Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Experts explain 'How to make meetings less terrible'

The title of this blog post is taken from a Freakonomics Radio podcast by Steven J. Dubner, and I recommend listening to all 42 minutes of it. But if you can't find the time, here are some of the key points.

How terrible are meetings?
Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, says research has shown that around 70 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. And these are typically the people calling the meetings.

The higher up the chain of command they go, executives attend more meetings. Rogelberg estimates most professionals in the U.S. attend 15 meetings a week."But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time." He has written a book on the subject, The Surprising Science of Meetings.

Why are meetings so terrible?

Most meetings are done on a schedule, out of habit, and have no purpose, says Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who wrote the book The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities. "I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings." If there are no problems to be solved, there is no reason to meet.

Most meetings promote an unhealthy culture of positivity and agreement, Priya Parker, a group-conflict-resolution facilitator, told Dubner. "Unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict. And most of our gatherings suffer from unhealthy peace, not unhealthy conflict." When people disagree with what is being said by the dominant personalities in the room, they often remain silent, resentful, and do not support the decisions made.

How to make meetings less terrible
1. Set a specific time limit. The vast majority of meetings are scheduled to last one hour. Partly this has to do with calendar software, but partly out of custom. If you schedule a meeting for an hour, it’s going to take an hour, Rogelberg told Steven Dubner. "But if you schedule 48 minutes, it’s going to take 48 minutes."

2. Scrap meetings when there are no problems to be solved, Parker says. "So it’s our Monday morning staff meeting, it’s our Wednesday afternoon sales meeting — that is not a purpose, that is a category. So 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." She has written a book called The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

3. Introduce healthy conflict. "Part of the role of a host is to practice generous authority," Parker says. "And I define generous authority to do three things with your guest. First is to connect them to each other and to the purpose. To protect them from each other. And to temporarily equalize them." One way to get healthy conflict is to open meetings by letting each attendee share a rose (positive personal or professional experience) and a thorn (a negative one). One of Parker's clients said this changed the dynamic of her meetings completely. Employees realized their boss, whose default meeting culture was as a cheerleader, was comfortable hearing about "thorns" in the work environment.

4. Let people opt out. Consider carefully who needs to be present at a meeting to make a decision. Invite only those people to attend. However, Rogelberg recommends that, as a courtesy, invite some people who might have interest in the issue, give them the option to attend, and send them the minutes if they opt out. This gives the employee control of their time, and they really appreciate it.

5. How to end the meeting. Parker recommends having a last call, like the last call in a bar, to ensure that all the questions have been answered. Don't end on logistics. Finish with what you want participants to remember of the meeting.

Again, all of the content in this blog post was excerpted from a Freakonomics Radio podcast by Steven J. Dubner, and I recommend listening to all 42 minutes of it.


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