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In Defense of Meetings

Your initial, gut reaction when you read the word below has the potential to tell me a lot about you, and possibly a lot about the organization you work for. Ready?


What happened when you read it? Did you think about snacks, agendas, white boards, decisions? Or did your eyelid start twitching as you imagined grueling hours spent under fluorescent lights, listening to other people drone on during meandering conversations about things that are largely irrelevant to you?

For the majority of my professional life I have been firmly in the second camp, viewing most meetings as some kind of uniquely cruel psychological experiment. But recently I’ve been rethinking my long-held enmity towards meetings- surely such a uniform loathing of all meetings can’t be rational, right? And so I’ve given some thought to meetings – their use, their meaning, and how I can increase my tolerance for them. Considering the amount of time most of us spend in these gatherings, I’m not sure that we (as HR and people managers) give enough consideration to how they impact our employee’s experience, engagement and productivity. I’ll bet none of your carefully crafted job descriptions include the verbiage:

“The Senior Manager, Client Services will frantically attempt to execute on all duties outlined above in the scraps of available time between the several meetings per day that he/she will be required to attend”.

I guess what I’ve come to grudgingly realize is that meetings aren’t what happen in between our work – they often are our work, and that seems to become more applicable the higher your climb on the corporate ladder. Senior executives spend roughly 33% of their days in meetings.

It’s also true that an organization’s approach to meetings can tell us a lot about it – its level of formality, its expectations about time, its approach to decision making, its informal power structure, even its culture. Meetings, after all, are a sort of ritual, and rituals can reveal some of an organizations’ shared underlying assumptions. And that’s useful, right?

The Power to Decide

Take for example Steve Jobs’ somewhat legendary approach to meetings. It’s been said that Jobs rigorously enforced a practice of limiting meetings to include only those people critical to the discussion or decision at hand. This approach suggests a shared understanding that particular employees are empowered to make decisions. In an organization that takes a more consensus-driven approach to decision making, such a practice would likely not be effective. In this case, larger groups might meet for longer to allow for the exploration of multiple viewpoints before settling on a course of action.

Meeting Time

Or let’s consider Marissa Mayer’s alleged approach to meetings. It’s been reported (by anonymous insiders, so take it all with a grain of salt) that Mayer is frequently late for meetings with the senior employees who report to her at Yahoo, and that during her time at Google, Mayer would not even schedule meetings. Rather, she held ‘office hours’, requiring those who wished to meet with her to wait outside her office for their turn. Just as national or ethnic cultures vary in their conceptualization of time, and their expectations related to punctuality, so too do organizational cultures. Monochronic cultures see time as a finite and linear resource, and thus tend to be committed to punctuality and to focusing upon the one thing that time has been allocated for. Polychronic cultures, on the other hand, see time as more flexible and malleable- they believe that multiple things can sometimes be accomplished at once to achieve efficiencies, and the need for punctuality is relative rather than absolute. Mayer’s alleged approach to meetings is a perfect example of the latter conceptualization in action, while Jobs’ is an example of the former. To an individual who doesn’t share the same assumptions about time, either of these could be a jarring experience.

Sense-making in Meetings

And to muddy the waters even further, consider that meetings may not always be just about getting things done. Organizational theorists have sometimes viewed meetings as  ‘sense-making’ activities, in which their underlying, latent function is to provide a forum for participants to ‘perform’ the roles ascribed to them within an organization, drawing cues from these interactions that help them to develop, test, and subsequently realign the individual internal frameworks they rely on to interpret and assign meaning to organizational events, relationships and interactions.  In simpler terms: meetings can offer employees an opportunity to test and revise what they think is true and important in their experience as a member of the organization. There is no ROI to be calculated when it comes to sense-making, but deprived of this opportunity, employees may feel disconnected, unheard, or out of synch until another sense-making opportunity pops up to take its place.

Before you Murder the Meeting…

So, what does all this mean for us as HR practitioners, managers or meeting-haters? Well, for one thing I think understanding that meetings can serve different purposes can lead to a profound shift in the way we view them (as it has for me). If you hate meetings, trying to see them as an opportunity to observe others and decode any sense-making and underlying assumptions at play can make it feel more active; more useful. For managers and HR- a heightened awareness of the prominent place meetings hold in the organizational lives of our employees and colleagues is long overdue. But rather than taking an ‘all meetings are bad’ stance, a more nuanced approach might be in order. Identifying your organization’s (and your own) underlying assumptions about time, and approach to decision making, can help assess if and how meetings should be addressed as an organizational issue, or (as in my case), a personal one…

How do you feel about meetings? What does your organization’s approach to meetings tell you about it?

Image credit: Peter Eckersley via Flickr Creative Commons

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m with you. I need my people around me to provide key information so I can make the best decisions. Email threads are too slow, and going after people one at a time is too inefficient. When someone makes a claim during a meeting, I want the others to be there to validate or dispute it. Without such, I make poorer decisions, and it takes longer for me to get everyone behind such decisions if people weren’t there to experience the making.

