How to Make Meetings Less Terrible
In the U.S. alone, we hold 55 million meetings a day. Most of them are woefully unproductive and tyrannize our offices. The revolution begins now — with better agendas, smaller invite lists, and an embrace of healthy conflict.
Does anyone love office meetings? Their reputation is so poor that many people simply avoid them — Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, for instance. Some companies have instituted “no meeting” days to give employees a chance to do their work without being dragged off to the conference room.
There are, of course, many kinds of meetings, with different rules, customs, and outcomes depending on where they’re held and with whom: community board meetings, family meetings, the weekly floor meeting in a college dorm. Knitting clubs meet, as do rugby teams and religious groups. But for our purposes, let’s stick to the standardized office meeting. Researchers estimate there are roughly 55 million such meetings every day in the United States alone.
This raises an obvious question: If so many people say they hate meetings, why do we have so many of them? What do we expect to happen in our meetings? And how can they be made less terrible?
Steven Rogelberg is an organizational psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings. He studies meetings, he says, because he personally dislikes them as much as many other people profess they do.
Rogelberg has found that most working professionals attend about 15 meetings a week, a number that increases as you go up the corporate hierarchy; executives spend between 50% and 90% of their time in meetings. Workers consistently report “too many meetings” as their number one source of frustration at work and the number one time waster. About 70% of senior managers — the very people who call most meetings — say meetings are unproductive. Yet companies aren’t doing much about this problem. Rogelberg says that only about 2% of the companies he works with even bother to survey their employees about meetings.
“There is no organizational intentionality around this,” he says. “And with no organizational accountability, leaders are just part of this system where bad meetings are just the cost of doing business. Like the rain is in London.”
Here’s the thing, though: Very few people, when asked to design their perfect workday, describe a day with no meetings. Rogelberg is not surprised by this, as humans are inherently social creatures. But just about everyone agrees that meetings could use some improvement.
So, let’s start with the basics: deciding the length, establishing a goal or purpose, setting an agenda, and deciding who to invite.
Deciding the length
The average meeting length around the world is, magically, one hour — just enough to fit into everyone’s calendar. Rogelberg says meeting leaders should rethink this default setting.
“Think about how long the meeting should be,” he says. “So, give it a set of goals… This is particularly important given something called Parkinson’s law—this idea that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. So, if you schedule an hour, it’s going to take an hour. But if you schedule 48 minutes, it’s going to take 48 minutes.”
Rogelberg suggests setting a tight time frame and using that tightness to your advantage. (Researchers have found that pressure can increase focus and performance.) He also recommends leaders put more thought into preparing for and facilitating meetings, treating them with as much care as a meeting with a firm’s customers or other outsiders.
Establishing a goal or purpose
“Our Monday morning staff meeting, our Wednesday afternoon sales meeting — that is not a purpose. That is a category,” says Priya Parker, an expert on conflict resolution. “What is the primary purpose? What is your desired outcome of the staff meeting? If you are having this on a Monday morning, what do you want to be different for this week? If we weren’t to have this Monday morning meeting, would anything be different? And if nothing would be different, scrap the meeting.”
Setting an agenda
One startling meeting fact that Rogelberg shares: 50% of meeting agendas are recycled. “When you are thinking about your agenda,” he says, “consider framing it not as topics to be discussed but as questions to be answered. By framing it as questions to be answered, it’s easier to determine who needs to be there.”
Deciding who to invite
Meetings are getting larger and larger. Organizers don’t want to exclude anyone, and modern technology has made it easier to invite more people. But larger meetings are more dysfunctional. Rogelberg says managers can employ a few different strategies to avoid this trap. For instance, design meetings that allow for a larger group of attendees at the beginning and a smaller, more focused core group at the end. Meeting leaders can also employ other unconventional strategies — dyad breakouts, for example, which are shown to increase communication and engagement.
“Most typically, meeting performance is just not optimal,” Rogelberg says. “The problem with meetings is that the proportion of good use of time and bad use of time is out of whack. And so I think that’s the critical issue. It’s just figuring out how can we increase the proportion of good time over bad time?”
How does Rogelberg define “good time”? “Good time is when the attendees of the meeting are interacting in a genuine way such that the decisions and solutions being generated might surpass what any one individual could have done by themselves,” he says. “And that time is not necessarily free of conflict. In fact, we want conflict in meetings… So, if you have a group going to battle with incredible passion around ideas — that is a fantastic meeting.”
Parker, who has practiced conflict resolution in Africa, India, and the Middle East, is also the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. These days, she’s hired primarily by companies in conflict. It turns out that companies often try to resolve their conflicts by holding meetings, many of which are unsuccessful. Why?
Parker says companies have “de-risked” their meetings too much. By eliminating the odds that anyone will be embarrassed or “lose face,” they make too many meetings meaningless and irrelevant. Parker says it’s not just a lack of conflict that’s a problem. Corporations are also afflicted by a “cult of positivity,” she says, an insistence on focusing on “how wonderful and great things are.” All this positivity and lack of conflict, she argues, can seriously inhibit progress.
“Unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict,” Parker says. “And in my experience, because of the norms of our culture, and particularly in the U.S., most of our gatherings suffer from unhealthy peace, not unhealthy conflict.”
Parker likes to introduce healthy conflict into meetings — to turn the meeting from a time-wasting orgy of passive-aggression into a well-oiled decision-making machine. A while back, Parker was working with a 70-year-old architecture firm. They were at a crossroads, debating whether to continue as a brick-and-mortar firm or become a design firm.
“There was real disagreement in the firm,” Parker recalls, “but you wouldn’t know it by being in the room. And anytime someone would say something even related to one of the possible visions, everyone else would shrink back. They weren’t willing to go there.”
During a coffee break, Parker’s client told her they needed “more heat.” So she Photoshopped pictures of two of the architects’ heads onto pictures of wrestlers’ bodies and taped the images onto the walls. They designated one architect the “head” (meaning the future of the firm would be in design) and the other as “the body” (remaining a traditional architecture firm). When the participants returned to the room, Parker welcomed them back to the “cage match.”
“Fortunately for us, the two architects were game,” Parker says. “And so they started, like, jeering and raising their hands over their shoulders. We assigned coaches to each of the sides. They threw white towels around their neck. We played the Rocky music.”
Parker gave each side two minutes to present their argument for the future and two minutes for a rebuttal, and she told everyone in the room they had to physically choose a side. Ultimately, the meeting participants agreed that “the body” side had presented the best argument. But the most valuable result of the meeting, in Parker’s view, was that the participants now “have a shared memory that they are capable of speaking in this way.”
Staging a cage match isn’t the only way to make a meeting more productive. Rogelberg has found some other small measures to alleviate the pain. Snacks (of course). Getting people to switch out of their usual seats. Using anonymous surveys so people can raise objections without fear of reprisal. Research shows that just asking attendees to rate a meeting raises the quality of meetings at that firm.
And what about when people sit through meetings staring at their phones?
“When an employee walks into a meeting, they are relinquishing control,” Rogelberg says. “And so how can you get that control back? Well, you can daydream. You can make lists. Or you can multitask. And so that’s how you can reclaim your power. One of the techniques is trying to build a break in the middle of a meeting. If I tell them, ‘Hey, I promise you in 30 minutes you can check your phone,’ that’s going to help put their minds at ease.”
And one final, important thing: How do you end a meeting? Parker recommends leaders try every bartender’s favorite trick: the last call. She says it ensures that everyone is clear about what was decided and accomplished in the meeting and about how to move forward. It also serves another important purpose. “Have a good memory at the end,” she says. “Don’t end on logistics. End on what you want people to remember.”
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