According to Doodle’s state of meetings report for 2019, the average professional in the UK, the US, Germany and Switzerland spends three hours a week in meetings – two hours of which they consider a waste of time.
Universities are not exempt from the rise of the modern meeting culture – or from the sighs that it often induces. But there is nothing wrong, in principle, with meetings. The intention to provide an opportunity for transparent and consensus-based decision-making is a very good one, and those yearning never again to set foot in a departmental meeting should be careful what they wish for. Collegiality is already under enough strain without all managerial decisions being imposed from on high on to an unsuspecting rank-and-file.
But, clearly, there is a job to be done in terms of improving or eliminating meetings that are ineffective. The fault for those usually lies with the person running or facilitating them, but it is rare that they see it that way. Ironically, such figures often have exceedingly positive perceptions of their performance, reporting high levels of meeting satisfaction and productivity in surveys. That is reflected in the fact that while a majority of academic professionals complain about regularly scheduled meetings, those who speak the most in them – who are typically the meeting leaders – often do not.
Nearly four out of five respondents to a Verizon telephone survey of more than 1,300 very active meeting-goers, carried out in 2003, rated those meetings that they themselves initiated as extremely or very productive. By contrast, only just over half gave similar scores to meetings initiated by peers. Our own research consistently reveals a similar picture.
Meeting attendees cite a litany of failings, including lack of direction, stale agenda items and rambling conversations. But facilitators just don’t see it. Their self-inflation bias blinds them to their own shortcomings, leaving them disinclined to focus on their own scope for improvement. And, in this way, ineffective meetings persist.
So how can this lack of self-awareness be overcome? One obvious way is for universities to create formal systems for assessing meetings. For example, questions on meeting effectiveness could be added to annual employee engagement and attitude surveys. This could yield important information on meeting productivity at a college, departmental and maybe even specific programme levels. It would give unit leaders some level of accountability for it, and motivate them to take steps to improve the productivity of the meetings that take place in their administrative units.
One such measure could involve requiring meeting leaders to administer a simple, anonymous survey to the attendees of their regularly occurring meetings, seeking feedback on their performance. Anonymous surveys like this can be carried out relatively easily via online platforms such as Survey Monkey.
The survey would contain three basic questions. First, “What am I doing well?” Second, “What am I doing badly?” And third, “What should I start doing that I am not currently doing?” Although such questions can be painful to ask, the answers can be immensely revealing – and invaluable tools for personal development.
The meeting leader should then be tasked with sifting the survey responses for reoccurring themes, in order to identify their key strengths and weaknesses and to devise an action plan for improvements.
The final step is to share the information obtained – and the resulting action plan – with the attendees, in order to elicit further input and reactions. Quite apart from its inherent value as a source of advice, such transparency and receptiveness will make the attendees feel valued by the meeting leader. And that may well lead them to become more active participants in future meetings, resulting in better decision-making and fewer yawns.
Liana Kreamer is a doctoral student in organisational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Steven Rogelberg is the chancellor’s professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (Oxford University Press, 2019).