. Many meetings are larger than they should be. People who have no stake in whether the customer will like the soup have no business being in the kitchen. Project work, or crossroad decisions may require a meeting, project status requires an email.
  4. Meetings cost a lot of money. Let’s say the average salary of those in the room is $20/hr, if you have 10 people in an hour long meeting, it costs $200 for that hour. When you start to look at it like that, maybe a 30-minute meeting turns into a ½ price bargain! Especially if you add in a few managers and executives and the cost could easily double or triple. Regardless, was your last meeting worth the cost? What about the one you scheduled for tomorrow?
  5. Meetings take a lot of work and time for the participants and the leader. If I’m to be fully engaged in a meeting, it may take hours of preparation and follow-up that could be spent delivering something that will actually make money for the company instead (or further developing a skill that will boost capabilities even). We all have the same number of hours in the day, how we choose to spend them is very important.

Is there a good time for a meeting? Absolutely! In their book, Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37Signals say, “It’s also unfortunate that meetings are typically scheduled like TV shows. You set aside thirty minutes or an hour because that’s how scheduling software works (you’ll never see anyone schedule a seven-minute meeting with Outlook). Too bad. If it only takes seven minutes to accomplish a meeting’s goal, then that’s all the time you should spend. Don’t stretch seven into thirty.”

I actually love some of their suggestions as well:

  • Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
  • Invite as few people as possible.
  • Always have a clear agenda.
  • Begin with a specific problem.
  • Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things and suggest real change.
  • End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll pledge right now to only have good meetings in the future. Unnecessary meetings will still happen, I just won’t be the one scheduling them.

If you’re interested in refreshing your outlook on the daily grind and finding ways to be effective and purposeful at your job, I highly recommend ReWork, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Founders of 37Signals.

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