The Agony of Meetings; a Guide to an Off-Ramp from the McMadness


"Why Aren't You All Talking?"

The information...was finally delivered to us as...Nutraloaf—nauseating and minimally nutritious.

We all know the agony of sitting in a meeting that would seem to have no relevance to our existence when we could be getting "real work" done. Bad meetings are a universal experience for people who work in the rarified air of…pretty much anywhere these days. To help cope with meeting fatigue, we have started to use euphemisms to avoid arousing the anxieties of those compelled to attend. Phrases such as “pow-wow,” “huddle,” “stand-up,” (where everyone curiously sits down), and the suspiciously ordinary sounding “get-together” are all making the rounds in business jargon. How often do we cringe at the thought of daily, weekly, or monthly confabs that become fixtures in our work lives? But if we are excluded, then we become apprehensive. "Why was I left out?"

I recall when I was on a "team" (we were indeed a working group) of about 30 people who met weekly. Every Thursday at 1:30 p.m., we shuffled into a spartan room where we would…huddle. The most important verbal exchanges among colleagues took place while we were waiting for the meeting to start! Then, with a solemn tone, the boss would call the meeting to order and begin to trickle on us the information from the top brass that had windingly made its way down to us through many levels of Zelda, each level with its own unique spin on it, until it was finally delivered to us as information Nutraloaf—nauseating and minimally nutritious. After the boss spoke, she asked people to share what they were working on in the hopes of jolting some life into the otherwise inanimate event. After several months of this charade, she finally snapped at us, "Why aren't you all talking?" She had had enough of these faux meetings that were, indeed, a waste of time. I left that organization before I had the chance to see whether the boss ever eventually righted the ship.

Mindset of Form over Function–McDonald's over Homecooked

If we eat McDonald’s for every meal every day, we might become fat, but we could also become undernourished.

Very unfortunately, in my opinion, in the U.S. (and very probably in many other places across the globe), we have come to have a dim view of meetings; they are a necessary evil of work life. Meetings are regarded as money-sucks, so much so that the prized ponies of the corporate world, such as Google Venture Capital, seek to keep meetings short by using large alarm clocks. And then, of course, there's the military approach to keeping meetings short and tidy by making people stand. And lest we forget Steve Job's famous disdain for meetings by ordering people to leave them while the meeting was still going on. Ultimately, all of these techniques to deal with meetings are only serving to exacerbate the problem by reinforcing the narrative that meetings must needs be efficient. The underlying assumption here is that, while meetings are necessary, they gobble up valuable time and must be kept in check lest they drain the bank. And it is true that meetings often mercilessly consume the days of even the middlest of managers.

So what is wrong with this picture? Corporate agents have a fundamentally flawed view of meetings—they arrange to meet over things that do not require meetings, and they do not meet (even though they may be in a "meeting") when they should be meeting! First, the basics. The dissemination of information does not a meeting make. Nor does the dissemination of information always require a meeting. I recall once a big boss getting an important piece of information in her email. We were all working in an open space with about 60 people spread across probably 6,000 sq. feet. She could have called a meeting to pass along this information. Instead, she stood up on her chair, asked for everyone's attention in a loud but professional voice, and passed on the information. People who had questions could come to her personally. There. Meeting done. Ten seconds. Beat that, Jobs.

The other reason to meet—and perhaps the most important reason for meetings—is to engage in dialogue. For the uninitiated, a monologue does not a dialogue make. Dialogue is also about more than just exchanging information. Dialogue is about developing relationships and deepening understanding. While there may be practical limitations on how long people can spend meeting together to develop relationships and deepen understanding, a mental paradigm of efficiency is not going to support the outcomes of meaningful relationships built and deepened understanding.

So how can we cope in such a world where time is money and efficiency is God? How, if good time must be spent (See? Time as money…) to engage in meaningful dialogue, can we possibly come up with all that time? Perhaps an analogy will help. If we eat McDonald's for every meal every day, we might become fat, but we could also become undernourished. While I do not want to deprive anyone the pleasure of an occasional Jim Gaffigan "bonus fry," if we are having frequent meals that lack nutritional content, we are going to be undernourished and left resentfully craving. Our brain is signaling to us that we need more vitamins and minerals, and we respond by ordering up a McFlurry of meetings for ourselves and everyone else. On some level, our brain and body know that we need human connection and understanding to move the cogs of the corporate machine. But because we deprive our brain and body of the nutrition they need, we keep having McMeetings! I submit that if we dine on meetings rich in nutrition, we will find we automatically need fewer of them, and will have time enough when we do meet to chew slowly, savor the flavor, and be nourished.

The Off-Ramp: Dialogue, Understanding, and Collective Knowledge

Listening to understand requires that we suspend our base evolutionary desire to win. Listening to understand is motivated by a priority for the greater and common good of the group over a personal agenda.

