The science of meetings: the experts find most of them tyrannise our offices and are woefully unproductive

The Cabinet will meet today without Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.  She has arrived in New York to join other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly – and to meet with some of them.

A meeting with Donald Trump will be among the highlights.  Trade is likely to be top of the agenda. She will meet with Britain’s Boris Johnson, too.

Back on the home front, Winston Peters will chair today’s Cabinet meeting.

We can only conjecture on how many other meetings will be conducted around the country during the day, but in the US – according to an item on the Freakonomics website – 55 million meetings a day are held.

Most of them are woefully unproductive, and tyrannize our offices. The revolution begins now — with better agendas, smaller invite lists, and an embrace of healthy conflict.

The item, headed How to Make Meetings Less Terrible, says there are many kinds of meetings, with different rules and customs and outcomes depending on where they’re held and with whom.

You’ve got community-board meetings and family meetings and the weekly floor meeting in a college dorm. You may belong to a knitting club or a rugby team or a religious group that meets regularly. With such variety, there’s no way this episode can be remotely encyclopedic. So we will focus on the most standardized meetings: the ones held by professionals in offices, whether it’s a construction company or a tech or healthcare firm; whether it’s a non-profit or an academic or government department. Because all those places have a lot of meetings.   

Dr. Steven G. Rogelberg, a Professor of Organisational Science, Management, and Psychology as well as the Director of Organisational Science at the University of North Carolina, has over 100 publications addressing issues such as team effectiveness, leadership, engagement, health and employee well-being, meetings at work, and organisational research methods.   

He is the source of the figure cited above:

The best estimates suggest that there are around 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. alone.


Most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week.

And as you move up the organizational hierarchy, individuals spend more and more time in meetings.

He’s written a book called The Surprising Science of Meetings, an examination of meetings as a workplace phenomenon — trying to understand why they go bad, trying to understand the dynamics that emerge in meetings, and trying to figure out how to make them better.

And it’s not a surprise to find executives spending anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of their time in meetings.

Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner asked if the people who end up running companies or institutions are basically the people who are good at meetings?

ROGELBERG: Oh, I wish that was the case. But, no, that does not appear to be the case. Some of the research I do looks at satisfaction with a meeting. And if you survey people immediately after a meeting, one person is invariably more positive than everyone else. And this one person is the meeting leader. The person who’s leading the meeting says, “Hey, this is really good.” And why wouldn’t they feel that? They’re controlling the whole experience. They’re talking the most. They’re like, “Hey this is nirvana.” But everyone else is reporting much more negative experiences.

DUBNER: So in other words, you don’t have to be very good to be considered even, let’s say, top quintile.

ROGELBERG: That appears to be the case. So when you consider the fact that “too many meetings” has been identified consistently as the number-one source of frustration at work, the number-one time-waster at work — you know, research has shown that around 70, 71 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. Now this is jarring, because senior managers are the ones calling the most meetings. So if senior managers are calling them unproductive, we know we have a problem.

Bad meetings have just been accepted as a cost of doing business. I give these speeches to senior H.R. leaders and talent leaders across the Fortune 100 companies, and I ask them, “How many of you have any content on your employee-engagement surveys that covers the topic of meetings?” Do you want to guess how many people raise their hands?

DUBNER: Two percent.

ROGELBERG: Hey, that’s a really good guess. Yes — that’s right. There is no organizational intentionality around this. And with no organizational accountability, leaders are just part of this system, where bad meetings are just the cost of doing business. Like the rain is in London. So I study meetings because I dislike them tremendously. I study them because I know it is a source of frustration for so many people.

So we hold a lot of meetings even though most people don’t like meetings and consider them unproductive. But Freakonomics notes there’s a wrinkle:

ROGELBERG: Well, we know from the research that people actually want to have some level of meeting activity per day. And if you ask people to design their perfect day, it’s very rare that they say zero meetings. And this shouldn’t be a big surprise. We know from social- psychological research that humans are inherently social creatures. There’s value of interaction and engagement with others.

So maybe we pretend to dislike meetings even more than we actually dislike them, Freakonomics conjectures.  In any case: just about everyone agrees that meetings could use some improvement.

But what is a meeting, exactly?

Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, provides an answer.

A meeting is a gathering, let’s say, two or more people, who assemble for a purpose that’s ostensibly related to the functioning of an organization or a group.


Meetings seem to be a communication event that is basically neutral.

It’s just a place where you come together. You have a problem, you solve it. You have a decision to make, you make the decision, you whatever. And when you actually study organisations, you find that that’s not really the way that it works.

In 1989, Schwartzman published a book called The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities.

I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings.

Jen Sandler, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts who studies meetings, says we have vastly superior technologies to do exactly the things that people say go on in meetings.

So the question of why we continue to meet becomes really important. So one answer to that is that we don’t need to. And the other answer is that that’s not what meetings are for. That might be what we tell ourselves that they are for. And most of us have this experience too, where we go into a meeting that is ostensibly to make a decision, but it’s clear that that decision has been made prior to the meeting. And then we might ask as participants in that meeting, why are we even meeting then? We’re meeting maybe to legitimize that decision or for somebody to say that that was a collective decision even though it wasn’t.

Rogelberg says the average length across the world is one hour.

And there’s just there’s no reason for that. This is a modern phenomenon that has emerged due to calendaring programs like Outlook and Google Calendar.

DUBNER: So if you could invade everybody’s calendar on earth and have a new preset that was not 60 minutes, what would it be?

ROGELBERG: I just want the leader to think about how long the meeting should be. So give it a set of goals. Make a decision. This is particularly important given something called Parkinson’s Law. And Parkinson’s Law is this idea that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. So if you schedule an hour, it’s going to take an hour. But if you schedule 48 minutes, it’s gonna take 48 minutes.

According to psychological research, Rogelberg says, adding a bit of pressure creates more focus on optimal performance.

So if this results in you starting your meeting at 1:12 p.m. and ending at 1:50, so be it. You are in control. Make choices.

Many people simply avoid holding meetings  — Mark Cuban and Elon Muskfor instance.

Some companies have instituted “no-meeting” days, to give employees a chance to do their work without being dragged off to the conference room.

But 55 million meetings a day in the US remains the estimated time-sapping reality.


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