Too many meetings. Too little time?

Bob Little explores our love-hate relationship with meetings and suggests ways to make them a more positive experience

According to David Bolchover, an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace, meetings – whether virtual or face to face – aren’t popular in the world of work, so why do we have so many of them? He believes there are several reasons why this is so, including:

1. Ambition
Meetings can provide an ideal environment in which ambitious and political individuals have the chance to stand out.

2. Conflicted employees
While we may genuinely recognise the importance of well-run meetings, the badly-run ones loom large in our memory because of their boredom-inducing uselessness. This explanation is favoured by consultants and training companies who claim that all meetings would be beneficial and popular if only their advice was heeded!

3. Inertia 
Although large meetings are often a waste of time, few managers care enough to commit to changing this practice. Moreover, chairing large meetings affords these managers status in the organisation. Unwieldy meetings – especially weekly divisional catch-ups – are as much a part of office life as is the Monday morning inquiry about everyone’s weekend.

4. Reinforcing hierarchy.
Meetings are an indispensable tool for reinforcing the workplace’s natural hierarchy.

5. Respite from the job. Given that research indicates that as many as one in four workers dislike their jobs intensely, meetings can offer an opportunity to daydream, doodle, have a coffee, and share a joke with colleagues.

Improving meetings
Were a senior executive to be genuinely interested in examining the efficacy of company meetings, he or she should probably start with a confidential survey of staff asking how meetings could be better run.

Writing for Headspring Executive Development, Bolchover advocates that such a survey should find out whether meetings are useful. He says: “It should explore ways to improve them – and, assuming that they can be encouraged to be honest in their response, your staff will probably have strong opinions on the matter. “Consider what’s the optimal length, content, approach, structure, frequency and attendance for meetings – and publicise this as company guidelines.”

The outcome of such a survey is unlikely to be ground-breaking. It will probably include a desire to:

  • Start and finish on time
  • Explain, upfront, to attendees what the meeting aims to achieve
  • Progress through the agenda swiftly and purposefully
  • Limit attendees to those who must be there
  • Ask everyone to prepare thoughts in advance
  • Encourage the more reticent to speak out
  • Constrain those who talk too much
  • Watch out for too much agreement – because this suggests a deeper problem

 “Better still,” says Bolchover, “appoint a full-time meeting guru to chair company meetings. Running a meeting well is a skill. An outsider may be better positioned to cut to the chase.”

About Bob Little

Bob Little is a communications professional (a writer, editor, commentator, speaker and broadcaster) specialising in the field of corporate L&D, who works internationally.

Headspring Executive Development is a company formed by the Financial Times and IE Business School

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