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Meetings can really suck. Here’s how to fix that

Organizational scientist Steven Rogelberg discusses the common meeting mistakes leaders make and how they can change course.
A picture of a calendar featuring staff meetings with a smiley face on it.
Unsplash / Nathan Dumlao / Adobe Stock / NicoElNino
Key Takeaways
  • Good meetings are rare, but research shows they can benefit employees, managers, and organizations alike.
  • Whether hosting a group meeting or a one-on-one, managers need better training and strategies to glean those benefits. 
  • Such strategies include avoiding the over-invitation trap, thinking about agendas differently, and adopting a stewardship mindset.
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They say the only constant is change, but in the business world, there is another one: Meetings suck. They devour your time, zap your energy, and drain your motivation for any task more demanding than a nap. Yet, managers and organizations insist on swarming people’s calendars with these schedule-cramming hours of busywork.

However, this second constant may not be as irrevocable as it seems. Research shows that meetings can be tremendously beneficial for everyone involved. The problem is that few managers have been trained to lead them effectively.

To help, Big Think recently spoke* with Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of Glad We Met and The Surprising Science of Meetings. During our conversation, we discuss who meetings are for, why they go wrong so often, and strategies to facilitate them more successfully.

Big Think: How did the office meeting evolve, and what are its benefits?

Rogelberg: Humans gather. It’s what we do. We’ve gathered since cave-person times, but ultimately, it was during the Industrial Revolution that we started to move away from traditional command-and-control systems and started to recognize that elevating other voices allowed for more ideas to emerge. It was an appreciation that diverse voices can bring diverse ideas and solutions to complex problems.

So, in many ways, the implementation of organizational meetings was an appreciation for what humans can do together. 

The research has been consistent that when meetings are done well, they have the potential to create solutions that no individual could have alone. We know organizations that have better meetings have a better return on investment. We know that when meetings are done well, instead of being places of drain, organizations become places of gain by providing employees with a resource they can [use to] engage other people.

We can all remember experiences like that. We can all reflect on a good meeting and how good it felt. But they’re rare, and that’s the problem.

Big Think: What are we getting wrong about meetings?

Rogelberg: There are a few different forces [at play]. First, research suggests that only around 25% of managers ever receive training on how to hold a meeting. We’re relying on their intuition, and they tend to recycle the dysfunctional practices that they experienced themselves. 

Second, leaders generally think they are better at meetings than they really are. When you have that personal blind spot, you’re not motivated to make changes because you think the problem lies elsewhere.

The third force is an organizational blind spot. Meetings are an unbelievable cost expenditure. Time by wages is unreal. It’s way more expensive than IT, yet we would never expect a large organization to not have a chief information officer. So, the organizational blind spot is that we have no one who owns meetings, no one saying, “I’m going to make sure we’re getting value out of this.”

When you put these three forces together, why wouldn’t bad practices be perpetuated?

Staff meeting traps

Big Think: What are some problems leaders fall into with meetings?

Rogelberg: They’re falling into an over-inviting trap. They’re falling into the trap of having meetings that are too long. They’re falling into the trap of not facilitating — tending to feature their own voice as opposed to elevating others’ voices. They don’t end the meeting by reviewing exactly what was decided and who is directly responsible. 

Sometimes, they actually lament that they’re in the meeting. That’s crazy! You called this party. You’re the host.

Let me say one more thing: We don’t talk about meetings enough. We just don’t.

I sometimes get teased about this. People will say, “Oh, so you want us to have a meeting about meetings?” Yes! We should have a meeting about meetings. How could you not? If your people are spending 20–50% of their day in meetings, you need to step back every once in a while and have a conversation about it. Do an audit. Ask: How can we make them better? What can we trim? What helpful, new norms can we establish? 

Let’s normalize constructive conversations about making meetings better.

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Big Think: Let’s tackle one of those problems. How can leaders curb over-inviting?

Rogelberg: When we’re having a meeting, we know who has to be there. We know who the must-haves are. Where we get into trouble is with the nice-to-haves.

