Organisations are promoting collaborative, flatter, less hierarchical and more inclusive workplace cultures for many fine reasons. Consultation, empowerment and engagement are in, autocratic authoritarianism is out. And mostly we say that’s a very good thing, but there’s a catch –
“and that’s the curse of an out-of-control meeting culture.”
There’s no getting away from it – meetings are the vehicle of choice for managers to communicate and uphold their commitment to these new and more progressive ideals. Yet, as useful and inspiring as a good meeting can be, when your team or company has a culture of back-to-back or poorly led meetings involving a seeming cast of thousands, you’re putting wellbeing at risk.
72% of business leaders report spending 30% more time in meetings than they did 5 years ago, with a forecast of yet further increases ahead. 50% of meetings are reported on average as being a waste of time.
In our time-poor worlds where every hour is a race against the clock, the sheer frustration arising from this frittering of precious time is a source of great stress for most of us. But, it’s not just frustration at the universal wastage of time and talent or the opportunity cost that’s the issue. Depending on the severity of our situation, meetings can provoke a range of challenging emotions, leaving us feeling:
- Irritated, resentful and begrudging at the waste of time, interruption and hassle factor. In the language of GLWS, this is detracting from not only our sense of Balance & Boundaries but also our Vitality & Energy.
- Mind-numbingly bored (how much doodling can you do?) and checked out at the seeming irrelevance of what’s being discussed. The Dutch even have a special word to describe this excruciating state of meeting-induced stupor and torpor – Vergaderziehke. In GLWS language, this is a detractor from having the necessary Intellectual Engagement & Flow.
- Passively resistant and cynical at the (yet more) change coming down the pipeline. In GLWS terms this leaves us querying the Meaning, Purpose & Direction we gain from our work.
- Incandescent with rage at all the posturing, self-validation and grandstanding that goes on. What’s with this anyway? Is there anything more unbearable than having to listen to colleagues’ insecure claims that seem only loosely connected to the truth, containing errors of omission, strategic manipulation of nuance and exaggeration of select ‘facts? (Yes, we’ve been stuck in a bad meeting or two.) People are particularly prone to not telling the truth in meetings and we are ‘lied’ to between 10-200 times per day. In the GLWS, we reflect these elements of trust, respect and mutual regard in our questions around Authentic Relationships and their impact on our emotional Resilience & Equanimity.
Are meetings making you sick?
Published research is relatively thin on the ground, with a call for research psychologists to put the subject of meetings at the top of their future agendas. But anecdotally, and from reported experiences, the answer to this question is an unequivocal yes.
There is a strong correlation between the number and nature of meetings we experience (endure?) and our feelings of tiredness, stress levels and perceived workload satisfaction. And the more we’re prone to strive for tasks and a sense of accomplishment, the lower our job satisfaction as the number of meetings increases.
All sorts of social psychological phenomena occur in meetings – social loafing, bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility – and they’re all likely to impact meeting attendees’ attitudes, behaviours and wellbeing both inside and outside the meeting context.
When meetings fail, beyond lack of goals and processes, it is most likely down to an unhealthy group dynamic. It’s not teamwork or collaboration per se that people dislike, it’s the fact that the wrong people get their way while others don’t have a voice. People become ‘half a person’ because of their fear of saying what they mean.
For some of us, prolonged exposure to and participation in meetings that inflict emotional or mental wounds can even be traumatizing over the long run. Here’s a checklist to help you or your colleagues/clients gauge the extent to which their meetings may be detracting from their wellbeing:
Thinking back to one or more of your most recent or memorable meetings, to what extent did you feel any of the following either before, during or afterwards:
- Irritability, resentment, anger or aggression?
- Physical ailments such as headaches, migraines or IBS?
- Re-experiencing or reliving unpleasant memories of these meetings?
- Anxiety or depression?
- Strong feelings of wanting to escape from or avoid the reality of attending the meeting?
- Repressing or blocking out thinking about what happened?
- Emotional numbness or detachment from what occurred, not caring about what happened?
- Lack of concentration?
- Feeling on edge, jittery and jumpy?
- Difficulties with interpersonal relationships?
- Ruminating on what you should have said or done, and feeling angry or guilty that you didn’t?
Incidentally, these indicators are adapted from the signs and symptoms of PTSD, so if you are checking several of them, you might have cause for concern. Keep reading for steps you can take to improve your situation, and ideally seek help by talking things through with a trusted confidante or expert.