    March 11, 2013
  2. I left an organization where I was in meetings basically from 7am through 6pm – early morning and late evening were the only times the physicians were available (healthcare system). Interestingly those were the best meetings because there was a purpose and there were outcomes.

    The rest of the meetings were an attempt to “engage and empower” employees, including them in decision making….but not really. In reality, the decision had often already been made but “theory of engagement” says to involve employees, so they did.

    Meetings have their place – a colleague of mine once said…and I agree…work IS communication. But like everything else in business, there needs to be a rigor and discipline to make certain that any time any employee spends in a meeting is value-added.

    I had the privilege of hearing Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus foundership fame) speak early in my career. He espoused the 17.5 minute meeting, and claimed that if a meeting took longer than 17.5 minutes, it was not productive. I do think it depends upon the purpose and intended outcome, but however long it is, there needs to be a disciplined format in order to respect everyone’s time.

    March 13, 2013
  3. Meetings are a bit of a mixed bag for me, it’s very dependant upon who else is involved. Some people can drain the energy and productivity out of a room in seconds (if allowed to).
    I did come across some material which claims to be from a 1940’s CIA Field Sabotage Manual.
    In it is a section on how to sabotage meetings. Just as effect in slowing down production as breaking machinery.
    A link to it in this post.
    I did like the 17.5 min suggestion for meetings on the comments.
    Will try that.

    March 13, 2013
  4. I’m also in healthcare. While I do believe meetings can be useful, I find I get invited to a lot of meetings where my attendance is not necessary. Before a meeting starts people should spend more time setting goals and determining what’s important. Too often, people just start ripping down a list of names inviting hoards of people when in reality, a handful of people could solve the problem.

    I’ve taken the matter into my own hands recently. If I’m invited to a meeting where I can provide value or where my help is directly required I’ll gladly attend. On the flip side of that, if I’m invited to a meeting simply because the name of the project rings a bell with my name in someone’s mind – not so much.

    There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction (in my organization anyway) to just pile as many people into a room as possible without considering
    a) could this be accomplished via email in 5 minutes?
    b) does everyone REALLY need to be here.

    My only other rule, whether it’s true or not, is that I don’t book meetings that exceed an hour. Anything beyond that is getting into the realm of ridiculousness in my view.

    March 13, 2013
  5. Great article, Jane; as always. It may sound trite, but I’d recommend two books for those looking to re-energize their own meetings: Death by Meeting (Patrick Lencioni) and Read this Before Your Next Meeting (Al Pittampalli). Two excellent guides to 21st century meetings.

    March 14, 2013
  6. Carol- so pleased to hear from you, as always. These “engage and empower” meetings (that were not really that) sound kind of excruciating…Now, while I adore the idea of 17.5 minute meetings (I wonder if the weird, random number makes people more aware of the urgent timeline), I would agree that without a general respect for others’s time, any meeting (however long or short) could be a massive waste….

    March 14, 2013
  7. If I remember correctly, Stanley Marcus was one of those bigger-than-life individuals whose voice commanded that one listen. I suspect that is exactly why he picked such an odd number for a meeting time. Interestingly the meetings also were in rooms without chairs and tables.

    March 15, 2013
  8. Thanks for sharing this link- fantastic stuff!!! It seems to have attached itself to an idea I’ve had rattling around in the dusty recesses of my brain for awhile now about organizational decision making…I sense it needs some more time to congeal into a fully formed piece of writing, but I’ll be sure to reference your post when it does. And I must say…does the description not sound eerily like the US Congress’ modus operandi?

    March 17, 2013
  9. Thanks for commenting Michael, I am interested in (but did not have the space to explore) the requirement for collaboration and debate playing an important role in the need (or perceived need) for meetings. Because collaboration it’s just not as effective when done via e-mail communications, right? E.g. others copied on an e-mail tend to interpret ‘reply all’ silence as agreement with the advanced position, and decide to keep quiet themselves…when in fact everyone might disagree, but lack the access to the visual cues that an in-person discussion would provide, emboldening them to speak up…Which leads to an interesting hypothesis that e-mail can both dampen constructive debate and at the same time potentially heighten misunderstandings…yikes

    March 17, 2013
  10. I like the sound of Death by Meeting…will check that out. Thanks Chris.

    March 17, 2013
  11. Agree that meetings over 60 minutes are ridiculous – it’s a farce to think people can maintain focus for that long anyway. I usually have to duck out at 45 minutes to do jumping jacks in the bathroom so my body doesn’t begin to atrophy (this is a highly effective trick to stay awake, by the way). But what I’m sure you’ll agree is also annoying is when people book 30 minute meetings and then send out an agenda that would clearly take 3 hours to plod through…argh!

    March 17, 2013

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