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Meetings are horrible and we all hate them. Or do we?

Jan 24, 2011 Business Daily, Management

“Is too much of your time spent in unnecessary or ineffective meetings? If so, you’re not alone. Most managers consider meeting fatigue and meeting failures as two of the most significant drains on their productivity. As a result, an entire industry has sprung up over the past twenty years focusing on “meeting management.” Every company has courses on how to run good meetings, and in case you miss the training there are posters, laminated cards, and checklists for preparation, conduct, and follow-up.
As a result of this saturation of meeting education, almost every manager knows the basic rules: Be clear about what you want to accomplish; invite the right people; send out pre-reading in advance; have an agenda and follow it with discipline; send out notes with key decisions and action steps. You know the drill.”

RON ASHKENAS, blogs.hbr.org (5 October 2010)

As Ron Ashkenas points out in the excerpt, we all know the drill. Meetings are horrible, we all hate them, and would do anything to be rid of (most of) them. Or would we?

In an insightful blog post, Ashkenas pointed out recently that we may be flirting a little with the truth when we all preach our disdain for meetings. He points us to “one of the dirty little secrets of organizational life: Despite their protestations, at an unconscious (or conscious) level most managers actually like meetings…”

There are many reasons we might think of meetings as good or necessary, despite our protestations. The first is that human beings just like social interaction, period. A meeting is a chance to make face-to-face encounters with people who matter to our own wellbeing, and it’s no surprise that we grab those opportunities. Meetings are an important social outlet that allows people to feel part of a community.

A second is that it is only really through meetings that we feel we are “in the loop.” In organizational life, being “in on things” really matters to people. Meetings allow people to feel they know what’s going on in other parts of the organization, and in this sense they are empowering. This explains why so many managers, though they claim to hate meetings, also hate to miss them!

The third reason is probably the most important: meetings bestow status. Is this not true? We know full well that meetings are not just for everyone; only those who matter are invited to them. So your presence in a meeting communicates something to others: the importance of your presence, your information and your opinion. This is why so many managers arrive at meetings with a bit of a swagger, and later are so keen to whisper what may or may not have transpired to those not on the invitation list. It also explains the envy felt by those not asked to be present – much as they might proclaim meetings to be a monumental waste of time.

When in doubt, study the psychology. That is one of my steady rules of organizational life. Companies are driven more by unspoken emotions than they are by logical strategies and goals.

What to do about meetings, then? Ashkenas advises: “…just complaining about too many meetings or poorly run meetings won’t do much good. Like moths to a flame, we’ll keep coming back, no matter what we say.” A better approach is to accept the psychological need for meetings and the unspoken social need they fulfil, and THEN work to manage them better. Simply belittling meetings does not work; we have to work with them, not without. Electronic communication and virtual meetings can indeed represent an alternative, and should be thrown into the pot. But they will never replace the very human need to look for facial signals and body language, and to be part of an exclusive community.

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