Bad meetings drain time and energy — here are 6 ways to lead ones that engage and inspire

Jun 10, 2019 /

Steven Rogelberg, who studies meetings, shares 6 simple ways they can be improved. The next time you’re in a useless one, print this out afterwards and leave it on the chair of the person who led it.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Why do they care so little about our time? Don’t they realize we have work to do?

If you’ve ever been held prisoner in an unnecessary meeting, those are some of the thoughts that may have gone through your mind. Another thought that might have emerged: “If I’m ever in charge, I’m getting rid of all meetings!”

But that’s going too far, contends Steven G. Rogelberg, professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings.

“Elimination of meetings is a false goal,” he says in a TEDxUNCCharlotte talk. “Without meetings, cooperation, communication, coordination, consensus, and decision making are all compromised. In fact, in many regards organizational democracy takes place in meetings … The elimination of bad meetings is the true goal.”

Meetings are Rogelberg’s area of research. He says, “In one of my first studies, I had individuals maintain a diary of how many meetings they were having each day and how they felt about their day at work. Interestingly, the more meetings people had, the more they reported feeling drained and fatigued.” However, he adds, “When the meetings were high quality, the negative effects of having so many meetings were mitigated.”

Of course, there’s one person who holds the key to eliminating bad meetings: Its leader. “Excellent meeting leaders think differently,” says Rogelberg. “They recognize that when you call a meeting, you are a steward of others’ time.” Being a responsible steward means, he adds, “you care. You want to honor the time of others. So while research shows that 50 percent of agendas are recycled, you would not do that, because you will not dial it in. You want to honor people’s time, so you actively make choices.”

In his work, Rogelberg has found some basic strategies that we can implement to improve our meetings.

1. Go for the smallest number of participants possible.

In other words, no spectators, no people who are there “just to listen.” One way to contain a gathering, suggests Rogelberg, is to “consider inviting people for part of the meeting but not all of it, so you can keep the meeting lean and not waste people’s time.”

Sometimes, overstuffed meetings are the result of the leader not wanting to leave out people, even when they’re not essential. This impulse is well-intentioned. Rogelberg says, “One of the things we find in our research is that when people are not invited to a meeting, they find that just as worrisome because they worry they’re being excluded.”

How to handle this quandary? Don’t invite them, but share meeting notes with them afterwards — they’ll feel connected and they can read the notes and contribute their input as they see fit. The caveat: Be sure to circulate meeting notes within 24 hours if you want people to truly feel in the loop. The more time that elapses, the more they’ll feel like they’re afterthoughts.

2. Be a good host for the meetings you lead.

Make people feel appreciated and welcomed. Greet the attendees, and introduce people who don’t know each other. And there’s one easy ingredient that can instantly improve morale: Food. “One of the best predictors of meeting satisfaction around the globe are snacks,” says Rogelberg. “It’s not the snacks in and of themselves, but the fact that you took some time to think and consider others.”

3. Break out of the one-hour box.

At too many organizations, 60 minutes is the default length for meetings. But, as Rogelberg points out, work has a funny way of expanding to fill the time that it’s allocated. Which means if you scheduled it for a shorter amount of time, you’d most likely still get everything done.

What’s more, he adds, “psychological research suggests that when teams are under a little bit of pressure, they perform optimally and they’re more focused.” Go for 20-, 30-, or 40-minute meetings that have clear agendas and goals.

Another way to trim meeting length is to do a standing-up meeting instead of a sitting-down one. Rogelberg says, “The quality of the outcomes is the same, but standing-up meetings take half as much time.”

4. Switch up meeting formats.

For example, go for a walk. “Research shows that when you do a walking meeting, people report higher satisfaction and even more creativity,” says Rogelberg. He provides a few rules of thumb to ensure their success: Limit them to two or three participants (including you); warn people in advance so they’re dressed to take a walk; and make sure — ahead of time — that the meeting content doesn’t require laptops or presentations.

Another twist: Change how brainstorming happens. “If you have individuals brainstorm in silence in meetings — recording their ideas on paper or through an app — they generate nearly twice as many ideas, and those ideas tend to be more creative and innovative because people aren’t filtering,” says Rogelberg.

5. Shake up the agenda — instead of organizing it by topic, organize it by questions.

“Now you have a litmus test for determining who actually needs to be there because their fundamental task is answering the questions. You also have a better sense of when to end the meeting because the questions have been answered,” explains Rogelberg. “And you know what meeting success looks like — the questions have been answered in a compelling way. If you can’t generate questions, that’s your clue the meeting does not need to happen.”

6. Periodically evaluate meetings.

The people who lead meetings tend to be biased, according to Rogelberg; they invariably think they’ve gone well even when they haven’t. As host and steward, you have an obligation to check in regularly with attendees and ask: “What’s going well in our meetings? What could be done better? Do you have any specific ideas to improve them?”

Asking these questions isn’t enough, of course. You need to listen openly to the answers (no getting defensive), and respond with appropriate changes. By just making a few tweaks, you could drastically change your meetings — and change people’s days. “While we often think about meetings as being places of drain, meetings can be places of gain when done right,” says Rogelberg.

Watch his TEDxUNCCharlotte talk now: