Writing for the Harvard Business Review, experts Ashley Whillans,Dave Feldman, and Damian Wisniewski explore six "common psychological pitfalls that lead us to hold and attend more meetings than we should"—as well as "research-backed strategies to help employees, managers, and entire organizations overcome them."
Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School in the negotiations, organizations, and markets unit. Dave Feldman is the co-founder and CEO of Miter, a startup that offers an online toolkit for better meetings, and Damian Wisniewski is the co-founder and COO of Miter.
The authors write that many employees believe meetings are generally a waste of time and energy. In fact, one survey reported that managers believed 83% of the meetings on their calendars were not productive. In addition, a survey of U.S. professionals conducted by Salary.com rated meetings as the "number one office productivity killer."
So why does a seemingly endless stream of meetings continue to overcrowd so many employees' schedules—and what can companies do to resolve the issue?
The authors cite FOMO, or the "fear of missing out," as one of the most common reasons people attend too many meetings. "As meeting participants, we worry that our colleagues will judge us—or worse yet, forget about us—if we don't accept every invitation," they write.
To prevent meeting FOMO, the authors suggest that meeting leaders should always clearly state whether a meeting is optional or required and avoid using meeting attendance as a performance metric or indicator for employee engagement. And most critically, managers and meeting leaders should model healthy meeting habits.
"To encourage your team to decline unnecessary meetings, visibly decline meetings yourself," they write. "To encourage people to block off deep focus time, do so yourself—and make it public."
According to the authors, employees often fall into an "egocentric bias" when it comes to meetings—with a focus more on "[their] own needs, desires, and perspectives"—which causes workers to act with "selfish urgency." For example, "leaders will schedule meetings whenever convenient for them, without necessarily considering their teams' needs or schedules," the authors write—behavior that while not necessarily malicious, can be extremely frustrating for employees.
Leaders can limit "selfish urgency" by reminding themselves to consider any potential impacts associated with asking their team members to attend a meeting. According to the authors, "These could be financial costs—for example, one company found that a single weekly meeting of middle managers was costing the organization more than $15 million dollars a year—or more personal costs, such as employees' lost commute time or mental energy."
In some cases, according to the authors, meetings are used as a mechanism to ensure that an employee will follow through on a promise or deadline. While behavioral science suggests that an external deadline, such as a meeting with your boss, can act as a motivator to complete a task, an actual meeting isn't always necessary—especially if its purpose is simply to report progress on a task.
However, leaders can still use meetings as commitment devices without wasting time by informing workers in advance that the meeting will be canceled if the deadlines are met. "If the work is done, send a congratulatory email and save everyone an hour," the authors write. "And if everyone is done except Steve, don't have the meeting; instead, find another way to hold Steve accountable without wasting everyone else's time."
When employees are stressed, they may find some relief in completing tasks that are seemingly urgent—but not actually important, a phenomenon known as the "Mere Urgency Effect," the authors write. According to the authors, "Scheduling and attending meetings can make us feel like we've accomplished something, and so we're often loath to decline or cancel them, even if they are objectively not as important as our other work. This is often compounded by a strong sense of inertia[.]"
To curb this tendency, the authors suggest leaders default to cancelling unnecessary meetings and ending meetings early when possible—especially with recurring meetings. And "[i]f you aren't sure if a meeting is necessary, try not having it and see what happens," the authors write.
Workers frequently find themselves in the same bad meetings time and time again simply because no one remembers the specific details from the previous meetings, the authors write.
To prevent this "meeting amnesia," leaders can schedule very short team meetings—no more than five minutes long—to share any important updates. According to the authors, "These debriefs are especially important in a fully virtual environment, since with fewer opportunities to connect informally, it's easy for meeting leaders not to notice when employees (especially junior ones) leave a call confused." Leaders should also document and share what was said—and meant—in meetings to provide a summary of key points and action items from meetings.
During long, unproductive meetings many employees assume they are the only ones who are frustrated or questioning the point of the meeting—but psychologists say this pattern of thought is an illusion, the authors write. According to the authors, this is known as pluralistic ignorance, which is "a phenomenon whereby even though we're all experiencing the same thing, we assume that other people don't feel the same way about it as we do."
To combat pluralistic ignorance, the authors recommend leaders encourage their teams to share frustration and feedback—and work as a team to identify and eliminate any unnecessary meetings.
"Of course, there's no once-and-done cure for the modern workplace's meeting addiction," the authors conclude. "But by understanding the psychology behind bad meetings, both managers and their teams can work towards healthier communication norms, more-effective interactions, and cleaner calendars." (Whillans et al., Harvard Business Review, 11/12)
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