Opinion: The art of the meeting

 In May 2019

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Opinion:

By Mark Washburn

During my 40 years in the newspaper business, I usually knew where to find my editors if I needed them: They’d be in a meeting.

They’d meet on Mondays to talk about what was going to happen this week, on Fridays to talk about what was going to happen next week and on all the other days to talk about what was going to happen in the next few hours.

One day I peered into the conference room and counted 20 of them, all wearing the masks of stoic agony like parishioners suffering through a bad sermon. I did the math: 20 people at one-hour meetings twice a day, five days a week.

If we could bottle that time, I reasoned, it would be like instantly adding five people to the staff.

Done right, meetings coordinate, problem-solve and enthuse. Done wrong, they muddle, burden and sap. It’s perplexing that the art of the meeting isn’t as valued in business training as the art of the deal.

Steven HumboldtSteven Humboldt

UNC Charlotte Professor Steven Rogelberg says his research on meetings shows seven or fewer people is ideal for making decisions or solving problems. He also suggests periods of silence can help generate good ideas.

Thus Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management and psychology at UNC Charlotte, was astonished by the interest in his new book, The Surprising Science of Meetings. Rogelberg came to UNC Charlotte in 2003 and has long written about organizational science. He’s attracted more than $2 million in grant funding. But nothing has elevated his profile nationally like his safari into the conference room. He got the attention of The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, CBS, NPR and Bloomberg. His book was ranked among the top 10 leadership books of the year by The Washington Post.

“I didn’t make meetings a background topic,” says Rogelberg, who spent a decade studying the art of meetings and surveyed more than 5,000 workers in a variety of industries. “I made it a foreground topic. I was probably the first industrial organizational psychologist to study meetings in and of themselves.”

Rogelberg found things you’ve long suspected, such as how many leaders who run meetings think they’re doing a great job, while their underlings are quietly frustrated. People learn how to run meetings by going to meetings.

It’s a pass-down culture, Rogelberg says, and rarely is any attention paid to meeting dynamics, even in Fortune 500 companies he has studied. “Organizations don’t have anyone who’s chief meeting officer,” he says.

There are an estimated 55 million workplace meetings daily in the United States, meaning improvement could yield critical results. One workplace survey showed that 47% of employees said attending lame meetings was their No. 1 time-waster.

His map to more effectiveness includes:
■ Meetings are often scheduled to be an hour because electronic calendars default that way. Make them shorter.
■ Most meeting agendas are recycled, with the same topics repeatedly addressed. A group note can bring participants up to speed on repetitive analytics, leaving meetings open for brainstorming.
■ Agenda items shouldn’t be titles — they should be questions. Once the questions are answered, the meeting is over.

Meaningful interaction rarely occurs in teleconferences, particularly when the number of participants surpasses a dozen, Rogelberg says. But, oddly, workers tethered to the speakerphone aren’t as frustrated as their comrades who are stuck in the conference room. People on the call, Rogelberg says, like it because they can multitask undetected. When your employees are sneaking in work behind the mute button, it’s probably time to talk about meetings.

Reach him at mwashburn76@gmail.com.

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