Meetings Gone Mad

Let’s seek good science for better productivity

By Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP September 26, 2019
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​It seems to happen 20 or more times a week in my world. All I ever hope for is an expedient team solution to a problem so I can get back to actually getting stuff done in the comfort of my office. But no—we end up in yet another unproductive meeting. 

If you're like me, you dread meetings. Not because of the people who attend them, but because the majority of meetings are a colossal waste of time and energy. They seem designed to torture us rather than set the foundation for good outcomes.

That's why I asked a friend and colleague, Steven Rogelberg of the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte to help me—and you—disentangle the truth about meetings and offer tips for what HR can do to enhance meeting quality. Rogelberg is chancellor's professor and professor of management at UNC and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (Oxford University Press, 2019).

 

SHRM: What is the current state of meeting quality? Are meetings working?

Steven Rogelberg: Meetings are very costly investments for organizations, considering the time and salaries associated with each and every gathering. Examination of employee reports of meeting quality, however, suggests that the return on that investment is not where it needs to be. For example, a Salary.com survey identified "too many meetings" as the No. 1 time waster at work. And the meeting culture assessments that I conduct yield consistent and sobering evidence that much of meeting time is just not effective:

 

In a typical week, what percentage of your meetings were…
A good use of time55%
Well-run55%
Engaging47%
Resulting in clear outcomes49%
Necessary for you to be there54%

 

SHRM: Why should HR care about bad meetings?

Rogelberg: HR professionals are fundamentally the stewards of organizational talent. Employees spend massive amounts of time in meetings. In fact, it is estimated that there are approximately 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. alone.

The question is how could HR not care about bad meetings? How could HR teams not care about an activity that is consuming the time of their talent, especially when that time appears to be so nonoptimal? Bad meetings harm employees and teams, as well as the organization itself, through employee frustration and disengagement; communication, cooperation and consensus decision-making that is less than optimal; unrealized innovation; and wasted time and efforts.

Someone has to care, and HR professionals are the ideal candidates for that. Bad meetings cannot be accepted as just a cost of doing business. HR professionals can lead the efforts to recapture wasted time and frustration. They are uniquely positioned and skilled to truly solve the problem of meetings.

 

SHRM: How would you advise HR professionals on what they should be doing?

Rogelberg: Although there are many paths [to making better use of meetings], below are three that would certainly help. The research mentioned is more fully described in The Surprising Science of Meetings.

  • Impactful training. Research suggests that only around 20 percent of leaders receive training on how to lead meetings; given how many meetings there are, this is a crazy statistic. This is clearly a low-hanging-fruit training opportunity. However, the training has to move beyond just teaching basic meeting tactics. For example, research shows that agendas, in and of themselves, do little to improve meetings. What is more important is how to build and structure the agenda and, most important, how leaders conduct discussions around the agenda topics. We need to provide meaningful meeting skills and facilitation training as part of onboarding and high-potential and leadership development efforts.

  • Feedback and accountability. Our research suggests that leaders have overly positive assessments of the meetings they run. Clearly, this belief is not helpful to self-development. Organizations must assess meeting quality and culture as part of their pulse and engagement surveys. Given how frequent meetings are and how fundamental they are to team and unit success, a simple meeting-metrics dashboard should be created. Leaders desperately need feedback and must be held accountable if we stand any chance of making things better.

  • Influencing cultural practices. HR can do the following:
    • Help change default norms around meetings and introduce new meeting approaches.
    • Introduce alternative meeting structures (e.g., huddles, "magic time") and formats (e.g., walking meetings, when they are most appropriate).
    • Help promote meeting-free time periods, given that all employees can benefit from some amount of "makers' time."
    • Introduce guidelines and practices for managing meeting size and stopping the knee-jerk tendency to default to the one-hour meeting time.

 

Whether you are an HR generalist starting your career or a seasoned practitioner with more than 30 years of experience, you have most likely suffered from poor meeting quality. But HR professionals are uniquely positioned to address the problem. With just a little focus on good meeting science, you can enhance these practices across your organization. Follow Rogelberg's advice and watch your workforce reap the rewards.

Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer of SHRM and author of The Price of Pettiness: Bad Behavior in the Workplace and How to Stomp It Out (SHRM, 2019).

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