Meetings at the office are so productive and efficient, said no employee ever. Surveys show that nine out of 10 workers admit to daydreaming while sitting in meetings, and 25% of the time is spent on irrelevant issues. But what if there was a way to make these mandatory huddles more meaningful – and shorter? Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has some techniques to help managers do just that. He joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on Sirius XM to share some tips from his new book, The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Unproductive meetings have been a topic of discussion for so long, yet it feels like we haven’t fixed the problem. A lot has been written about it. How is this book different?
Steven Rogelberg: I think this book is in a very unique space because it’s leveraging science. For the last 20 years, I’ve been heavily engaged in science around meetings, and other folks have been doing science around meetings and teams. There are evidence-based solutions. These solutions are surprising. I’ll give you a quick example. Every book you pick up about meetings says to have an agenda. Our research shows that having an agenda in and of itself does nothing for meeting effectiveness. It’s a much more nuanced discussion.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the components of a good meeting?
Rogelberg: There’s a lot. What I try to capture in the book is that’s it’s more of a systemic, holistic perspective. But there are certainly some things that are important, and it truly starts with mindset. To the extent that the leader recognizes that they are fundamentally a steward of others’ time — when they have that perspective, they lead their meeting differently. They think more carefully about who needs to be there. They think more carefully about what truly needs to be discussed and in how much time.
When you have that mindset and you facilitate the meeting, you’re not just about featuring your own voice, but you are facilitating the experience so that it’s truly a valuable one. So, that steward mindset is key. Then there’s a host of other things, from managing size and time and things like that.
Knowledge at Wharton: Doesn’t the mindset of the employee also play a role?
“If you have an hour-long meeting with 20 people on a phone call, nothing good will come from that.”
Rogelberg: Yes, certainly the employee’s mindset matters. But employees have been beaten down; so much of this rests on the leader fundamentally thinking about meetings differently. By doing so, they’re going to change employee attitudes and opinions about them. But it has to be earned capital. And because leaders have so much of the power of this entire experience, we’ve got to start there.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also bring up the fact that meetings aren’t always necessary to address a particular issue. Can you talk about that?
Rogelberg: That’s one of the things that we find, that so much of meeting activity is just habits, and these habits just keep perpetuating each week at a particular time. We find leaders engaging in so much agenda rehash. In fact, you could just put a different date on top of the agenda, and you’d see it pop up again. All these habits just keep emerging, and people don’t think critically about, “Hey, maybe this is not a particular topic that needs to be discussed in this meeting. Maybe what I can do is actually send out the information, and then when we meet at kind of a natural time, we designate five minutes to answering any questions about it.” But we tend to err on the side of just holding people captive.
Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of people work remotely and have to meet through video or teleconference. How do you deal with that aspect in creating effective meetings?
Rogelberg: This is such a vexing problem. I have a whole chapter in my book that’s titled, “The Folly of the Remote Meeting.” These meetings are plagued with so much dysfunction, and the skills required to effectively carry out a remote meeting are much more meaningful. Those meeting leaders that can carry these out very much understand that they are playing the role of an air traffic controller. People in remote meetings tend to just disappear into the background, especially when they’re not video-based. That remote leader has to bring them out. They have to make sure people don’t [become] anonymous.
When we ask people, “What is the most dysfunctional meeting type?” Everyone says, “remote meeting.” Then we say to them, “What meeting type do you most prefer?” They say, “remote meeting,” because they can just blend into the background and multitask. So, there really are a variety of approaches that can be done. But we have to get the meeting leader to think differently about this. If you have an hour-long meeting with 20 people on a phone call, nothing good will come from that. Those types of meetings just have to be organized differently and structured differently, and we need to do different things.
Knowledge at Wharton: When people set up a meeting in their online calendar, the software automatically blocks out 30 minutes or an hour. Those are the choices. You encourage managers to set meetings for 45 minutes or 32 minutes or 51 minutes, something different to change the flow. Why?
Rogelberg: I just want a leader to think about how much time is truly needed in the meeting. Defaulting to the setting on Outlook or Google Calendar is a terrible mistake and not kind to the other participants. Once we have an idea of how long an agenda should take, make a meeting for that. Then I encourage leaders, based on the research, to dial that amount down five to 10 minutes. Of you think it’s going to take 38 minutes, actually make the meeting for 32 minutes. What we find in research is that, when humans are under a little bit of pressure, they tend to focus better and perform more optimally, so I like the idea of a meeting leader adding a little bit of pressure. I like them having more playful times. I don’t care if they start a meeting at 12 minutes after an hour. Give people a little time to do what they were doing beforehand, and then start a meeting not on the actual hour.
“There are 55 million meetings a day in the U.S., yet only 20% of leaders receive any training.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Time pressure also prevents people from getting too relaxed in that chair and daydreaming.
