Feature Story

Six Ways To Combat Clueless Meetings

We may be in the “dark age” of meetings, but author Steven Rogelberg insists they can be great.
Feb 27, 2019

Meetings. They’re the bane of modern workers.

And the key to shared vision, collaboration, and innovation.

But what is it about meetings that led one worker to call them a place where minutes are taken and hours are wasted? And a Cisco survey of knowledge workers in nine countries to call them a top-three frustration?

Steven Rogelberg Steven Rogelberg

Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, has some serious answers: as to why meetings are broken, and what business leaders can do to make them effective, inclusive, and, just maybe, fun.

“People recognize that good things happen when you include others,” said Rogelberg, who also teaches at UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business. “You can make better decisions, have better innovation, a host of positive outcomes. And employees today expect to have a voice.”

With 55 million meetings a day in the United States alone — up from 11 million in 1976 — workers are spending literally years of their work lives in meetings. But Rogelberg estimates that 50 to 70 percent of meetings are considered a waste of time.

We have 55 million meetings a day in the U.S, and they all look and are structured basically the same — that’s pretty boring.

“Dysfunctional practices just keep getting recycled over and over again,” Rogelberg explained, “where meetings aren’t being designed effectively, they’re too large and bloated, the time isn't right, and there’s not true facilitation going on.”

Much (but not all!) of the blame falls on meeting leaders. As Rogelberg’s research reveals, there’s often a wide gap between a leader’s perception of how well a meeting went and that of the attendees who sat (suffered?) through it.

“I don’t think meeting leaders are ill intentioned,” said Rogelberg, who added that only about 20 percent of meeting leaders are actually trained for the task. “I just think that they can be pretty clueless.”

Here are six top tips for being a lot less clueless in your next meeting:

Set the Agenda (but Do It with Feeling)

Rogelberg agrees with conventional wisdom on sharing an agenda. But he believes that in practice agendas rarely get the attention they demand.

“Having an agenda in and of itself does nothing to improve a meeting,” he clarified. “What matters is what’s on the agenda. But people latch onto tactics. They think that if they’ve done that tactic, they’ve done a good job. And that’s a false assumption.”

“Practices around meetings,” he continued, “should start with having compelling agenda items, things that just can't be accomplished via email. And it goes to thinking carefully about who really needs to be there versus who needs to be kept in the loop.”

As technology makes it easier than ever to schedule meetings and join them from any location, the potential for meetings to support — or thwart — success will only increase. So, a bit of forethought as to who actually belongs at the meeting, and what they need to contribute, will go a long way toward avoiding what Rogelberg calls “time theft.”

For their part, attendees must ensure that they have actually read the agenda and come to the meeting prepared to share ideas.

Have Fun with Time, but Don’t Waste It

For Rogelberg, meeting tools have led to laziness around meeting lengths.

“It’s just too easy to default to 30- or 60-minute meetings,” he said, “but they may not be the right lengths.”

Rogelberg warns of “Parkinson’s Law,” an old business concept that argues that work expands to fill any amount of time. In other words, 20 minutes of actual work will be dragged out to 60 if that is what the meeting invite stipulates.

The inverse is true, too: “Psychological research shows that when you can add a little pressure, people perform more optimally.”

It’s up to the leader to determine whether the topic at hand calls for a rapid-fire huddle, a tight, medium-length meeting, or a full-on marathon.

And if solutions come faster than expected, you always can spread smiles by giving back minutes.

Similarly, scheduling, say, 24- or 48-minute meetings can be a novel, fun way to focus time and give people some crucial moments to regroup and prepare for their next meetings. And Rogelberg adds that people are almost never late for a meeting that starts at 11:06 or 2:34.

Walk, Stand, Spruce Up the Space

Anything that upends routine, refocuses the neural networks, and promotes creativity is welcome. That can mean standing, walking, finding a more open space, whatever works.

“If we have 55 million meetings a day in the U.S, and they all look and are structured basically the same,” Rogelberg said, “that’s pretty boring. As a leader, if you design a meaningful meeting experience perhaps with some atypical elements, people will really appreciate it.”