A cure for meeting sickness – a guide to fixing the modern meeting
Where meetings are used as security blankets, as a proxy for control, or even as a tool with which fearful bosses can manage their insecurities and need to feel important, it’s time to make some changes.
Here are some suggestions to experiment with in an attempt to make meetings a better experience for the sake of everyone’s wellbeing:
- Cancel them or don’t go! Be judicious and highly selectively in what you choose to attend. Brief you EA on priorities.
- Information sharing meetings are a bore – replace with emails or a workplace social networking app.
- Problem solving and decision making is tough work, so executives should focus on getting these meetings humming.
- ‘The more the merrier’ rule should not apply. A maximum of ten is generally recommended as the absolute upper limit for the most productive dynamics, and a maximum of only six if you want everyone to participate with their authentic selves and contribute equally.
- As an exercise in return on investment, value and opportunity cost, try tallying the cost of your meeting – a 3-hour meeting with 12 executives = a 36-hour meeting, or a 2 day meeting with a 20 strong team = a 320+ hour meeting.
- Whether the meeting is on a monthly, weekly, daily or ad-hoc basis – get clear about and vocalise its purpose. What value will come from this meeting if it’s done well?
- Make a social occasion out of the meeting and include an informal catch up opportunity for all.
- Allocate time and agenda items based on relative weight and importance to avoid a wooden ‘going through the motions’ meeting. Deal with most important items first.
- Go for a quick, fast pace – our natural attention span is between 10-18 minutes, so anything longer than that and you will be losing people (in spirit if not in body).
- Sit-down meetings are 34 per cent longer than stand-up meetings but produce no better decisions – so go standing up and kill the ‘sitting is the new smoking’ risk at the same time.
- Better still – get out and go for a walking meeting. Inspiring space and the outdoors are associated with elevated mood and creativity.
- Brush up on your chairing skills – aim for a culture where expert leaders facilitate lively meetings, filled with spirited debate in which a wide diversity of opinions are assertively voiced and defended.
- If you are feeling disengaged, try to find something to like and be interested in. Take responsibility for your mindset and be the change you want to see. If you notice the glazed eyes in others, take responsibility for helping colleagues explore what it takes to show and feel respect.
- For longer meetings and offsites, schedule 15 minute ‘email breaks’ every 2 hours so everyone can be otherwise fully present without distraction from notifications and screens
- Be aware, humour can be a double-edged sword – facilitating, on the one hand, collaboration and inclusion, and on the other, collusion and exclusion. Also, women beware! Women are four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humour and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members in order to avoid conflict (risky because striking a wrong note could lead to appearing defensive or weak).
- Create a safe and regular space for the meeting members to review and debate whether the meeting is working as all would like. Encourage discussion about the pace and flow and revisit the ground rules and their effectiveness.
- Be aware that group brainstorming may actually impede creativity, forcing ideas down an artificially narrowed channel. Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously. Where the main purpose of your meeting is to foster true imaginative diversity, groups of only three people have been judged as the generating the more useful, feasible and high-impact ideas.
- Instigate a ‘meeting free day’ on a set day of the week, every week. Really. See what happens to you team’s productivity with 8 hours of uninterrupted time.
- Create a culture where meeting attendance is optional, and its members are free to walk out without fear of repercussion if it’s not relevant or useful. You’ll soon find out how to make your meetings valuable, pacey and positive.
- And finally, you might like to bear in mind that people who complain publicly about meetings being terrible have been shown to offer more favourable accounts in private – so meetings may just be popular scapegoats to enjoy a whinge about. Think carefully before you can them altogether and beware the group whinge.
Bad meeting culture is a drag on everyone’s wellbeing. The frustration, resentment, stress and sheer boredom we feel in bad meetings can have a hugely negative effect on wellbeing in otherwise functional workplaces.
The most successful organisations do not treat meetings as a necessary evil.
- They view them as a strategic resource and seek out ways to get the most from them, and
- They use them to solve problems and build more competitive and productive organisations.
However, major improvements do not occur overnight, only gradually – one meeting at a time, one leader at a time. Improving just one meeting per week can lead to significant benefits for the organisation while also contributing to the health and motivation of employees.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your suggestions of tips and strategies for healthier meetings.