Science-Backed Ways to Run Better Meetings

December 14, 2018 Sarah Mulcahy

Comic Skit

Nearly every spoof of corporate office culture has taken a dig at meetings (this skit about real life conference calls is one of my favorites). I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say meetings are the bane of our existence at work. You run from meeting to meeting only to be left with no time at the end of the day to get the work done that you talked in those meetings. Sound familiar?

WorkHuman 2019 speaker Dr. Steven Rogelberg thinks we can do better. And it doesn’t mean we get rid of meetings entirely. Steven is Chancellor’s Professor at UNC Charlotte, where he focuses on organizational science, management, and psychology. His new book, “The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance,” will be released early next year.

I recently spoke to Steven on WorkHuman Radio to learn his tips for running better meetings, all backed by science. We talked about why meetings are actually the center of “organizational democracy” and how to encourage the quieter voice to contribute more often.

Read the full interview below or listen to the audio embedded at the bottom of the post.


Globoforce: Can you share more about your new book and why you wrote it?

Steven: This book is a culmination of 15 years of research and thousands of surveys and interviews across the globe. It's a collection of evidence-based insights designed to move the dial on meetings, so it goes beyond the conventional wisdom of having an agenda. It represents a strategic approach that leaders and organizations can take that's highly practical and accessible, but also strongly based in science. The book is peppered with best practices from organizations like Google and Amazon that also align with this research.

After 15 years of research and working with so many organizations on meetings, I have a lot to share on this topic. People are looking for evidence, not just opinions. I wanted to help meet this need in a really meaningful way, with science. That's what led me to the book.

Globoforce: Would the world be a better place without meetings?

Steven: Meetings are often identified as the number one time-waster at work. But a world without meetings is much more problematic. Besides being essential to communication and coordination, meetings are where organizational democracy, individual voice, and overall feelings of inclusion come to life. Meetings, in many ways, represent an evolution in organizations since the early 20th century, when command and control systems dominated.

It's a recognition that people together can do great and innovative things. It's a recognition that a diversity of perspectives and ideas matter. It's a recognition that doing activities to engender employee buy-in and consensus is critical to motivation, perseverance, and resilience. If we didn't have meetings, all these tremendous benefits couldn't emerge. Eliminating meetings is a false goal. Eliminating bad meetings, though, is the goal.

Globoforce: You write that the one thing people like less than meetings is not being invited to meetings. Could you tell me a little more about that?

Steven: Not being asked to attend a meeting can cause even more anxiety as it can trigger feelings of exclusion and marginalization. This creates quite a dilemma, especially because as meetings increase in size, they get worse. Too many attendees can reduce effectiveness because there are too many voices, logistical challenges, and even something called social loafing. This is a fascinating concept that when we're in the presence of a lot of individuals, we start to sink into the background and not fully engage or contribute.

We need lean meetings; we don't want spectators. But at the same time, we don’t want to create feelings of exclusion. And we can do that. We can find the right balance and determine which people should attend.

The first step is returning to the meeting goals and really think about who has to be there. Consider inviting people for part of the meeting. If you have a good agenda, there's no reason you can't assign time to various items so that people can time their entry and exit and be there for only when it's relevant for them. Another technique is to assign someone a role of representing a set of stakeholders.

Another approach is to consider the idea of core members versus secondary members. For secondary members, it's best to explain that you're having the meeting, but that most of the topics aren't directly tied to that individual. Give them an opportunity for input and tell them you will provide the meeting minutes when it's done. If people are given pre-meeting voice, they generally are more than delighted not to attend the meeting. Anytime an unneeded member is not there, you're saving money, time, and reducing frustration.

Globoforce: How can meeting organizers make people feel more included?

Steven: One technique is to assign agenda owners to particular topics. These could be people who tend to be shy, but are experts around a topic. Sometimes leaders think they have to be the one owning each agenda item. This is a wonderful technique to bring others in.

Another option is if you have individuals who tend to be more reserved, you can speak to them before the meeting, and say, "Hey, I really would like your contributions on this." Then they're much more likely to provide it.

A third technique, if you're looking to brainstorm, is to get people into dyads. Let people engage in this thought creation task with a partner. When you're working with a partner, you have to talk. And then if you're a shy person, what typically happens when people are reporting out is that the less shy person will become an advocate for these ideas. Dyadic work can be a lot of fun and provide lots of additional content.

Another technique for remote employees is collecting ideas from individuals prior to a meeting through Google Docs or Qualtrics, and then sharing those ideas out.

There's also some great technology that puts options up on a screen and people can anonymously vote using their phone. It's a nice way of testing whether you actually have consensus.

We all know about assigning people a devil's advocate role. You can assign people other roles, too. I've seen the role of a customer, for example. This is another way of getting people engaged and energized.

The final thing I'll mention is to leverage silence. Tell people to write down their ideas. People actually generate almost twice as many ideas in that setting than they do by verbalizing as a team.

Globoforce: Do you have advice for setting a positive tone at the beginning of a meeting?

Steven: Leaders need to recognize that meetings are often experienced as interruptions. People are coming into meetings not in the best frame of mind and leaders need to internalize that they are actually a host. As a host, you should actively greet individuals as they come in to help them feel welcome, appreciated, and needed. Say, for example, "Hey, Gordon, do you know Jane?" Help folks make those connections.

I've even seen meeting leaders play music when people came into the conference room. And then right when the meeting starts, they turned the music off. Starting the meeting with passion, enthusiasm, voice, and direction, making it clear why people are there, all helps people get into the right mindset. And when in doubt, one of the best predictors of meeting satisfaction that we have found across the globe are snacks.

Surprising people every once in a while with a little snack is a great way of getting people into a better mindset and more positive mood. Research also shows that when people are in a more positive mood, they're more open-minded, more receptive to feedback, more creative, and more engaged.

Globoforce: Do you have any final evidence-based tips for making meetings really work?

Steven: We know from the research that preparatory mindset is a key predictor of athletic performance, educational success, and even a leader's effectiveness. Leaders need to fully embrace that they are a facilitator of an experience and a steward of others' time.

Preparing for a meeting might just take five minutes. But it's often the case that people don't even spend that five minutes to really think about the meeting experience.

A second thing is thinking carefully about meeting time. Parkinson's Law is the idea that that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. If you schedule an hour for something, it takes an hour. We can use this to our advantage and back off meeting time.

Finally, be aware of your own blind spots. In multiple studies, we have found leaders consistently rated meetings more favorably than non-leaders. So a leader's experience of the meeting is fundamentally different than the experiences of the other attendees.

If you look at engagement surveys, you don't see content around meetings. This is something I've been working with organizations on. Gather that feedback. You will learn things that will make you a better steward of others' time. And at the very least, be aware of signals of bad meetings – attendees on their phones or allowing you to do all the talking, for example.

Globoforce: What does a more human workplace mean to you?

Steven: Ultimately, people are the driving and sustaining engine for organizational success. A new product or service can bring a quick win, but long-term viability depends on continued innovation and excellent execution. And the human capital of any organization is key to sustain success. They must be nurtured, developed, treated well, honored, and managed effectively at all levels of the organization. People truly matter.

Don’t forget to register for WorkHuman 2019, March 18-21, where Steven will talk about how the science of meetings impacts organizational success and talent management.

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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