The Curse of Meetings

Imagine a day without a single meeting darkening your calendar

Photo by Marcelo Santos/Getty Images

What’s your tactic for enduring boring meetings? Whether you write your shopping list, play buzzword bingo, or just zone out, the outcome is usually the same: even less time to finish the work you need to get done.

Constance Noonan Hadley, a lecturer in organizational behavior and an expert on group processes and emotions at work, has helped create a five-step plan for analyzing meeting culture and kicking unnecessary confabs off the books. She developed the plan with researchers at Harvard Business School after surveying 182 executives and consulting with companies struggling to hit organizational goals. During their research, Hadley and her colleagues confirmed what you probably already suspect: a majority of senior managers believe too many meetings are unproductive, prevent them from getting work done, and don’t bring teams closer together. They reported the findings in Harvard Business Review.

Photo by Dan Watkins
Photo by Dan Watkins

Having implemented the plan (see “Ending the Meeting Misery,” below) at a range of companies, Hadley says she’s been surprised at its success in fixing organizational problems, such as missed corporate goals. “A few years ago, I would have said meetings are just a symptom of dysfunction—you need to go at the underlying cause,” she says. But she found that when companies just rethink meetings, a lot of the dysfunction “takes care of itself.”

In one company that followed Hadley and her colleagues’ plan, employees reported a 42 percent rise in collaboration, while work/life balance satisfaction jumped from 62 percent to more than 90 percent.

BU Research asked Hadley how to use her five steps to break the curse of unwanted meetings.

BU Research: I’VE BEEN IN TRAININGS TO IMPROVE MEETING EFFECTIVENESS WHERE THE FOCUS HAS BEEN ON TRICKS FOR KEEPING PEOPLE ENGAGED AND MAKING MEETINGS MORE EFFICIENT. IS THAT ENOUGH TO FIX THE PROBLEM?

Hadley: Having an agenda and setting clear outcomes and next steps are all good ideas, if you’re going to have a meeting. However, we’re questioning more, do you need the meeting? And if you do, who needs to be there and how many meetings do you need? We recommend starting this [five-step] process with an audit at the individual level. People would confess to us in one-on-one situations how much difficulty they had with meetings, but they usually didn’t speak up, so gathering the data from each person systematically was useful for getting senior people’s eyes opened. The second step is taking all that data and looking at it together for the patterns and the pain points. The next step is really important, and that’s when you come back together as a team and think about what you want to do about this. And in our experience, saying we want fewer meetings, we want more efficient meetings, doesn’t really solve the issue. It needs to be something where people feel personally invested in this goal. In many cases, it had to do with setting something as off-limits to protect people’s time, whether it was a meeting-free day or technology-free meetings. Then people started to say, “Wow, that’s a concrete goal and I can immediately see the benefit to myself.” When a day was designated as meeting free and that became acceptable, people could work from home, for example, and so the dominoes began to fall toward things they really cared about.

ending the meeting misery

IN YOUR HBR ARTICLE, YOU MENTION SOMEONE STABBING THEMSELVES IN THE LEG WITH A PENCIL TO STAY ENGAGED IN A TORTUOUS MEETING. WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE IN THAT SITUATION?

For the senior leader, it’s using your authority to say, “This seems crazy, I think we need to take a new look at how we’re meeting.” Bring in somebody from a different department, human resources, or a consultant to do an audit of where you’re at with meetings; have everybody work with that person to quantify how many meetings they’ve been to in the past month, how many of them were essential, how many of them weren’t, why the ones that weren’t were still happening, and why they still went. If you’re a more junior person, you’re not going to be able to change the entire team process, but you can do the same personal audit. I would use it as a starting point with your manager to say, “Look, my interest is in being as productive as I can and when I think about x, y, z meetings, I don’t think they’re adding to my productivity, so I would like to talk to you about a different way to participate if needed: can I send in some thoughts beforehand, could I do a one-on-one with the team leader afterward to debrief, what are some of the ways that I can free up time from that meeting so I don’t hurt anybody else’s progress?” But we do have to be realistic; if there’s somebody who’s extremely senior who’s demanding that everybody in the department turn up for two hours every Friday for a catch-up, that may be unavoidable. But then I’d work super hard to reduce every other meeting I have.

HOW DO YOU STOP MEETINGS FROM SNEAKING BACK IN?

Telling a team where people used to have an average of three or four meetings a day that those meetings can’t happen one day a week is difficult; norms and practices need to be changed. The next thing is to just regularly monitor progress. Even though it’s ironic to say that you need meetings to solve meetings, we do find that meeting together once a week during the early stages and monthly or so after that to touch base on how it’s going allows the continued reinforcement of the initiative and also eliminates any blocks to accomplishing it.

I IMAGINE SOME PEOPLE ARE OBLIVIOUS TO HOW MUCH OTHERS MIGHT RESENT BEING IN THEIR MEETINGS. ARE THERE SIGNS THEY SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR?

We have some companies where they actually have well-run meetings, so in sitting in that meeting, everyone might seem engaged and getting quite a lot of traction from it. But what they don’t know is, how late employees are staying up to make up for all the work they couldn’t accomplish because they were sitting in that effective meeting. Having the conversations in a really open way is helpful for everybody. The signs are often hidden because people are suffering in relative silence—they want to be good soldiers.

DID YOU MEET RESISTANCE WHEN YOU TRIED TO IMPLEMENT YOUR IDEAS?

Yes, in fact, a senior executive blogged that if having an abundance of meetings is the price we pay for an inclusive learning environment, then I’m okay, bring on the meetings. On the smaller scale, individual people had resistance, too. One reason was that they worry they’re going to miss out or if we took the self-presentation value of attending a meeting away from them, we would be robbing them of social capital or some kind of career-making move. Nobody likes change, so that’s why the personally relevant goals are so critical. We had to overcome that resistance by showing that not just the company, not just the team, not just the work product, but they individually were going to benefit from this.

DO YOU GET STUCK IN A LOT OF MEETINGS AND HAVE YOU CHANGED WHAT YOU DO ABOUT THEM?

I feel less guilty when I say no to meetings now, because I realize I’m actually helping my organization when I don’t waste two hours sitting in a meeting that doesn’t help me do the real work that I need to do. I do have to make some judgments about how critical I am to the meeting, but in general I just say, “I can’t, I have another commitment,” even if that commitment is that I really need to sit down and work.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Published

One comment

  1. Hi Andrew and Constance, thanks for the story. I think you’ll find that a new book coming out in a few weeks, “How To Facilitate Productive Project Planning Meetings”, by yours truly (a BU Senior Lecturer) and Jim Stewart, PMP, will be very much of like mind. Any work in this area is of interest to me and should be to anyone (like project managers) for whom effective meetings are important.

    Thanks again,
    Rich Maltzman, PMP
    Co-Author with Jim Stewart, PMP of “How To Facilitate Productive Project Planning Meetings”, Maven House, 2018

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