Meetings are deeply ingrained in our organisations. Many organisations run on them despite all the frustrations they cause and the productivity lost in these group gatherings. We know we can do better but we don’t. Here are some reasons why we can’t break the meeting habit.
The Social Thing
The word thing has its etymology in the middle English word for an assembly or gathering. Our desire to get together as a species and talk, trade and decide saw that evolve to describe things we can’t name in the 1600s and eventually that word spread into everything.
Meetings are a place for the social aspects of work for good and bad to surface. The banter before a meeting starts helps build connection and rapport. Meetings reinforce power and status through the roles people play and who gets to shape discussion and decisions. The more digital and distributed we are the more significant meetings are in connecting people in a high bandwidth environment. Hence our years of lockdown became defined by Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Social connection is valuable and key way to build and reinforce teams. However, no team needs a whole week of meetings to connect and engage.
Remedy: Plan the social connection of your teams and leverage other ways for people to connect and engage. Community activities and platforms can be a great alternative for social engagement and connection.
The Power Thing
Demanding people turn up to your meetings, is a sign of power. Chairing meetings is a way to exercise power. Making decisions in meetings or shaping their outcomes is a demonstration of your power. Many people without power in organisations find that they can only raise issues or questions in the formal context of meetings.
Humans rarely gather together without power surfacing in a small or large group. Silos in your organisation become power bases and generate their own meetings both within the silo to coordinate the exercise in power and and across silos to coordinate the power bases.
Remedy: Have clear responsibilities and formats for decision making that mean the performance of power in meetings is less required for decisions. Create other channels for issues to be raised, for discussions to occur or for questions. Build a culture of collaboration to offset silo based exercises of power.
The Performance Thing
If accountabilities are unclear in an organisation, people often correctly form the view that their performance will be determined by activity in front of leaders in the organisation, rather than in front of customers in the market. People will set out to perform in meetings attracting attention to their work, their intelligence and their worth ethic. Even though the presentations have been circulated in advance and the decisions are clear, people will still want time to present their work and receive the attention and accolades of others.
Remedy: Clarify performance outcomes and measures of performance. Ensure that market and customer outcomes is how employee performance is measured. Widen the assessment of behaviours from just senior leader perspectives.
Passive Work Thing
We need to understand why other people turn up to meetings. Another attraction of meetings is that for many participants they look like work and their participation is largely passive. Attending meetings is an easy way to appear busy. Make a few comments in your meetings across the whole week makes it look like you are busy and contributing.
People can be seen to be ‘working’ in meetings all day when much of that work is passive or reactive. When progress in knowledge work can be uneven or difficult to measure attendance at meetings is for many businesses a misleading sign of productivity. Meetings can also grow to absorb all the available supply of people. Consulting firms, in particular, understand that meetings are great for professional service team utilisation.
Remedy: Make sure there are no rewards in your organisation for busyness. Focus on outcomes and clarify accountabilities.
The Trust Thing
If you don’t trust your people, then you need to watch them work. If your people don’t trust each other, then the organisation will be full of watchers. If all work is done in meetings and all interactions happen through meetings then everything can be observed and nobody need trust an individual to work on their own. How many meetings have you seen where people turn up simply to observe that there is no issue of consequence to them, their work or their boss?
Remedy: If you have gone to elaborate lengths to hire employees you don’t trust, you have a bigger issue. Focus on building trust in the organisation both giving and receiving trust. Replace meetings with other forms of information sharing, measurement and transparency to reduce the risks of your new trust.
Meetings are often the outcome of an unplanned approach to work. With confusion and alignment problems, untrammeled power, lack of transparency, unclear accountabilities and no trust, putting everyone in a room or a call is the only way to solve the issues. This is neither productive nor effective work in most circumstances. We need to tackle the root causes of our meetings to ensure that the meetings that remain are more productive and valuable contributors to our work.