And So We Meet, Again: Why The Workday Is So Filled With Meetings

Jan 29, 2015
Originally published on January 29, 2015 7:46 am

The ouster of Bryan Stockton from his perch as CEO at Mattel this week came as the toymaker's best-known brands like Barbie stagnate and it loses business to Web-based games.

Stockton himself said last year that Mattel lacked an innovative culture and blamed it in part on something specific: bad meetings. That's a common and persistent corporate ailment.

Scott Ryan-Hart is a cartographer for the Ohio Department of Transportation, where a typical meeting can last more than two hours.

"I would be needed for 15 minutes in the middle of it," Ryan-Hart says. "So I have an hour before and an hour after that I'm still kind of sequestered in this meeting and I can't get out of it."

This annoyed Ryan-Hart, until about a year ago when he took up superhero doodling during meetings, which he tweeted under the hashtag "#Meetingfromhell." His boss wasn't a fan.

"He was not super happy with it," Ryan-Hart says.

Then again, his colleagues have their own vices.

"I'm usually sketching ... the person next to me is doing email, someone else is reading reports that they have to get done," he says.

This behavior, says Steven Rogelberg, should sound alarms to the meeting leader. Rogelberg teaches industrial/organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"You're basically getting tremendous amounts of feedback. You're getting feedback that you're running a really bad meeting," Rogelberg says.

The average American office worker spends more than nine hours of every week preparing for, or attending, project update meetings, according to the results of a survey released last week by the software firm Clarizen and Harris Poll. That's up nearly 14 percent from the last survey four years ago.

Experts say poorly run meetings grind away at employee engagement and make companies less reactive by bogging decisions down in human red tape. Some companies, including Mattel, try to create limits around the size, duration or frequency of meetings.

But meetings often last longer than they need to, Rogelberg says, because managers don't understand Parkinson's Law. This is the idea, backed up by research, that tasks take as long as the time allotted. If you budget two hours, it takes two hours.

But, "given the same agenda," Rogelberg says, "they give the group half as much time ... and lo and behold, when they're given half as much time at the onset, they finish in half as much time! And the quality of the meeting is just as good."

Al Pittampalli is an author and an expert on "meeting culture." He says at their best, meetings are the lifeblood of an organization.

"They're the place where we make the most important decisions, express the most important messages, the most important communications on the most important matters of the day," he says.

But as a consultant, Pittampalli sees meeting culture run amok.

He sees "not just marathon meetings, but meetings that are done to prepare for meetings, and meetings that are done to prepare for meetings to prepare for meetings. It is a waste of time — it's what I call a weapon of mass interruption."

It's also expensive to waste employee time. So why does the practice persist?

"One of the biggest problems in organizations is that the meeting is a tool that is used to diffuse responsibility," Pittampalli says.

He says meetings alleviate the anxiety of making tough calls by delaying decisions, instead of making them.

Bad meetings also recur because, in many cases, the people leading them don't know how to run a good one.

There's a lack of self-awareness among meeting leaders. The vast majority self-report that they believe they're conducting meetings well, while the vast majority of participants disagree. Yet Pittampalli says no one speaks up.

"Nobody is willing to give feedback to their boss," he says.

And so the endless meetings go on, and on, and on.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you are committed to a big goal at work, here is some advice on getting it done. Don't get trapped in a meeting.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Bad meetings are a consistent corporate problem. It's one that Bryan Stockton knows well.

INSKEEP: As CEO of the toymaker Mattel, Stockton blamed the stagnation of Barbie and other brands on the company culture. People failed to innovate and held useless meetings. Whatever he tried to fix, it apparently wasn't enough, and this week, Stockton resigned.

MONTAGNE: Fortunately, we have a meeting scheduled right this minute to talk about this.

INSKEEP: Whose meeting is it?

MONTAGNE: NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Scott Ryan-Hart is a cartographer for the Ohio Department of Transportation, where a typical meeting can last more than two hours.

SCOTT RYAN-HART: I would be needed for 15 minutes in the middle of it. So I have an hour before and an hour after that I'm still kind of sequestered in this meeting and I can't get out of it.

NOGUCHI: This annoyed Ryan-Hart until about a year ago, when he took up superhero doodling during meetings, which he says help him focus and which he tweeted under the hash tag #meetingfromhell. His boss wasn't a fan.

RYAN-HART: He was not super happy with it.

NOGUCHI: Then again, his colleagues have their own vices.

RYAN-HART: I'm usually sketching, and, you know, the person next to me is doing email. Someone else is reading reports that they have to get done.

NOGUCHI: This behavior, says Stephen Rogelberg, should sound alarms to the meeting leader. Rogelberg teaches organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

STEPHEN ROGELBERG: You're basically getting tremendous amounts of feedback. You're getting feedback that you're running a really bad meeting.

NOGUCHI: The average American office worker spends more than nine hours of every week preparing for or attending project update meetings, according to a survey released last week by software firm Clarizen and Harris Polls. That's up nearly 14 percent from the last survey four years ago. Experts say poorly run meetings grind away at employee engagement and make companies less reactive by bogging decisions down in human red tape. Some companies, including Mattel, tried to create limits around the size, duration or frequency of meetings. But meetings often last longer than they need to, Rogelberg says, because managers don't understand Parkinson's Law. This is the idea, backed up by research, that tasks take as long as the time allotted. You budget two hours, it takes two hours. But...

ROGELBERG: They give the group half as much time and lo and behold, when they're given half as much time at the onset, they finish in half as much time. And the quality of the meeting is just as good.

NOGUCHI: Al Pittampalli is an author and an expert on meeting culture. He says at their best, meetings are the lifeblood of an organization.

AL PITTAMPALLI: They're the place where we make the most important decisions, express the most important messages, the most important communications on the most important matters of the day.

NOGUCHI: But as a consultant, Pittampalli sees meeting culture run amok.

PITTAMPALLI: Not just marathon meetings but meetings that are done to prepare for meetings and meetings that are done to prepare for meetings to prepare for meetings. It is a waste of time. It's what I call a weapon of mass interruption.

NOGUCHI: It's also expensive to waste employee time. So why does the practice persist?

PITTAMPALLI: One of the biggest problems in organizations is that the meeting is a tool that is used to diffuse responsibility.

NOGUCHI: Pittampalli says meetings alleviate the anxiety of making tough calls by delaying decisions instead of making them. Bad meetings also recur because in many cases the people leading them don't know how to run a good one. There's a lack of self-awareness among meeting leaders. The vast majority self-report they believe they're conducting meetings well. The vast majority of participants disagree. Yet Pittampalli says no one speaks up.

PITTAMPALLI: Nobody is willing to give feedback to their boss.

NOGUCHI: And so the endless meetings go on and on and on. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.