Of course, today’s novel experience can be tomorrow’s rote routine: “All these things have their place, but if you do it all the time, well they’ll become stale as well.”

And of course, for physical meetings, a dreary, cluttered space won’t excite creative ideas.

“The physical meeting locations matter,” Rogelberg said, “and to the extent that they are pleasant places to be, it can only help raise people’s positive mood.”

As for casual banter about sports, the weather, or family vacations, they have their place as well — up to a point.

“I like cultures where people have transition times between meetings,” Rogelberg said, “so they actually get to their meetings a little early, and then there’s a natural place for banter like that. If it goes in one or two minutes into the meeting time itself, I’m okay with that, too, because I see value in these interpersonal connections.”

Create a Chorus, Not a Monologue

We’ve all been in meetings where one person hijacks the discussion — whether it’s the leader or a verbose attendee. But the loudest voice isn’t always the one with the best ideas.

Even worse than an overbearing personality is what Rogelberg calls “emotional contagion,” where competing agendas or personality clashes prevent an environment in which it’s psychologically safe to share ideas.

“It’s up to the leader to facilitate the experience,” he added, “as opposed to the leader just imposing his or her opinions — recognizing that they can facilitate other voices and good, constructive conflict of ideas.”

In short, Rogelberg writes, the leader has to serve others, not their own egocentric agenda.

“When leaders really embrace their role of a steward of others’ time,” Rogelberg said, “then they recognize that there's only one person in that room with the complete authority to impose meaningful facilitation and structure, and that’s that leader.”

But again, it’s not all on the leader.

“Attendees can be sensitive to their own behaviors,” Rogelberg stressed, “such as not going on long tangents, and keeping their own personal agendas to themselves. And they can also help facilitate conversation. They can reach out and say, ‘Hey, Jane, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.’ ”

Go Virtual!

In Cisco’s research, virtual meetings accounted for only 20 percent of total meetings today. But those virtual attendees are among the most satisfied, creative, and productive workers. So, it’s no surprise that virtual meetings are expected to double in the next three years.

However, leadership failures still extend to the virtual world.

“When you ask people which meeting type is most ripe with problems,” Rogelberg added, “they say the virtual meeting. But the funny thing is, if you ask them which type of meeting they most prefer, they also say the virtual meeting.”

Workers love the freedom that virtual meetings offer, but they call for different leadership skills to maintain interest and prevent multitasking.

Video is one solution. “Once people can be seen,” Rogelberg argues, “they tend to be much more accountable for their behaviors and they’ll engage more readily.”

In the virtual world, Rogelberg continued, “the leader has to truly be an air traffic controller. They have to keep a tally of who’s talked and who’s not so that they can keep bringing other people in. We want to make sure that people arrive in the meeting five minutes early so that all connection issues are resolved. And even with video, we want to make sure that people say their names before contributions.”

Put the Leader in the Mirror

As technologies like AI, speech recognition, and virtual reality continue to transform meetings, the skills for managing them will need to evolve.

“Our conference rooms and our technologies for bringing people into a meeting are going to get more and more interesting and exciting,” Rogelberg predicted, “so that people will feel more present even when they’re not present.”

But technology change without culture change will fail every time.

“The human element is critical to leveraging that technology in a way that it doesn’t just become a fun toy,” Rogelberg insisted. “Instead, it becomes an incredibly important tool for getting work done, honoring people’s time, and elevating the team and the organization.”

Leaders also need to look in the mirror, by collecting feedback on the effectiveness of meetings. “The key is be evaluated periodically,” Rogelberg believes. “You’ve got to turn to your folks and say, ‘Hey, how can we keep these things working?’ ”

In the end, Rogelberg sees a terrific opportunity for leaders to use new technologies, data insights on meeting success, and better management skills to make meetings the powerful force for good they deserve to be. So, he urges all companies to “stock up on meetings.”

“Instead of just whining and complaining about our meetings,” he concluded, “we’re ready to take the next step.”