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Can science fix bad meetings?

Editor's note: So much great business advice, so little time to read. That's why each month we’re reading a business book or bestseller so that you don’t have to. We'll give you the gist, you'll take away a few key points and, if inspired, you can rush to your local bookseller.

"Well, that's an hour of my life that I'll never get back."

For generations, that statement of resignation and despair—or some variation of it—has been uttered or thought by millions of workers afflicted by that bane of the workplace: the terrible meeting. While energy vampires might feast on banal, wasteful meetings, it’s a fair bet that most employees would love to drive a stake into the heart of every aimless conference call.

At first blush, the answer seems obvious: axe the meetings and get on with the work. Not so fast, argues author Steven G. Rogelberg in his new book The Surprising Science of Meetings. “It’s clear that the elimination of meetings is a false solution,” writes Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management, and psychology at the University of Charlotte, North Carolina. “Instead, we must work to make meetings better. The meeting problem can indeed be ‘solved’ through the application of meeting science,

If it seems surprising that there’s a robust field of science that studies meetings, then consider this: some estimates peg bad meetings as wasting upwards of $399 billion per year in the United States alone, and that’s not even factoring the psychological effects on employees. With that much at stake, you’d think that humanity would have mastered the art by now.

Fix the humans, fix the meetings

A huge part of the problem, Rogelberg says, is that we’ve been looking at meetings the wrong way: it’s not that they’re inherently bad, it’s just that we’re bad at them. Wielding data from hundreds of studies—including ones he conducted himself—Rogelberg systematically dismantles our ideas about how good we are at meetings, pointing to bias in self-assessments (and in the case of the seriously incompetent, there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect). This might be the biggest hurdle that Rogelberg identifies: to fix badly broken meetings, first we have to fix ourselves.

Some estimates peg bad meetings as wasting upwards of $399 billion per year in the United States alone, and that's not even factoring the psychological effects on employees.

The first step is to recognize that meetings, like any action taken in business, costs money—and as Rogelberg points out, large meetings can approach the cost of hosting a wedding, and those events certainly inspire hyper-detailed planning. Rogelberg’s incredulity at this state of affairs—leaders who fail by recycling agendas, not preparing well, and mismanaging time—is palpable. When Rogelberg describes this as “time theft,” he turns to the words of the late Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel: “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment worth $2,000, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.”

[Read also: How not to be an asshole in a meeting]

Maximize your meeting time

To combat this theft, Rogelberg wades deep into the weeds, offering step-by-step instructions and tools for making the most out of meetings, with an emphasis on breaking up routines. He advocates for re-evaluating everything: agendas, meeting lengths, seating arrangements, and even building in deliberate periods of silence during sessions so attendees can review materials together and brainstorm.

How to get rid of negative energy

Although leaders can do much to improve meetings by focusing on the nuts and bolts—meeting length, format, and so on—failing to recognize how people feel about being in a meeting can undermine all of that work. Rogelberg, however, points to studies that show that consciously injecting positivity into the opening moments of a meeting can have lasting effects that both increase communication and buoy employee moods. Here are a few suggestions from Rogelberg about how to start things off on the right foot:

  • Create a separation between what attendees were doing before the meeting and the meeting itself. Whether that’s taking the time to personally greet every attendee or playing music as they enter, a leader can effectively “cleanse the palate” so employees can mentally reset and get into a positive mood. It also helps if your snack game is strong.
  • Once and for all, no one is good at multitasking. Seriously, stop answering emails during meetings. And put that cell phone away.
  • Quizzes, pairing up, and stretching time. Including interactive quizzes about agenda items, asking employees to pair up for discussions, and even taking breaks to stretch can keep meeting attendees

Although leaders can do much to improve meetings by focusing on the nuts and bolts—meeting length, format, and so on—failing to recognize how people feel about being in a meeting can undermine all of that work.

The fact that he is able to pack so many helpful tips in a mere 180 pages shouldn’t be surprising, given his laser-like focus on meeting efficiency. That said, while Rogelberg talks at length about spicing up meetings to create a real sense of engagement and enthusiasm, his writing style can feel a bit wooden, a factor complicated by the dry subject matter. But there’s a payout here that cannot be ignored: by taking a thoughtful, science-based approach to revitalizing meetings, leaders stand to reclaim valuable time, build morale, and drive organizational excellence. With The Surprising Science of Meetings, Rogelberg has provided a blueprint for doing just that.