From The New York Times
Another Meeting? Say It Isn’t So
By PHYLLIS KORKKI
Published: July 20, 2008
Q. You’re expected to attend many meetings at your company, and most of them are a big waste of time. The same people hog the floor with pointless, redundant comments, while others say nothing. The discussion inevitably goes off topic, and you start to feel trapped. It’s excruciating. Can anything be done?
A. Yes, if the meeting leaders make a commitment to set ground rules and take an active role in guiding the discussion. But before a meeting is even scheduled, it’s important to know whether it should be held at all.
In general, companies probably hold about twice as many meetings as are necessary, said John E. Tropman, a professor of nonprofit management at the University of Michigan who has done research on meetings. Less is better than more, because of “the ineptitude of this social form,” he said.
Too often, managers hold meetings in the vague, wishful hope that something will happen; they may even use them as a way to avoid work, he said. A result is a meeting that yields no decisions — which, in turn, leads to yet another useless meeting.
Q. How can a manager tell if a meeting is necessary?
A. Hold a meeting “when you have a task that requires group effort,” said Steve Kaye, president of One Great Meeting in Placentia, Calif. Make sure you can write out specific goals or outcomes for your meeting — for example, “Find ways to reduce the budget by 5 percent,” he said.
Q. Once you’ve decided that a meeting is necessary, how can you make sure it is successful?
Two main ingredients are needed, Mr. Kaye said. First, the leader needs to cultivate “a safe environment, so that people feel creative and candid enough to express useful ideas.” Second, there must be methodical progress that leads to results.
Set an agenda with time limits (for example, 2:10 to 2:15 ) for each item, and make sure to follow it, Professor Tropman said.
He developed a concept known as the “agenda bell,” a curve that reflects the idea that energy is lower at the beginning of the meeting, rises at the center and declines at the end. The best meetings, he has found, tend to have announcements at the beginning, followed by action items that lead to decisions.
But even though decisions are the goal, they can disrupt group cohesion because they tend to produce winners and losers. That’s why the end of the meeting should be spent brainstorming for the future, as a way to repair any rifts that have developed in the group, he said.
Q. One or two blatherers always end up monopolizing the discussion at meetings, and running everything off the rails. How do you get them to stop?
A. Monopolizers need to be reined in because they rarely have the self-awareness to stop talking themselves, said Glenn Parker, a team-building consultant in Skillman, N.J., and co-author of “Meeting Excellence.”
It’s O.K. to interrupt a monopolizer, Mr. Parker said. But be polite about it, perhaps by validating what the person has said. You might say something like this: “I think you’re making a good point. Let’s see how the rest of the team feels about that.”
Then turn away from the talker, preferably to another part of the room, and ask someone else his or her opinion on the topic.
Similarly, he said, if a monopolizer or anyone else goes off on a tangent, you can say something like: “I may be wrong here, but I thought we were supposed to be dealing with customer complaints. If you all agree, let’s get back to the agenda.”
Q. Then there are people who never say anything. Why don’t they participate?
“The tendency of people to withhold work-relevant information is probably greater than you think,” said Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School.
People stay silent to avoid conflict and to protect their careers, she said. They fear the consequences if someone with more power — like a manager leading a meeting — hates their ideas. Nonparticipants overestimate the risk and underestimate the reward of expressing themselves, she said.
Q. What can a person do to make sure everyone participates?
The meeting leader must communicate a sense of “psychological safety,” Professor Edmondson said. At the same time, there are ways to lower the psychological cost of speaking up and to raise the cost of silence.
Asking questions can be a way to accomplish that — and it is not done often enough, she said. Research has shown that in corporate meetings, “a very low number of utterances are questions — people are mostly telling and not asking.”
Doing something as simple as turning to a nonparticipant and saying, “What’s on your mind?” can help redress the communication imbalance, she said.
Q. How can you tell if a meeting has been effective?
A. For one thing, it ends on time or even early, Mr. Parker said. (Anything longer than an hour tends to test human endurance.)
More important, “a problem gets solved, a decision gets made, a plan gets developed, a query gets answered,” he said. And people leave the meeting thinking, “We made good use of our time.”