Fancy Meeting You Here!

Two bored meeting attendees balance pencils under their noses to kill time.While walking to work on Tuesday, I listened to a news story about meetings that has been popping into my mind ever since. At least once each day, I find myself thinking, “Hey this reminds me of that piece on NPR….”

I work for a large company. So, I go to a lot of meetings. A LOT. I guess I should consider myself lucky, though, because they usually last no more than 60 minutes. If I worked at the Ohio Department of Transportation, where meetings often last two hours… well, I guess I would be 50% grumpier by 5 p.m., and my red wine consumption would increase at a corresponding rate.

Steven Rogelberg, who teaches industrial/organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says there are telltale signs that a meeting you are leading or attending sucks, starting with everyone at the table doing something completely unrelated when they aren’t talking, like surfing the web on their phones, preparing for another meeting, or updating Facebook.

I am bit subtler; I put the cap back on my pen. It’s a meager act of protest, but its mine. I’ve never slipped on headphones, but I’ve been tempted.

Most bad meetings have at least one person who dominates, and that windbag completely tunes out only after he/she is exhausted. Like, “I’ve said what I came to this meeting to say, now if you’ll excuse me… TMZ is calling.” Later, when his or her engagement is required, it’s “Can you please repeat the question?” I’m not sure you can blame the meeting leader for such bad behavior.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, I bet there was a guy who played solitaire during negotiations (the old school kind, with playing cards), and swore up and down that he really was listening. Solitaire just helped him relax and concentrate.

“Seriously, I can do both!”

Hey low-level-self-centered-civil-servant, isn’t that a little disrespectful to whomever invited you here? You accepted the meeting invitation, so pay attention.

DON’T BE THAT GUY.

Rogelberg also contends that many meetings are too long (duh!) and cites Parkinson’s Law, which states that tasks will take us as long as we allow for them. (I have a similar theory about handbags, briefcases and suitcases. Big or small, I’ll always fill them to capacity.)

Parkinson’s Law seems logical, but in my experience it has its limits. Some humans are incapable of resolving any issue – no matter how straightforward — in 30 minutes. They are efficiency’s White Whale. (Actually, I went to a 30-minute meeting on Friday that lasted just 10, and ended with resolution and next steps. The participants were positively GIGGLING with excitement.)

Cartoon: Are you lonely? Tired of working on your own? Do you have making decisions? Hold a meeting!Rogelberg argues that many meetings are not INTENDED to end quickly, or bring about decisions or resolution. In large organizations, they are often used to “diffuse responsibility” and delay making tough choices.

Remember the time you scheduled a meeting for a small team to come to a decision, and the invitation kept getting forwarded? And you eventually had to book a bigger conference room to hold everyone? Yeah, me too.

Bob: “I don’t think we can make this decision without Group A at the table. And Group B will definitely want to listen in.”

Joe: “If members of both Group A and B attend, we’ll need to invite Mary or she’ll be FURIOUS.”

Bob: “But if we include Mary, we should probably also invite her boss. He’s super hierarchical.”

Joe: “Yeah, but he’s on vacation for two weeks.”

Bob: “Guess we’ll have to push the meeting out until next month, then.”

I’d like to believe that someday, corporate America will crack the meeting nut. We’ll establish a magic set of rules for how often meetings can occur, how long they can be, how attendees should participate, and how many people should attend.

Let me guess. To get there, first we’ll need a cross-functional task force that meets weekly…

Dilbert cartoon. Let's have a premeeting to prepare for tomorrow's meeting.

One thought on “Fancy Meeting You Here!

  1. I remember the days of endless meeting around a conference table, knowing it would be even longer if bagels and pastries were set on the sideboard. I worked at Google for three months (on a short assignment) and long, formal meetings are not encouraged there. Rather, the place is set up for casual meet ups and employees are encouraged to work outside of their offices. It’s a system that wouldn’t work for every organization but it was a refreshing change.

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