The Surprising Science of Meetings - Deepstash
The Surprising Science of Meetings


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The Surprising Science of Meetings

by Steven G. Rogelberg

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Meetings Are Inevitable Even If We Don't Like Them

Many managers regard inefficient, unproductive or boring meetings as an unavoidable business flaw.

Acknowledge that meetings can cause a lot of frustration, and assess your meetings to seek improvements.

Rather than getting rid of meetings, solve your problems with them by applying science.

Critically evaluate your meeting facilitation skills: Are they as good as you think they are?

Carefully craft meeting agendas. Make participants “directly responsible” owners of their agenda items.


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Scientific Meetings: Key Takeaways

  • Holding a meeting for 48 minutes will catch your colleagues’ attention.
  • Invite fewer participants to reduce “social loafing”; encourage input before and after from “secondary stakeholders.”
  • Walking and standing meetings add variety to your meeting culture and ensure that people “don’t get too comfortable in that chair.”
  • “Deflate negative energy from the start” and create technology-free meeting zones.
  • Encourage silence to bring out every team member’s input.
  • Pay special attention to audio-only telephone conferences.


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Seek To Improve Meetings

Everyone needs to meet for team discussions, inter-department alignment and group decision-making. But everyone needs to meet effectively. Meetings can cause frustration, especially when they waste time and energy due to a bad meeting culture.

Bad meetings should never be accepted as an organizational norm.


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The Opportunity Costs Of A Meeting

While you’re stuck with your colleagues in a meeting, you all could be spending time doing real work. When your company manages meetings effectively, meetings add to productivity and organizational cohesion. And when it doesn’t, they add to the cost. In 2014, meetings cost the United States economy about $1.4 trillion – roughly 8% of the nation’s GDP that year.


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Don't Reject Meetings, Just Be Smart

Employees have no lack of cynicism when it comes to meetings. Yet getting rid of all meetings is not feasible. Without meetings, you would lose contact with your colleagues, disconnect from other departments and become single-minded about difficult problems. Rather than eliminating meetings, improve them.


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Evaluate Your Meeting Facilitating Skills

Rather than overestimating your skills, accept that you might have room for improvement, and strategically seek out opportunities to improve. You can, for example, gain input by asking meeting participants for feedback. If you feel that approaching them in person would bias the results, consider sending around a short, anonymous survey. Collecting data and being open to that information will increase your awareness of issues, which is the first step to improvement. 


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Meeting Effectiveness: The Signals

Look for the following signals when assessing your meeting effectiveness:

  • Are participants on their phones or other devices, attempting to multitask?
  • Are a few participants talking all the time, while others aren’t speaking at all?
  • Are you, as the leader, dominating the meeting?


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What differentiates successful meeting leaders from unsuccessful ones is the willingness to pick the right tool for the job at hand.


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Servant Leadership

Adopt a “servant leadership” mindset and buy into an idea by Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, that you should be a “giver” who actively assists others and disseminates knowledge without expecting anything in return. Companies with strong servant leadership and giving cultures perform better across all business indicators.


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Collect meeting feedback through different instruments, including your annual employee engagement survey. You could also make meetings part of any 360-degree feedback instrument that applies to leaders in your company. 


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Make The Meeting An Odd Number OF Minutes

A meeting will fill in the time you allot it. When you schedule a meeting for 60 minutes, it will most likely take 60 minutes. Your tasks as a meeting leader include making a conscious choice about the meeting length. Consider your objectives, agenda items and the number of participants to determine the best length for a meeting. Once you have an accurate estimate, reduce that estimate by 5% to 10% to add the extra time pressure that makes meetings more effective. Going forward, hold meetings that last 25 minutes instead of 30 minutes, or 50 minutes instead of 60.


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Craft The Meeting Agendas

Research shows that merely having an agenda doesn’t yield more effective meetings. Instead, be intentional in the process of creating a meeting agenda, including customizing it to meet team needs and approaching team members to ask them to add their agenda items in advance. The rule of thumb is to prepare for an internal meeting as carefully as you would prepare for an external client meeting.


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Prioritizing The Discussion Points

Place important discussion items near the top of your agenda. The same holds true for items that participants have generated. Even if you convene the meeting, you don’t have to own every item. Increase accountability by assigning agenda items to participant-owners up front. Present the most salient and demanding items early. 

 These topics usually will require a more intensive exchange and alignment time. It’s most functional if you kick them off no later than 10% to 15% into the meeting time.


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Invite Fewer Participants

Research shows that seven participants per meeting hits the sweet spot.

With more participants, decision-making effectiveness decreases by roughly 10% per additional participant above seven. Reasons for this decrease include logistics, coordination and social issues.

How do you keep the number of participants low, while not offending colleagues by not inviting them? To strike this balance, revisit your meeting goals and determine who among your potential participants is absolutely indispensable to achieving those goals.


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Don't Let People Get Too Comfortable

Change the seating arrangement – Actively ask participants to sit in a different seat, change the table set-up or switch to another venue.

Conduct a “walking meeting” – Take the meeting agenda and your participants outdoors or on a circular walk through your building.

Hold your meeting standing – Participants in “standing meetings” gain health benefits and appreciate the efficiency of this shorter meeting format (15 to 20 minutes maximum).


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Avoid The Negative: Mood Travel Quickly

Meetings enlivened with humour and laughter lead to more supportive team members, more constructive group dynamics and higher team performance. Negative comments lead to “mood contagion” that lowers performance. Paying attention to the emotions in your meetings is part of successful meeting leadership.

Greet participants, offer refreshments or snacks, and play an upbeat song as they enter the room. Discourage multitasking. Some companies also create “technology-free zones,” banning personal laptops, phones and smart devices from meetings. 


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Idea Generating Technique

“Brainwriting” – Ask meeting participants to be silent and jot down their ideas before sharing them with others. Your objective is to generate unique ideas and avoid “groupthink.”

“Silent reading” – Assign 10 to 30 minutes of silent reading for a new proposal and conceptual piece rather than having a person present the idea.

This ensures participants evaluate a proposal on its merits and not on the eloquence of the presenter. 


362 reads

Audio Conference Calls

Because audio-only meetings are tricky to lead, pay special attention to your format. The absence of social controls tempts participants to perform other tasks or embrace distractions while on the call – reducing meeting efficiency immensely.

To counteract those shortcomings, ban the mute button at audio-only meetings and increase engagement by actively addressing participants by their names.


357 reads


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Don't be a boss, be a leader.


Many managers regard inefficient, unproductive or boring meetings as an unavoidable business flaw. The author challenges this assumption with ideas on how to stop wasting time and energy by facilitating better meetings.