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Column: Meeting like this


Imagine, if you will, the worst meeting of your life: The clock moves more slowly than the laws of physics should allow. Garbled strands of jargon fall from the mouths of those around you. Whatever vague goals had been uttered before the meeting are forgotten, left far behind, like roadkill on a long ride to nowhere.

Illustration by Dave Cutler

That trapped feeling is probably as old as the first tribal gathering. And judging by some books for sale today ("Meetings Suck," "Death by Meeting"), not much has changed in the intervening millennia.

Meetings may be one of the most maligned and dreaded of humanity’s rituals, but they are not going away. Nor should they: Every week, some 1.2 million Rotarians meet around the world in an effort to make it a little better. Every year, meetings, conferences, and conventions across the United States inject around $280 billion into the economy. And every day, millions of people meet at their workplace to try to move their company toward some goal.

Clearly there is some reason we keep on meeting like this. Why haven’t Skype, FaceTime, and other technologies made face-to-face meetings obsolete?

As a writer, I always find meeting in person far more informative than talking to people on the phone. It has a value that’s hard to quantify. One study did show that groups who met face to face came up with a larger number of creative ideas, with more variety and quality, than those who met via video or voice.

Then why do we feel so tortured, so shackled by meetings? Why do they often feel so pointless?

These days, I attend a lot of meetings, but they are mostly small and purposeful and of my own design. But in college, I belonged to several campus groups whose main purpose seemed to be not getting things done. When I was an English teacher in Tanzania, our school’s staff meetings lasted several hours; any religious gathering lasted much longer.

During such meetings, I sometimes entered a trancelike state – a bureaucratic stupor – that passed for attention and preserved my sanity. Occasionally, though, it did backfire. At our school’s graduation, I heard my name from a distance, then realized I was being called upon to stand up and say in Swahili, “Praise the Lord.” In my daze, what I said was, “The Lord has gone away on a journey.”

Many of us share this ambivalence about meetings: On the one hand, they are essential. On the other, they are essentially a waste of time. Al Pittampalli, author of "Read This Before Our Next Meeting: How We Can Get More Done," says there’s a reason for this. Pittampalli is a former executive at Ernst & Young, where he became so frustrated by how little was accomplished in endless staff meetings, standing meetings, and status meetings that he decided to try to unravel the problem.

“I found myself sitting in a lot of bad meetings,” Pittampalli recalled when I phoned him. “I couldn’t quite understand why so much of our time seemed to be wasted. When I voiced this to people, they seemed to feel it was the cost of doing business. But I refused to accept that.”

Pittampalli’s research led him to a counterintuitive conclusion: Most meetings are designed to waste time.

“The meetings I would attend lacked any kind of clear purpose,” he says. “It took me a long time to figure out that this was intentional. This lack of an outcome to meetings is not a bug, it’s a feature. It allows us to escape the hard work of making decisions, which is essentially what the whole meeting problem is all about.”

We hold meetings because we know we should consult our co-workers before making decisions. Making decisions is hard, and decisions have consequences. So we hold meetings to postpone decisions, rather than to make them. We call a meeting to discuss a new marketing campaign rather than to decide to launch that campaign. If we did the latter, it would be a clear outcome. We would know whether the meeting had been successful.

This lack of an outcome to meetings is not a bug, it’s a feature. It allows us to escape the hard work of making decisions.

This is why, by one estimate, half the time spent in the 11 million meetings held in the United States every day is wasted, and why workers are said to “lose” an average of four workdays a month to meetings.

So meetings are a waste of time.

Actually, Pittampalli says no – in fact, they are quite the opposite.

“I’m all for the idea of in-person debates and conversations,” he says. “We’re designed to reason with each other in person. There’s this great feedback loop that happens when you talk something out. You say something and the other person interprets it and responds verbally or nonverbally, and you get this really rapid exchange that can help you get to good ideas quickly.”

Certainly, many meetings are destined to fail. Even when goals are set out clearly, it doesn’t mean those goals will be met or that those decisions will be made. And there are other reasons your meetings can get stuck in productive purgatory.

Someone in the group, for instance, may be heeding the advice of a pamphlet called the "Simple Sabotage Field Manual." This handbook, put out in 1944 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA), suggested ways ordinary citizens could sabotage a hostile power. Under the section “General Interference with Organizations and Production,” the OSS identified techniques for bogging down organizations – including “Insist on doing everything through ‘channels,’”  “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length,”   “Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences,” and “Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.” 

Sound familiar?

If you are concerned about workplace saboteurs, you can consult the 2015 book "Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace." Many of those unhelpful behaviors start out as good things – trying to get input and follow procedures. But when they are seen as ends in themselves, they start to bog things down. Recognizing (and calling out) this kind of sabotage is a first step. Beyond that, keep expectations clear, don’t let fear of risks and failure guide you, and set deadlines for committees to complete their work. (Also: Never, ever CC everyone on an email.)

Other times, however, it is not the sabotage that is simple, but the group itself. There is a metric known as collective intelligence, which is the ability of a small group to function well and to complete the tasks set before it. Researchers have found that a group’s collective intelligence bears no relation to the average or maximum intelligence of its members. 

Rather, it’s related to those members’ social sensitivity. The study, published in Science, found that groups with more women were more collectively intelligent and that “groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking.”

So even if you’re the smartest one at the meeting, wait your turn. If you try to ram your brilliance down other people’s throats, you’ll make the whole group dumber. 

Most of us are familiar with this dynamic in mundane, everyday meetings. But it can also be a problem in critically important meetings such as peace talks, says Daniel Shapiro, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts." 

“The term ‘peace talks’ can be deceptive, because the most important part of the talks is listening,” he told me. “The reason peace talks fail is that everyone talks and no one listens. And if people don’t feel heard, they’ll say, ‘You don’t know us. You don’t know our pain.’ Once those at the table feel their stories truly have been heard, you can begin to move forward.”

The stakes of most of our meetings are not nearly as high as peace in the Middle East. But lessons can still be learned from those meetings. Shapiro advocates thinking through what he calls “the four P’s” before any meeting starts. Purpose: What are we trying to achieve? Process: How is this meeting going to function? People: Who should be there? And Product: What needs to happen by the end of the meeting? 

He also cautions those in emotionally charged meetings to avoid what he calls “vertigo,” in which they get so consumed by a conflict that they can’t think beyond it. But in the end, sitting across from the other side is the only way everyone can move forward together. “When you’re building something as fragile as peace,” Shapiro says, “nothing beats human interaction.”

That’s something every Rotarian knows well.

• Frank Bures is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian. His book, "The Geography of Madness," came out last year.