Rogelberg: One of the scientific findings I discuss in the book is this notion of Parkinson’s law — the concept that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. If you schedule something for an hour, magically it takes an hour. On the other side, you could use this for your advantage. If you schedule for 32 minutes, it will take 32 minutes. If that’s an ambitious amount of time for the particular agenda items, people will be present. I don’t mean just present physically, I mean mentally present. They recognize that they’re there to get something done. That’s what people want. People are just way too busy to lose large amounts of time.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also say that there are times where you don’t need a whole lot of talk in meetings. What do you mean by that?
Rogelberg: There are lots of ways that silence in meetings can be leveraged. I’ll share one example. A very common activity in meetings is for folks to brainstorm. If you actually have people brainstorm ideas on paper, as opposed to verbally, and then collect those ideas, you will get nearly twice as many ideas. They will be higher quality, and they’ll be more creative. Brainstorming in silence allows people to be more honest. They don’t filter based on what the boss just said. And it allows for everyone to speak at once because you’re not waiting for that one person to finish their idea.
It’s a simple technique, and there are plenty of other ones around silence that can very much energize a good meeting. What’s pretty exciting is that there is a host of software apps now that can facilitate this process — that allow for brainstorming on your phone, and then the outcomes are just shot right to the front of the screen.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do leaders get too involved, too wrapped up in the process and not deliver the message that they should?
Rogelberg: First of all, I don’t know if leaders are actually trying their best. I think that leaders don’t necessarily know what “trying your best” even means. There are 55 million meetings a day in the U.S., yet only 20% of leaders receive any training. At the same time, what our research finds is that leaders have a blind spot when it comes to meetings. Mainly, when folks leave a meeting, there is one person who invariably says, “Hey, that was a good meeting.” Can you guess who that person is? It’s the leader.
The leader has the control, the power. They’re talking, and they think it’s going well. This is kind of a double whammy, right? They have no training, and these people think they’re doing a good job. When that’s in place, I don’t think a leader truly knows what to do to even design a really good meeting. They just kind of recycle the practices that they experienced when they weren’t a leader, and we know that those are dysfunctional.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you talk about your concept of sharing the wealth in a meeting?
Rogelberg: This goes back to that steward mindset. If I’m orchestrating, it might be the case that there are a couple of agenda items that should be facilitated by someone else. In fact, I could have maybe one of my subordinates lead this item. It gets them really involved. It gets them practicing how to lead a meeting. I could even provide them with some feedback on how I saw their performance. But most importantly, it prevents us from viewing meetings as just a leader show.
Instead, the entire group is involved, and it changes the culture of the meeting and makes the meeting into a culture of inclusion, of discussion, involvement. This is where meetings can actually be great. Our research shows that when meetings are done well, they become sources of positive energy for employees. We always think about meetings as sucking energy, but they can be a great source of positive energy when done well.
Knowledge at Wharton: Does the number of participants matter?
Rogelberg: Yes, meeting size matters. I have a chapter in my book, “The Bigger the Better.” It’s the idea that meeting dysfunction expands as size expands. It’s just much more challenging with large meetings. You have communication issues and something called social loafing, which is the idea that people start to just hide in the crowd. Our goal is to get these meetings to be as lean as possible, and there are some strategies that one can do.
“Brainstorming in silence allows people to be more honest. They don’t filter based on what the boss just said.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What are your thoughts on the walking meeting?
Rogelberg: Standing-up meetings produce the same quality of outcomes as a sitting-down meeting, but in half as much time. And then there’s a walking meeting. Walking meetings are really terrific when it’s just you and one other person, or you and a couple of folks. They can create focus. Obviously, it gets people out of their office. People can get outside. People get steps on their Fitbits. There are lots of positives that can emerge from it. There are a few important caveats.
First of all, you have to keep that meeting size really small. Two, people need to know in advance that you’re having a walking meeting. That way, we make sure that everyone has the right shoes, which is relevant. And three, you actually want to think about where you’re walking. As funny as it sounds, you want to make sure you’re walking in a circle, so you wind up back where you started, and it didn’t take you long.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also suggest bringing fun items to the meeting, like toys for the table. Why is that?
Rogelberg: We know that meetings are experienced like interruptions. People are doing their work, then they’re called to a meeting, and they psychologically experience it as an interruption. We know from the research that interruptions put people in bad moods. We also know that when people are in bad moods, they tend to be more rigid in their thinking and less creative and just not as open and receptive to others’ ideas. Those are all bad things.
There are a variety of things that can be done that can help people be a little bit more glad to be there. Whether it’s being playful and throwing some Play-Doh on a table — fine. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that all of the time or for all different groups. But what I want the leader to do is just be aware of the negative mood that people often bring in. It’s important for leaders to recognize that they are hosts, and when people come into the meeting, they should welcome them. They should express appreciation for them being there. They should make introductions to others that those people might not know. Those types of host-like behaviors tend to be most effective for helping people deal with the negative effects of an interruption.