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Should we have a meeting about all these meetings?

Despite years of articles telling us that we’re having too many meetings, they are still on the rise.

Perhaps it’s a worldwide epidemic. New research conducted by London based company Training Journal found that managerial staff are spending up to the equivalent of two whole days per week in meetings. Research cited by the Australian Financial Review shows that meetings have continued to increase in frequency and duration over the last 50 years.

Is there really so much more to talk about, or is there a negative time wasting cycle surrounding meetings that needs to be broken?

In research conducted in Australia earlier this year by Microsoft, a study found that 70 per cent of respondents thought that their workplace meetings were unproductive, with a whopping 92 per cent confessing to doing other things while in them.

Devoting a lot of time to a practice when you would rather be doing something else seems like an odd concept. While meetings are necessary for collaboration and communication purposes, conducting them incorrectly can be a big ol’ waste of time. One that hinders productivity and can affect workplace happiness. “Instead of improving communication and collaboration, as intended, ” says Leslie A Perlow, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School.

Why do we have so many meetings?

From a psychological perspective, the organisational desire to have ever more meetings might spring from more personal needs. In an article for Scientific American, Krystal D’Costa ties it to our social drive to participate and to be seen participating. Working on our own might be more productive, but holding court during a meeting more tangibly asserts our productivity.

Also, because meetings are often where senior team members hear about what junior members have been doing, people who aren’t crucial to a meeting’s stated purpose still want to attend. And they can often be the biggest time wasters.

D’Costa describes these people as spectators, writing, “The burden of spectators is real. Active team members are rendered ineffective by spectators who assert themselves to become faux-participants. Since spectators aren’t grounded in the project or invested in the outcome, they often derail the meeting.”

In research by Kathleen D. Vohs from the University of Minnesota, she found that the act of making a choice depletes physical stamina, task persistence in the face of failure, increases procrastination, and reduces the quantity and quality of several cognitive tasks. Meetings are filled with choices (should I talk, disagree, reprimand, etc.). So it’s not enough that meetings take up our time, they also might make us less capable for the rest of the work day.

The trouble with meetings

Identifying your team’s weak spot when it comes to meetings is an important first step, says Perlow. She categorises problem meetings into three categories:

  • Waste of group time
  • Wate of individual time
  • Waste of everyone’s time! (i.e. the above two combined).

Wasting group time is a situation where organisations have few meetings, but they don’t run them well, so they aren’t very useful. Wasting individual time entails a high number of meetings that are efficient, but there are just too many of them. And the third category… that’s pretty self-explanatory.

What can be done?

In an article for The Harvard Business Review, organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz  recommends setting relevant ground rules and sticking to them. These include:

  • Be specific. If the point isn’t relevant, don’t go there. Prevent monologues by interspersing with genuine questions.
  • Look at organisational and team needs rather than just solutions to problems.
  • Use evidence to test assumptions and make decisions.
  • Limit meetings to discussing issues that cannot be resolved without face to face communication.
  • Aim to make actionable points in each meeting.

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