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How To Improve Meetings, According To Science

Make your next meeting a little less painful with research-based tips from a new book.
Make your next business meeting successful with tips based on research.
Make your next business meeting successful with tips based on research.

Pointless, exhausting meetings are the bane of most employees’ existence. With an estimated 55 million work meetings in the U.S. per day, you are bound to experience a bad one that makes you look at the clock and pray to be put out of your misery. Forty-seven percent of workers surveyed by Salary.com in 2012 reported that “too many meetings” was their top time-waster at work.

But it does not have to be this way, a new book argues. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G. Rogelberg, a meetings science researcher with two decades of experience, draws from studies, corporate surveys and success stories to share how you can make meetings actually useful.

1. Gain self-awareness that you may be the problem

Realize that even if you loved a meeting, not everybody else did. Citing his research that links meeting satisfaction with participation, Rogelberg says meeting leaders typically have an overly positive experience compared with attendees because they are the ones talking the most.

“If you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one,” he explains in the book.

To break out of this bias, you need to look beyond your assumptions and directly ask attendees what they think of meeting structures, Rogelberg recommends to HuffPost.

“Don’t assume a meeting is working. Conduct a three-minute survey with folks who regularly attend your meetings about what’s going well, what’s not so good, and what can I do better,” he says.

You also need to scan attendees’ behavior for clues on what they are not telling you out loud. “If there’s one person in that room who is completely dominating other than you, you’re probably not running a good meeting,” he says.

2. Question whether you actually need to meet

No one enjoys going to an hourlong meeting that could have been an email. It wastes everyone’s time, and time is a scarce resource. A Bain & Co. study found that a weekly meeting with midlevel managers was costing one company about $15 million a year.

To prevent this, carefully consider why you are holding a meeting. “One of the things that I advocate is that a leader can think about their agenda not necessarily as topics, but as questions to be answered,” Rogelberg says. If your meeting is mainly for distributing information, leverage other communication tools, Rogelberg suggests.

Meetings are good for when you are seeking information, like asking questions and needing reactions, he says.

2. Do not default to the 60-minute meeting

Challenge the convention of an hourlong meeting. In his book, Rogelberg notes that when calendar software programs like Microsoft Outlook were introduced, 60 minutes was the default setting.

But cutting down the time can actually increase performance because we work best under some pressure, according to the psychological principle called the Yerkes–Dodson law. If you know the meeting typically takes an hour, try dialing that back and see if it still works. You want to save employees’ valuable time whenever possible.

3. Make sure remote employees do not feel anonymous

Technology advances mean that you can hold a meeting even when you are continents away from other attendees. But that comes with its own set of problems.

Rogelberg recommends remote employees be on video if at all possible, as opposed to voice. “We want people to realize they’re not anonymous,” he says.

When people feel like they can blend into the background, they can fall subject to the social loafing phenomenon, “a human tendency to reduce effort and motivation when working in a collective,” as Rogelberg describes it in the book.

To make remote employees feel as included as in-person attendees, meeting leaders need to ask people to identify themselves before speaking, so that contributions are named, Rogelberg says. They can also bring up contributions that come through messages on services like Slack.

“The meeting leader has to fully embrace their role as an air traffic controller,” he says.

4. Keep the meeting size small

Cut down bloated meeting attendance by considering who actually needs to be at the meeting and who needs to be kept in the loop. The actual numbers vary. Rogelberg notes that Google recommends no more than 10 people be present. Amazon has a “two-pizza rule” for keeping meetings below the number of people two pizzas can feed.

“There’s not a magic number per se, because it depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” Rogelberg says. “Once meetings start getting larger than eight people, the facilitation skills necessary is really high. And most people don’t have those skills.”

Keep those who don’t attend in the loop by providing meeting minutes of what was decided, Rogelberg says.

5. Brainstorm apart or in silence

For your next planning meeting, try using silence to your advantage and have people silently write down their ideas before sharing them. Other meta-analyses have found that virtual brainstorming can increase creativity compared to face-to-face brainstorming. When you are writing your idea down, you may be able to speak more freely without the structure of waiting for one person to finish talking or without the fear that your unpopular idea is not as good as someone else’s.

“When people brainstorm verbally, only so many people can speak at once,” Rogelberg says.

6. Know when to call it quits

Don’t feel like you have to finish a meeting that has derailed to its bitter conclusion. “It’s OK to end the meeting if it’s completely dysfunctional,” Rogelberg says. “Frankly it’s OK if that leader says, ‘You know what, why don’t we stop here. We’ve been able to cover this, this, and this.’”

Accept your losses so you can move on and plan more effectively for the next one.

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