Meetings have a problem. They can suck up huge amounts of time – how often have you heard people complain they’re in back to back meetings for days on end – and often yield minimal results. Meetings are also rarely inclusive. They provide a stage for people who enjoy the spotlight, and they are well-suited to people who like to hold the floor and are happy to interrupt and talk over others. They reward the person who shouts the loudest, and sideline the views of everyone else.
The benefits of having a diverse team are that you have input from a wide range of personalities with varied perspectives, experiences, ideas and insights. But none of that will do you any good at all if most of the people in the room don’t feel able to contribute.
So is it time to start cancelling meetings? Below we look at some of the issues with meetings, and where we might be going wrong.
What do people do in meetings?
Here are five worrying facts about meetings that should make you sit up and take notice:
- At the start of a meeting, 91% of people are paying attention. After 15 minutes, that has dropped to 84%. From there on in, the number continues to decline and at the 45-minute mark you have the attention of 64% of people.
- 91% of people admit to daydreaming in meetings, and 39% of people have fallen asleep.
- 73% of people do unrelated work during a meeting, and 31% respond to emails and texts instead of listening.
- The average employee spends 37% of their time in a meeting, and 45% feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings they have to attend.
- Having a lot of meetings decreases employee productivity by 50%.
The wisdom of crowds
Which will give you a better decision: an individual or a group?
The obvious answer seems to be the group. Surely many heads are smarter than one? But that’s actually rarely the case. Imagine one person knows a huge amount on Topic A. Gathering lots of people who know lots about Topic A should increase the combined knowledge, right? Wrong. When the people in the group are quite similar in terms of identity, background, experiences and knowledge, their understanding overlaps. They might be able to see one part of the problem very clearly, but they are so confident of their knowledge, so keen to demonstrate that knowledge in front of their peers and so eager to agree with and congratulate one another, that they jump to a quick conclusion. Which is not necessarily the right one. An individual alone will spend more time considering and interrogating the problem, coming to a better decision than the group.
Unless the group is diverse. If you bring in some people who know a lot about Topic A, some who know a lot about Topic B and some who are experts in Topic C, and all of these people are from varied backgrounds and identities, they will bring different perspectives to the discussion and push the others to look at the problem in new ways. This will yield a better decision than that of the individual.
If you don’t have access to a diverse team for your meeting discussion, you’d be better off just leaving one person to make the decisions by themselves.
We are social beings – staying within the safety of the group was a matter of literal life and death in the early stages of our evolution, so it’s hardwired into us to maintain harmony and not get thrown outside with the sabretooth tigers. That means that, without even realising we’re doing it, we modify our opinions to align with those around us.
In a group setting, the people present will gravitate towards a consensus, even when they would have had a different opinion if they’d been asked individually. The problem is that we can’t counter this by encouraging people to say what they really think, because the whole process is unconscious. Each individual will genuinely believe that they agree with the group.
The chances of issues or opportunities being missed in a group setting are high without careful processes in place to encourage individual thought.
Everyone wants to keep in with the boss. After all, your very career and ability to earn a living might depend on it. So when senior leadership members are in the room for a meeting they shift the whole balance of the discussion. No one wants to disagree with them or suggest flaws in their ideas, so the group ends up simply supporting whatever they said.
Meaning we might as well have just had a directive from the boss and all been getting on with other things for this hour.
We all process information in very different ways. Some people need a lot of time to consider all the information before they are ready to give their opinion, others like to make their decision through discussion and debate, whereas other people prefer to hear all the arguments and then go away and consider the issue quietly before putting their thoughts forward. Unfortunately, meetings usually only make space for the second category of people.
If you’re not allowing time before and after meetings for consideration, you are missing out on inputs from a considerable number of your team.
Lack of focus
How many times have you turned up to a meeting and asked, “What’s this meeting about?” More than once, I’m willing to bet. So many meetings aren’t clear on their purpose, and what will be discussed, how it will be discussed, how it will be clear that the objectives have been achieved and what will happen next.
Without clarity, you just have a lot of people chatting for a bit (half of whom are probably checking their emails or wondering what they’re going to have for dinner) then going their separate ways without giving the whole discussion a second thought.
Is it time to cancel meetings?
Meetings can still have a lot of benefits, but we’ve got to get better at how we organise and run them, which ones we choose to attend, and how we ensure that everyone is able to contribute to their fullest.