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Stop the meeting madness

Leslie A. Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley, Eunice Eun

Meetings are essential for collaboration, creativity, and innovation. But at many organizations, out-of-control meetings dangerously dysfunctional.

Poking fun at meetings is the stuff of Dilbert cartoons—we can all joke about how soul-sucking and painful they are. But that pain has real consequences for teams and organizations. We interviewed one executive who described stabbing her leg with a pencil to stop from screaming during a particularly torturous staff meeting.

Such complaints are supported by research showing that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them. The supposed solutions are usually discrete: Establish a clear agenda, hold your meeting standing up, delegate someone to attend in your place and so on.

But we’ve observed in our research and consulting that real improvement requires systemic change, because meetings affect how people collaborate and how they get their own work done.

That kind of change is rarely considered, however. When we looked into why people put up with the strain that meetings place on their time and sanity, we found something surprising: Those who resent and dread meetings the most also defend them as a “necessary evil”—sometimes with great passion.

To be sure, meetings are essential for enabling collaboration, creativity and innovation. They often foster relationships and ensure proper information exchange. But why would anyone defend dysfunctional meetings? Because executives want to be good soldiers. When they sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings, they assume they’re doing what’s best for the business. They overlook the collective toll on productivity, focus and engagement.

Happiness at work takes a hit. Instead of improving communication and collaboration, as intended, bad meetings undermine those things. Consider the executive who stabbed her leg with a pencil Did that staff meeting advance teamwork or set it back?

The good news: We’ve found that it’s possible to transform meetings instead of just tolerating them.

Out-of-control meetings

    • We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries:

      65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71 percent said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64 percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62 percent said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.

How is your group vulnerable?

Problems ensue when meetings are scheduled and run without regard to their impact on both group and solo work time. Often groups end up sacrificing collective or individual needs—or both. In a recent survey we conducted with nearly 200 senior executives, respondents said their meetings fall into one of these categories:

    • Wasters of group time

      Some organizations have relatively few meetings but run them poorly. As a result, individuals have sufficient time for solo tasks and deep thinking, but group productivity and collaboration are weakened because each meeting is inefficient.

    • Wasters of individual time

      Sometimes meetings are relatively high in quality and therefore technically a good use of group time — but individuals’ time dissipates because the sheer quantity of meetings crowds out solo work, and poor scheduling disrupts critical deep thinking.

    • Wasters of both group and individual time

      Many organizations we have worked with endure the triple whammy of meetings that are too frequent, poorly timed and badly run, leading to losses in productivity, collaboration and well-being for both groups and individuals. This is the worst-case scenario — and, unfortunately, the most prevalent.

A group can change its approach to meetings as long as the team leader has the authority to encourage people to raise issues, take risks, make mistakes and discover new ways of working together.

Striking the right balance

Because so many people are involved in scheduling and running the meetings we attend, it takes collective effort to fix out-of-control meetings. With a structured approach to analyzing and changing meeting patterns throughout your team or unit, you can make significant improvements. Escape the meeting trap by working together to follow five basic steps:

1: Collect data from each person. Use surveys to gather data and impressions from every individual. That will help you gauge the full extent of the problem: You’ll learn how much resentment is bubbling under the surface and how much work isn’t getting done during the day.

2: Interpret the data together. Next, it’s critical to come together as a team or a unit to consider everyone’s feedback and analyze what’s working and what’s not. This must be an open, nonjudgmental discussion of the survey or interview findings. However, delegating the data interpretation to an outside consultant can undermine success. Contributions and analysis from all team members generate the widespread understanding required for the remaining steps.

3: Agree on a collective, personally relevant goal. We’ve found that personal benefit from the group’s initiative is a great motivator. For example, declaring “meeting free” periods forces the whole group to reevaluate meetings that were normally scheduled during those times and ask who really needs to attend. The additional “white space” in everyone’s calendar increases individual productivity and reduces the spillover into personal time.

4: Set milestones and monitor progress. As with any change effort, it’s important that measurable progress be assessed and discussed along the way. Small, tangible wins provide something for people to celebrate, and small losses provide opportunities for learning and correction. Over time, new norms can take hold.

5: Regularly debrief as a group. Finally, we’ve found that it’s critical to regularly and openly take stock of how people feel about the meetings they attend and about their work process more generally. Frustration, resentment and even hopelessness are signals that people are falling back into bad patterns. Moreover, changing protocols and behaviors takes time, and sustaining momentum requires consistent attention.

A group can change its approach to out-of-control meetings as long as the team leader has the authority to encourage people to raise issues, take risks, make mistakes and discover new ways of working together.

A conduit for change

Altering something as basic as meetings can have far-reaching implications. Meetings don’t have to be a trap; they can be a conduit for change. A process like this one can improve productivity, communication and integration of the team’s work, not to mention job satisfaction and work-life balance. In the end, better meetings — and better work lives — result.

A longer version of this article appeared in the July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review.


Portrait of Leslie A. Perlow

Leslie A. Perlow

Leslie A. Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and founder of the Better Work Institute.

Portrait of Constance Noonan Hadley

Constance Noonan Hadley

Constance Noonan Hadley is a lecturer in organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Portrait of Eunice Eun

Eunice Eun

Eunice Eun is a research associate at Harvard Business School.