Pointless, interminable meetings are often the bane of a worker’s day. How did it happen that highly trained and educated professionals choose to waste hours of their time each day, and what can be done to tame the meeting monster?
When I worked in corporate America, I spent my fair share of time in meetings. Some of them were good and generated ideas and energy the team needed to move forward on projects. But far more often these were recurring meetings that happened whether or not there was actually anything substantial to talk about. Prior to this time, I’d never been a coffee drinker, but I overcame my aversion to the bitter bean because without caffeine, I was unable to stifle yawns and drooping eyelids hour after hour.
Even with a good caffeine buzz keeping my eyelids peeled back, my mind still wandered, and one of my recurrent fantasies was to invent a device to keep track of the cost of meetings. I imagined it looking something like a digital alarm clock, except you set it by entering two values: first, the number of people in the meeting and second, the average hourly cost (total costs — not just salary) of the employees. Then you push a big button on top labeled “Start.” The “clock” begins counting up, not in time, but in money. In my fantasy, I imagined workers recoiling in horror as the cost of the meeting ticked skyward, first in hundreds, then in thousands of dollars.
Why Bad Meetings Happen
Unfortunately, my fantasy is based on the flawed assumption of rationality. Every meeting has a reason. It may not be the stated reason, or even a logical or good reason, but here are a few reasons that bad meetings happen.
Quick! Look Busy!
Read most white-collar job postings and you’ll see language that sounds something like this: “Must be able to work in a fast-paced environment.” After many years, I have yet to find such a truly fast-paced environment. Instead, what I found in most workplaces was a set of useless or quasi-useless structures and procedures that justified a large staff working full time, or better yet, overtime. Meetings are an extremely convenient way for a dozen or so people to fill hours with pseudo-activity. I know of many managers who would be hard-pressed to justify their existence if they could not call meetings.
Blurry Lines of Responsibility
Decisions are always made by one person. There may be input, discussion, spirited debate, and what have you, but unless we’re calling a vote, someone has to make the final call. People, even managers, are often uncomfortable or unwilling to do this. So the meeting evolves as a symbol of “consensus building,” meaning that “we all” decided this, whether we actually did or not.
Reality Distortion Field
Aldous Huxley, in his book Brave New World [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], is famous for the line “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth.” Meetings are a good way to get in some of those repetitions and broadcast them to the masses. I’ll never forget working for a dying Dot-com. As the number of rah-rah all-hands meetings grew and grew, our staff shrank and shrank due to layoffs, first a few at a time, and then by the meeting-room-full. Eventually, I was laid off — in a meeting.
Like it’s benign cousin “brainstorming”, “blamestorming” is the collaborative generation of ideas. However, in blamestorming, the goal is to make someone else responsible for whatever is going wrong. If lines of responsibility have been sufficiently blurred in earlier meetings, this becomes easier as no-one usually remembers exactly who said what or who was responsible for prior bad decisions.
Escape Meeting Hell
Getting out of bad meetings requires a bit of courage and strategy, but it’s usually quite possible. Here are a few strategies to get you started.
Since one of the major purposes of bad meetings is to look busy, you can co-opt this need to your own advantage. Make sure you have something that simply must get done right after any proposed meeting and ever-so-apologetically explain that you can’t avoid working on the task at the same time as the meeting.
It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to “attend” meetings by telephone. Being dialed in to a meeting allows you to get credit for attendance while freeing yourself to actually do something useful. Telephone headsets make this even easier and frees up both hands for typing or other work. While I usually disparage multitasking, I’ve found it possible to divert just enough attention to listen for the outside chance of someone saying something relevant or asking for your personal assent or input. Meanwhile you can knock out some low-to-medium intensity work while getting credit for “attending” the meeting.
Another variant of the “Be Busy” strategy is asserting the need to leave early. Where I worked, there was even a term for it: the “hard stop,” as in, “I can make your one p.m. meeting, but I’ve got a hard stop at 1:30.” This serves the dual purpose of getting you out of the meeting, but also motivates others to say what they need to say to you right up front.
Have Someone Else Take Notes
If the person calling the meeting believes there is some essential information you must acquire, see if you can nominate someone else to provide you the meeting notes. If you apply this strategy, resist the urge to point out that there would probably be a half-dozen more efficient ways to convey this information.
Propose a Meeting Alternative
So far, I’ve been providing methods for living inside of a dysfunctional office environment. If you’d rather fix a broken system than endure it, you can suggest a replacement for the meeting. Email exchanges, shared documents and common whiteboards are all ways to communicate without sitting around a table at the same time in the same place.
Call Out Bad Meetings
If the previous strategy wasn’t aggressive enough for you, the most direct route is to point out when a meeting is bad and state what makes it bad. The disadvantage of this direct approach is that you’re at risk of unmasking some or all of the surreptitious reasons for bad meetings. Expect resistance, polite at first, but increasingly strident if you persist. Yet the prize of banishing bad meetings from your workplace could be worth the risk.