Meetings are bad because they are meetings

I was reading a blog post by Tyler Cowen with his reflections on why meetings often are so bad. There are several good explanations and interpretations offered in the post and the comments. Here is my summary/interpretation of why meetings often are bad:

  • Negativity bias. Good meetings are easy to forget because they are relatively short and result in actionable decisions. Bad meetings, on the other hand, are hard to forget. We can all recall the feeling of sitting in a boring meeting for way too long. As a result, we remember bad meetings better than good meetings. This is not only a negativity bias at a psychological level, but also at a sociological level. The person next to you in a meeting are more likely to wisper “This meeting could have been a mail” rather than unironically wisper “What a great idea it was to have this meeting”. It is a lot easier to talk about the nature of a meeting if it is a bad meeting.
  • Weakest link. A meeting should involve all participants, including the person who is the last person to understand an idea or – in most cases even worse – agree with the problem at hand. Most people in a meeting are by definition not the weakest link, and therefore most people experience meetings being worse (i.e., less efficient) than they should be.
  • Signaling. Meetings are not only about making decisions. Meetings can be just as much about providing legitimacy to decisions that have already been made or will be made in a different setting (e.g., in a different meeting). In other words, such meetings are about demonstrating support for an idea or providing legitimacy to a process (e.g., letting everyone feeling involved). In those cases, the content of the meeting is less important, and if anything, about making sure no major changes are discussed.
  • Derailed debates. When meetings are about X, it is only a matter of time before one participant will begin a debate about X and introduce not-X into the mix, leading to a debate that was not part of the agenda in the first place. In those cases, meetings often take one step forward and two steps back.
  • Time inefficiency. The time allocated to a meeting is not necessarily proportional with the time needed for a meeting. A calendar often have a default option for the time allocated to a meeting when scheduling that meeting (e.g., half an hour or an hour). There is most likely a strong correlation between the list of items on the agenda for a meeting and the time allocated to the meeting, but such time estimates are more likely to allocate more time than needed. You want to make sure that there is enough time to go through everything. To this we can also add a fault in our counterfactual reasoning when we are in meetings. When in a bad meeting, people might think “I could be working now” when in fact they would most likely not be working (or at least not as much as they think).
  • Least common denominator. Meetings take place in groups. It is much easier making individual decisions than collective decisions. The majority opinions in meetings might be biased (group think and what have you), and meetings will often pander to the lowest common demominator.
  • Self-selection. The best people to have in a meeting are busy people. Not necessarily stressed people or people who hate meetings, but people who has a clear sense of the value of time. Such people tend to only speak their mind if needed and get things done on time. self-selection at all levels: decide whether to have a meeting or not, whether to show up to a meeting or not, whether to say something in a meeting, etc.

People who are experienced with meetings, especially in academic settings, will most likely agree with most (if not all) of the above reasons for why meetings are bad. It will be difficult to make a similar list with reasons why meetings are often good.

However, there is an even simpler explanation that we should recognise. This is an explanation that can help us understand why meetings are often good. Meetings are bad because they are meetings.

Good meetings go by other names. We are more likely to call a meeting a meeting when they are bad meetings. In a meeting, participants serve specific roles to deal with a task (or problem) in order to reach an outcome (or solution). Here is my key point: the meeting label is more likely to be used if a meeting 1) has unclear roles for the participants, 2) unclear or multiple tasks to deal with (often a long agenda), and 3) no actionable outcomes to work towards.

When we encounter meetings with very clear roles, tasks and actionable outcomes, we rarely (if ever) call them meetings. In a job interview, for example, the roles of the participants and the purpose of the meeting are so well-defined that we usually do not bother thinking about such meetings as meetings. Similarly, research seminars and workshops are meetings with clear roles, tasks and outcomes.

We have a lot of meetings that we never think of as meetings. However, by considering those meetings as meetings, it will be easier to identify how to make bad meetings less bad.