Think about planning a wedding. We know who has to be there, but once we start inviting the nice-to-haves, suddenly we need to invite Bill. And gosh, if Bill’s coming, then we should invite Mary and Dan, too. The next thing you know, the wedding reception has gotten huge. 

It’s the same with meetings. We need to train our brains to think in terms of must-haves and nice-to-haves, and for the latter, we can have a separate way to provide input — a separate conversation or a partial invite.

Another helpful tool is your agenda. Instead of framing it as a set of topics to be discussed, try framing it as a set of questions to be answered. This way, you’re thinking about what you’re trying to achieve with the meeting. That will give you a better sense of who to invite because they’re essential to answering those questions. And if you can’t think of any questions, it likely means you don’t need a meeting.

Create some one-on-one time

Big Think: Your recent book, Glad We Met, focuses on one-on-one meetings and why they’re different from the group meetings we’ve discussed so far. What’s so unique about them?

Rogelberg: A one-on-one meeting is facilitated and orchestrated by a manager, but it’s for the direct report. It’s to address what’s on the direct’s mind. It’s a recurring occasion for a manager to connect with their people in a meaningful, genuine way. It’s your opportunity to demonstrate excellent leadership and to support and elevate others

By doing so, you elevate your performance because ultimately managers are evaluated on the effectiveness and productivity of their directs. [For instance], we know that managers who have good one-on-ones see better team performance indicators, their teams are more aligned, and they have less turnover.

So, one-on-ones have incredible potential. They’re the one meeting that should never be an email.

A woman is using a computer to make a video call.
Rogelberg notes that while remote meetings offer many tools that can help, the technology is secondary. Whether online or in a meeting room, it’s ultimately about how the manager facilitates the meeting. (Credit: DC Studio / Wikimedia Commons)

Big Think: Why is it then that one-on-ones seem to be axed from the schedule first — assuming they formally exist at all?

Rogelberg: It goes back to those blind spots: leaders who think they’re better at one-on-ones than they are and organizations that lack a system to evaluate these things. 

But unlike meetings, when we surveyed people and asked, “Do you want one-on-ones with your manager?” they were unequivocal. The answer is yes. 

Furthermore — and this is fascinating — we also asked, “Would you want more or fewer one-on-ones with your manager?” We assumed that people would want fewer because they are busy and have a ton of meetings already. We didn’t find that. Basically, people want fewer one-on-ones if they stink and more if they are good. And the typical desired cadence is weekly. 

That’s because people recognize that one-on-ones elevate their success and engagement.

Big Think: How can a manager host a better one-on-one?

Rogelberg: Before the meeting, tell your direct, “Come with a list of things that you want to talk about, and when you’re creating that list, don’t just privilege “fires.” Think long-term as well. I may want to talk about some things, but yours come first.”

Another approach is to prepare five questions. For example, what are the biggest challenges you’re experiencing, and how can I help? You ask and then say, “You can take this conversation in any direction you want.”

In both situations, the manager provides the structure, and the direct dictates the content. 

Then when the meeting starts, the manager needs to keep their mouth closed more than open. They should be asking the questions that allow the direct to express themselves fully. 

Your mindset going in should be that this person can grow. This person can become better and more effective. Starting in that positive headspace helps remind the direct why you’re having the meeting.

The key differentiator of an excellent leader is stewardship.

Steven Rogelberg

A sense of stewardship

Big Think: Is there a takeaway you’d like to leave our readers with?

Rogelberg: The key differentiator of an excellent leader is stewardship. Now, we engage in stewardship all the time when we meet with stakeholders, customers, and donors. We would never want those people to say we wasted their time.

But when we meet with our teams or peers, we typically don’t act as a steward. We go into autopilot. We aren’t intentional with who we invite. We don’t ask what should this meeting look like and how we make it truly work?

The best thing you can do to make your meetings better is to ask people, “How’s it going? What’s going well? Do you have ideas for improvement?” Then use that information to reflect, learn, and try new things. 

This is the ultimate act of stewardship: recognizing you may be the problem, [realizing] you have a responsibility, and then making sure your house is in order. It reflects so well on you as a leader.

* This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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