So what does a healthy meeting look like? How, as my one-time boss asked, do we get people to talk? The first thing to do is to ensure the right people are in the room (warning: "right people in the room" is now common management jargon and can be used without careful thought to include or exclude people). The litmus test for this is not whether someone's feelings will be hurt if s/he is excluded. No one likes to feel excluded. Pain from exclusion manifests physically. Nevertheless, the test is whether someone has a stake in the meeting because s/he has expertise to offer or because s/he is in a position to make or contribute to decisions that are the topic(s) of the meeting. Inviting people just so they can be "in the loop" is a recipe for too much stuffing in the dumping. Interestingly, this mindset about who should be in the room for a particular meeting could imply inclusion over exclusion; it could mean not having the same (or adding to) the usual suspects in the room by bringing in actors who are usually in the wings. This type of radical inclusion creates the opportunity for radical discovery by breaking the mold of mindsets that become calcified when the same players are always center stage. Yes, there are indeed people who neither have expertise to offer nor are in a position to make or contribute to decisions but who should nonetheless be in the loop. And those people can be caught up with a brief in-person update or a short email.

Now, once the right people are in the room, how should the meeting proceed? Well, a meeting is almost always going to have a de facto or de jure alpha player in the room, either because s/he called the meeting or because s/he is the biggest boss. It is incumbent upon this person to create psychological safety in the meeting so that participants feel free to open up. “Psychological safety? In my day, we walked to meetings uphill both ways…in the snow!” Yes, psychological safety is a bit of a jargon that the "touchy-feely" among us like to use. But what creating psychological safety is really about is demonstrating interest through genuine, curious questions without pulling rank while the dialogue is unfolding; this creates trust, which acts as a lubricate for communication. It is like priming a pump with water–in order to get water out of a pump, you must prime it with water first.

There will eventually come a time to put your rank back on, and the burden of the consequences associated with that rank. This is true even when decisions are "collectively made." There must always be a fall guy, no matter how many people contributed to the "this or that" decision. However, as a de facto or de jure alpha in a meeting, you must take the first step to show people that they can share their thoughts and feelings without the risk of reprisal. Also, equally important, both for alphas and participants, is to listen, listen, listen, and remain curious for the purpose of understanding. If someone says something that shocks you to your core (e.g., "I voted for Trump."), stop, clarify you understand, and ask additional questions to peel back the layers so you can get as close as possible to the core of someone's soul.

Listening to understand requires that we suspend our base evolutionary desire to win. Listening to understand is motivated by a priority for the greater and common good of the group over a personal agenda. I am not suggesting that personal liberty be sacrificed on the altar on an unrealistic corporate utopia. Rather I am offering that where dialogue is concerned, verbal mortal combat in the form of coercion for the sake of self-serving personal ambitions does not advance greater personal and collective understanding, thus stymieing the development of knowledge that transcends the individual. Understanding that transcends the individual should not be confused with groupthink. The latter is when people put on cognitive blinders and conform to a prescribed ideology without critical thought. The former is quite the opposite; it is removing cognitive bias through self-awareness in the service of discovery. Groupthink suppresses critical thinking, curiosity, and inquiry in favor of conformity. Dialogue for the sake of the greater good unleashes the wisdom of the group in a way that debate, dialectic, and unilateral information-vomiting cannot.

Dialogue is free of judgment and is based on a desire to learn and understand. A dialectic or debate is a place for judgment and point-counterpoint. Sometimes dialectics are useful in meetings, too; nevertheless, the stage must be set for those, as well. Moreover, beware the verbal sparring grounds as many people experience a lot of anxiety around debate, so it is often not the most useful form of communication for meetings. Yes, conflict will occur even during dialogue. That is okay. Conflict can simply be honest disagreement. Conflict is inevitable because there are about 7.6 billion ways of looking at the world, so do not fear conflict, but also do not indulge it by encouraging an environment of verbal MMA.

Paying the Price

Perhaps the cost of having meaningful meetings seems too high. What will be lost if we have fewer meetings? What will be lost if we meet for longer than (gasp) 30 minutes? What will happen if someone's feelings are hurt because they were excluded? What will happen if we remove our rank and allow people to speak freely? What could occur if we include new people? Yes, those are legitimate costs to calculate. And what if we decide not to pay the price? As one of the world's leading thought leaders on organizational development, Dr. Gary Mangiofico (a person under whom I have had the great honor and pleasure of studying), likes to say with a shrug of the shoulders, "Okay." If you choose not to pay the toll to the off-ramp from McMeetings, that is okay. But what if you do not want McMeetings? Okay. Then pay the price. My hunch is a year's worth of McDonald's is going to cost a lot more than the homemade meals of dialogue that are the foundation of healthy meetings.