Why We Hate Meetings and How to Make Them Better

Work meetings are universally loathed, but none more so than the dreaded faculty meeting. When I was a PhD student at Cambridge, I heard rumors that the markings on the walls were from repair work following the odd angry fist that that broke through the plaster during a heating meeting. I very much doubt that many university meetings these days turn physically violent, but the mixture of passive aggressive behavior, emotional exhaustion, and time-wasting can make you feel as if you’ve been hit across the face with a 2X4.

Obviously, meetings are inevitable to the smooth functioning of an organization because they help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working collaboratively towards the same goal(s). But there are effective meetings and ineffective meetings, with the latter, unfortunately, being far more prevalent than the former, and matters are only getting worse in the age of the ubiquitous online meeting.

It would be an oversimplification to say that ineffective meetings are ineffective because they lack an agenda. Plenty of meetings have an agenda, but add little to no value to the participants and the organization. Much more important than an agenda is a chair who can keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been in meetings that had icebreaker activities that lasted an hour. That’s right, a full hour. Yes, it’s important for people to introduce themselves to each other, but, as the current U.S. President says, “Come on, man!” We’re all busy and we don’t need to spend an hour to tell everyone there our name, our role, and about our most embarrassing moment in high school, or whatever quirky topic the organizer demands.

I’ve also been in meetings whose purpose is to help “tech” people understand the needs of “users.” These meetings are often underpinned by “design thinking” principles that really make the “user” do all of the hard work for the techies. But instead of holding a two hour “interactive workshop,” they could have got the same information by asking us to complete a 10 minute survey.

The most soul-destroying meetings, though, are ones in which everyone shows up unprepared and the conversation circles around the room aimlessly. Presenters always say that they’re going to take the attached documents “as read,” but my gut tells me that only a minority actually reads them in advance. The result is that people are just throwing out uninformed ideas that do not directly tackle the issue at hand.

“The most soul-destroying meetings, though, are ones in which everyone shows up unprepared and the conversation circles around the room aimlessly.”

So what is to be done? How can we make meetings work for us?

There are a few basic principles that should be followed. First, more meetings aren’t always better. There is a “sweet spot” that is defined by the fewest meetings humanly possible without compromising communication. Second, shorter meetings are typically better than longer meetings. For some reason, our default meetings last 30 minutes to an hour, but these numbers are pretty random. If we see 30 minutes in our calendar, we enter the meeting with a pre-programed expectation that we should talk for 30 minutes, even if we can easily dispense with the issue at hand in, say, 14 minutes. This amounts to 16 minutes of wasted time for everyone involved. Third, the chair should give participants a speaking time limit, say, three minutes, that can only be extended at the discretion of the chair. When we assign students word limits on essays, that forces them to learn to express themselves parsimoniously. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standards?

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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