Do you know the surprising science of meetings?

Look around a typical workplace and you can come to the conclusion that the modern employee attends more meetings than she actually does. Although meetings are increasingly taking up our working day, many of us simply don’t see the benefits of this huge investment in time. All too often meetings leave us feeling uncompromised, unenlightened and deeply frustrated about our work being interrupted.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Though many organizations have resigned themselves to fruitless meetings, researcher and management consultant Steven G. Rogelberg hasn’t. By pulling from scientific research and analysis, Rogelberg in his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, shows how you can transform your meetings into invaluable tools for solving problems and making decisions. 

How much time do you spend in conferences? Whether it’s one-on-one with your manager or hitting the department as a whole, many people would say far too much! For example, 55 million workplace meetings occur a day in the United States. All of these meetings cost companies enormous amounts of time and money.

It’s a fact that workers are disproportionately spending their workdays in meetings. The Harvard Business Review says American employees had 11 million meetings a day in 1976. That’s about one-fifth of the number of meetings actually taking place in America. Nevertheless, research carried out by the software company Lucid Meetings shows that non-managerial workers now meet an average of eight times weekly. For managerial staff, that number is even higher at 12 times per week. And senior leaders like Executive Officers now spend the majority of their time in meetings. Indeed, one joint study by Harvard and Columbia University found that CEOs in Italy were spending 60 percent of their working day in meetings. Incredibly, this figure excluded time spent on conference calls! 

Inevitably, all this time adds up to a big expense. 

You can uncover just how much money each meeting costs your company by multiplying the hourly wage of an attendant by the number of hours that the meeting took, and adding the answer for each person who attended together. But be prepared, because your finance department can shock the response.

Xerox, a printing company, estimates that meetings between their 24,000 person development team cost the company over $100 million a year. And Elise Keith, co-founder of Lucid Meetings, estimates that across all workplaces in the United States, the US is spending $1.4 trillion on meetings a year – that’s around eight percent of the country’s annual GDP! 

But is this time and money well spent? Evidence suggests that many workers don’t think so. A 2005 survey conducted by Microsoft asked 40,000 workers all over the world what they thought of meetings. Depressingly, 69 percent said their meetings were unproductive. In a survey by Clarizen of two thousand American workers, a shocking 50 percent of respondents said they would rather do any other unpleasant work activity than attend their weekly team update meeting! 

Clearly, something is amiss with many of our office meetings, but how can we make them better? Let’s start by looking at how we lead meetings.

How good do you feel at leading meetings? Alas, if you’re like most people, you ‘re likely to overestimate your abilities. For example, he has discovered in the author’s own research that those who lead a meeting usually rate it more favorably than the attendees. Another insight into research may explain this result – the more someone talks in a meeting, the more optimistic their impression of that meeting will be. And who does most of the talking in most meetings? That’s right – whoever’s leading them. 

So to get a more realistic estimate of your abilities, you’ll need to ask the people who attend your meetings what they really think of them. 

The company Weight Watchers uses touch screens located near meeting rooms to collect employee feedback. When attendees leave meetings, they anonymously rate them using an emoji scale. Weight Watchers then uses this feedback to determine where change is needed. Importantly, these touch screens are also used after an adjustment has been made to assess whether or not it had a positive impact. In one instance, Weight Watchers added whiteboards presenting the meeting agenda to conference rooms, and dissatisfaction decreased from 44 percent to just 16 percent. 

By embracing the servant leadership mentality, the members themselves will take a step towards better meetings. A servant leader is one who aims to fulfill their team’s needs and unlock the true potential of each member. Seek to adopt a ‘sharing’ mentality and make yourself a servant leader. That means helping other people purposefully and sharing knowledge wherever possible.

Servant leaders take responsibility in organizing meetings to ensure that processes run as smoothly as possible. We exercise outstanding time management and scheduled the meeting according to the agenda ‘s demands. We do note when debates depart from the subject at hand and seek to refocus the discussion. The servant leader listens carefully to distinguish any latent problems that may emerge for the attendees. If a concern is detected, the leader introduces it into the discussion. Lastly, the servant leader facilitates an atmosphere in which attendees feel comfortable enough to express their opinions and politely disagree with one another. This permissive atmosphere is achieved by actively encouraging debate, reminding people to keep their criticism constructive and preventing any one person from dominating the meeting.

Unsurprisingly, expectations vary from country to country around the meetings. For example, in Latin America, it is fairly typical that meetings start much later than planned. But there’s one aspect of meetings across all countries and cultures that seems universal – no matter what their purpose, or the number of people involved, they typically take one hour. But blindly following this unwritten rule can lead to a lot of wasted time. 

This is due to a phenomenon known as Parkinson’s Law, which dictates that the length of time needed to complete a task will expand or contract according to the time you have to do it. 

The effects of Parkinson’s Law are well documented. In one study, college students were asked to solve a set of easy mathematical problems. However, they gave some students only the amount of time they actually needed to solve the problems and gave others more time than they needed. And just as Parkinson’s Law predicts, they found that the group with more time took longer to complete the problems. Many other groups have replicated these findings, including NASA scientists! With this in mind, try to shorten your next meeting by a few minutes and see if your discussion magically shrinks to fit the shorter time frame. 

Through focusing on your goals, how many people attended and how previous meetings went, you will begin to get a feeling for how long your meeting will last. If you’ve done that, don’t be afraid of an odd meeting time coming up. For example , you could take inspiration from research firm TINYpulse who will start their daily team meeting at exactly 8.48am. This quirky starting time intrigues people and, according to the company, attendees are never late!

You might also make your meetings really short-just 15 minutes long. Such gatherings are known as huddles, and research has been largely optimistic about their potential to improve teams and individual performance alike. For example, the Obama administration used everyday huddles, as did tech companies such as Apple and Dell. Another famous fan of super brief meetings is Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who insists that her meetings last no longer than ten minutes.

Everybody likes a fast fix. Traveling quack doctors made a fortune in times gone by selling worthless drugs and remedies that claimed to cure any illness and ailment. Why were people buying them? Since they represented an simple solution to an problem. Unfortunately, there are plenty of company quacks pushing a similar cure-all when it comes to the meeting world-the meeting agenda.

And, just like those useless potions, an agenda alone won’t magically make your meetings better. 

A number of studies have not found any correlation between the existence of an agenda and the content of the meeting as viewed by the participants. Interestingly , research carried out by the Economist in 2003 may shed light on why agendas fail to boost the quality of meetings. The study focused on meetings among senior managers in multimillion-dollar enterprises. It found that in 50 percent of the organizations, meetings either used the same agenda each time or created a last-minute, ad hoc agenda. Evidence like this suggests that many agendas are thoughtlessly produced and relentlessly recycled.

Luckily, there is a better way. In fact, agendas can be a valuable meeting tool. But for this to be the case, leaders need to get specific about what goes onto them. 

Arguably, the most important items to include on any agenda are those that originate from the attendees themselves. Research indicates that workers who contribute to a meeting are more likely to feel committed to their team as well as to the wider market. This can be encouraged by making sure that the items on the agenda are those that really matter to employees. Take the time to contact attendees a few days before the meeting and ask them what subjects they want to include on the agenda.

Once you are aware of this, you need to plan carefully the order in which topics will be discussed. A Middle Tennessee State University study on psychology found that items discussed early in the meeting tended to receive the most time and deliberation, no matter how complex they were. So make sure that you list things on the agenda in order of priority, with the most important at the very top.

Check out my related post: Two pizzas at a meeting anyone?

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