In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!