Blog Post

Meeting Management

By: Marcie Levine
Published: 9/30/2020

Before SurveyConnect, I was an HR Director at an organization, a member of the general management team. We would have regular team and project meetings. People would arrive late and multi-task during the meeting. Some meetings had agendas, others did not. Some meetings went late (sometimes because they started late and sometimes because there was no agenda). I remember sitting in these meetings (pre-zoom), figuring out the rate/minute that the meeting was costing (being in HR, I knew what everyone in the room earned) and it was a lot of wasted money!

I don’t think a lot has changed over the course of the last 15 years; and in fact, the new normal of Zoom meetings might have even helped to exacerbate the issue. We want inclusion, and sometimes we have too many people at a meeting in order to satisfy that concept of inclusion – with perhaps a cost of time and productivity. There’s nothing wrong and everything right about including the right people in a meeting!

Steven Rogelberg, the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, estimates that there are around 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. alone, and that most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week. Rogelberg says that “…when you consider the fact that 'too many meetings' has been identified consistently as the number-one source of frustration at work, the number-one time-waster at work — you know, research has shown that around 70, 71 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. Now this is jarring because senior managers are the ones calling the most meetings. So if senior managers are calling them unproductive, we know we have a problem.”

We all know the basics of what is important to meeting management: have an agenda, only invite people who can contribute to the agenda, start on time, end on time, keep notes, determine action items prior to the end of the meeting, distribute notes to all attendees.

In an NPR Freakonomics Radio discussion (Season 10, Episode 1), Rogelberg and Priya Parker (a group-conflict-resolution facilitator) have other suggestions to make meetings more effective (these are notes from the NPR discussion from the perspective of Rogelberg and Parker):

  • Ask the first question of all meetings, which is, “What is the purpose of this meeting?” Parker says “What is your desired outcome of the staff meeting? If you are having this on a Monday morning, what do you want to be different for this week? If we weren’t to have this Monday morning meeting, would anything be different? And if nothing would be different, scrap the meeting. My biggest piece of advice is, if you’re going to get people together in person, when time is limited and resources are limited, gather around the things that you can’t figure out over email.”

  • If I have a large group of folks, and I want them to engage strongly on a topic, if I have people pair up and work in dyads, even just for a few minutes, and then come back together as a group…having folks work in dyad changes the whole dynamic of the large group discussion. The level of communication and passion will be much higher. But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time. 

  • It’s just figuring out how can we increase the proportion of good time over bad time. Good time is when the attendees of the meeting are interacting in a genuine way such that the decisions and solutions being generated might surpass what any one individual could have done by themselves. And that time is not necessarily free of conflict. In fact, we want conflict in meetings. What we don’t want is personal conflict, but we want conflict around ideas. So if you have a group going to battle with incredible passion around ideas — that is a fantastic meeting. 

  • In healthy contexts, if you share a common purpose, “troublemakers” can actually be really helpful. And one of the things that I often do in groups is have people raise their hand, who’s a troublemaker, who is a smoother-over, and then I ask, who’s both? And people who are both — and there are always a few in a group — are the ones who are most likely to be part of transformational conversations. And that’s because as a troublemaker, you’re willing to poke and prod and you’re not afraid of a little heat. But as a smoother-over, you’re also interested in repair and coming together. And going back to our earlier conversation, most human connection and gatherings suffer more from unhealthy peace than from unhealthy conflict. And in those contexts, if you’re a group of smoother-overs, I can diagnose immediately that this is a very unhealthy place.
  • The reputation of meetings is so poor that many people simply avoid holding them — Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, for instance. Some companies have instituted “no-meeting” days, to give employees a chance to do their work without being dragged off to the conference room.
  • Research shows that just asking attendees to rate a meeting raises the quality of meetings at that firm. 
  • Don’t end on logistics. End on what you want people to remember.

To wrap up, work on your meeting management. Use some of these ideas, work with your teams, and end up with more productive (and maybe even fewer) meetings!

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