For 15 years, John McKay, a mechanical engineer, worked at a consumer products company where they held so many meetings he ended up an expert, categorizing them under nine labels, summed up in a 1,820-word document. They ranged from critical meetings, which are “the vast minority”, he says, to travel-inspired ones, for people who “don’t like videoconferencing because it would spoil their travel plans”.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
“It became drudgery,” says McKay.
But then he joined a new company where there were almost no meetings. “I began to miss all those meetings,” he admits. “When you come out of it cold turkey, you realize you had a lot of human contact.” Nowadays, he would look forward to a 3-hour meeting, he says. He even tries to involve himself in projects that will bring “more of that contact”.
McKay’s confession helps answer the question of why, if everybody hates meetings so much, do we have so many of them?
Early manuals on meetings warned against late arrivals, early departures, falling asleep — and spitting (hence, the notion of spewing).
Today, with at least the latter offence vanquished, we can focus on the fact that we are, by nature, needy huddlers and cuddlers. The same person who disparages meetings — an exercise as easy as shooting fish in a barrel — sometimes secretly thinks they can be productive, can be a totem of status or, at the very least, can be a great forum for the latest joke material. They can also change the day’s tempo — if only by introducing cinnamon buns.
Surprisingly, a study to be released later this year shows a great number of meeting moaners are total fakers.
Steven Rogelberg, a professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and a group of colleagues found that among people surveyed about their last meeting, 69% rated them at least “good”, while only 16% rated them “poor” or worse. And though 50% said they complained about meetings, more than 60% of these complainers admitted that they either “don’t mind them that much” or “enjoy them”.
Asked what their ideal workday would look like, two-thirds of respondents said it would include at least one or more meetings.
The disparity between public distaste towards meetings and private affection is likely due to the stigma attached to admitting you like them. It is declaring yourself either a show-off or a sheep — and definitely a time-waster. “If you say that you dislike meetings, you’re able to latch on to this rugged individualism,” Rogelberg says.
It takes a brave soul such as Norm Zwail, founder of an apparel business, to profess his meeting affection, though it still gives the impression that someone spiked the Poland Spring. “I feed off the energy produced when eyes meet and laughter is heard, and the electricity generated when an idea is universally accepted, especially when it is my idea,” he says. “Plus, I love to talk, be seen and be heard.”
Just talking about a meeting — even if it is a gripe — signals you rated an invitation in the first place. It is “another way to show how important you are”, says Karen Tracy, a professor of communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Tracy has studied pre-meetings which, she says, are crucial to the organization and the individual. After all, the time before the official business begins often is more interesting than the agenda, and the friendly chatter reminds you why you like someone.
Joe Adams, an insurance agent, can’t recall meeting topics. “But I do remember the people I talked to,” he says. Formerly in a human resources department where all he did was meet, “I learned long ago that I am not going to meet myself to greatness”. But he has also learned to love the “productive downtime” of meetings to make his own to-do lists.
“The drive for social connection is a very strong one,” says Nicholas Epley, an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. Sitting in a cubicle is “stupefying” and isolating, only intensifying a social need.
David Mazel, a research analyst, thinks people like meetings because “you can stay busy without accomplishing a thing”. He says “having gone to the meeting is the work”.
At one meeting he attended on ballistic-missile defence, the colonel conducting the meeting began by announcing the date of the next gathering and its refreshments. No marching orders emerged.
“The idea that we might actually do something for the nation was not a concern,” Mazel says.
Meetings actually are better than work, adds Tom Landis, probably because he is president of a restaurant company that caters meetings. “Meetings are held because, while people detest them, they hate actually working more,” he notes.
Steve Crippen, who heads a manufacturing company, can tell whenever there has been a meeting at one of his customers’ companies because he’ll receive as many as a dozen calls from its attendees asking for the same information. “They’re looking for an opportunity to go to the next meeting and say, ‘Well, I talked to them, and I got this done’.”
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