Curing Meeting Madness: How Science Can Help



The inescapable meeting, a necessary yet painful reality of working in corporate America. We all have to sit through them and some of us even lead them. You may even be in one right now as you are reading this blog. In fact, there are nearly fifty-five million meetings held every day in this country at an annual cost of 1.4 trillion dollars a year. There is no doubt that this fixture of American work-life is an expensive and time-consuming reality that we just can’t seem to get right. That is until now.     

In his newly released book The Surprising Science of Meetings, organizational psychologist and University of North Carolina distinguished professor, Steven Rogelberg shares the science behind getting meetings right. Rogelberg believes that anyone who leads meetings is “a steward of other’s time” and as HR practitioners we all have an opportunity “to help make time in meetings truly worthwhile through excellent training and talent practices.” Some of Rogelberg’s insights are as follows:

Spotlight the Challenge with Data

There is no shortage of complaints when it comes to the dreaded meeting. However, this evidence is mostly anecdotal and typically lacks any constructive feedback that is actionable. In other words, we complain, do nothing about it, and then get right back to it the following day.   

To break this cycle Rogelberg believes HR practitioners should first focus on highlighting the impact of bad meetings by collecting data. Hard data can allow HR practitioners to more objectively shine a spotlight on the evidence that meetings may not be going as well as their leaders believe they are. In fact, research has shown that meeting leaders tend to overestimate the positive impact their meetings have on attendees, which is why objective data matters. 

Rogelberg points out that it is rare to find items on engagement surveys, performance reviews, and manager 360 feedback tools that ask about meeting management, meeting effectiveness, and meeting outcomes. “We respond to measurement” explains Rogelberg. Managers tend to pay attention to what they are measured against, so measuring their performance as meeting facilitators is a good first step towards improving meeting impact.    

Set a Standard (Not an Agenda)

Rogelberg points out that for far too long meeting experts and management consultants have obsessed over the “agenda” as the cure all elixir for the bad meeting epidemic. In his own research he has found that the use of an agenda has a minimal impact on the positive perceptions of attendees. Rogelberg explains that part of the problem is that we tend to recycle meeting agendas from meeting to meeting, thus making the agenda “a hollow crutch.”    

Instead of worrying about setting an agenda, he believes managers should focus on setting a standard and sticking to that standard. Some simple rules Rogelberg has seen work include:

  • Don’t Default to One Hour Meetings – Meetings are typically scheduled for an hour mainly because that’s the default setting on Microsoft Outlook. Rogelberg believes most meetings should be less than an hour, so as to allow for a reasonable transition between back-to-back meetings as well as transit time. Why set yourself and others up for being late when you don’t have to. Plus, shortening meeting time tends to create additional focus.
  • Share Meeting Responsibilities – Meetings are about coming together, which also means sharing responsibility. At Apple they assign a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) to every meeting item, so there is no confusion about who owns next steps and what they will be held accountable for.  
  • Document and Share – Meeting minutes are an important communication tool that is often underutilized. Rogelberg believes a complete set of minutes is way to promote and hold people accountable for post-meetings actions. They key is to have a standard template, assigned recorder, and required timeframe for dissemination. 

Minimize Spectators to Enhance Engagement  

Meetings are a two-way street, or at least they should be. Rogelberg believes that giving voice to attendees is critical to engagement. He advises that meeting leaders reach out to their teams to get input into the meeting topics ahead of time. Rogelberg believes that taking an inclusive approach will help draw out the voice of attendees, but he warns that getting this level of engagement requires some level of exclusivity as well.  

In order to maximize voice you need to minimize what Rogelberg refers to as “spectators” or those who show-up, but don’t really contribute. This is where size comes into play. “Meetings can get bloated” explains Rogelberg and when meetings get bloated the critical voices can sometimes get drowned out. Rogelberg shares that a good deal of his work has shown that the ideal number for problem solving and decision-making meetings is eight or less. Once you get past this number it gets tougher for meeting facilitators to meaningfully tap all the minds in the room and truly give voice to all the attendees.

Bottom line: The opportunity for HR practitioners is to start collecting data on meeting impact so as to hold managers accountable for facilitating effective meetings, sticking to a standard, and creating a meeting environment that is safe and inclusive. 



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