Stop meeting - start working

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The Independent Online
`He's in a meeting." How often do you hear that? Once, twice, three times a day? Meetings are the biggest waste of time in business. We hold too many of them, too frequently, and they achieve very little, say business psychologists.

"Companies hold far more meetings than they used to and they take far too long," says Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

And Alan Baker, an associate advisor to the Industrial Society says that the number of meetings people attend is increasing because "the world of work has become more complicated - people feel they have to have meetings. But meetings exist so that a group of people can think together not to share information. If you are not sure why people need to think together then don't have the meeting," he says.

Unfortunately, many people don't think through the process and meetings are often unproductive and waste the time of expensive employees. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction in the business world about what actually gets accomplished in meetings versus the immense amount of time and money invested in them," says Michael Begeman who runs the 3M Meeting Network - a web site set up by the US-based diversified industrial group to provide advice on how to run effective meetings.

So why do people spend hours cooped up in meeting rooms? Professor Cooper says, "companies will say that it is because they are open and democratic and that they want to involve staff. This may be true in some cases but there are lots of other reasons why people hold unnecessary meetings".

Often, they are used by people to reinforce their position and status. "It sends out a message to your peers - `Look I'm part of an elite group. I'm in this meeting and you are not party to what we are discussing'," he says. Meetings can also be used as a way of impressing the boss. "I call it the peacock syndrome. A meeting with a manager allows people to display their feathers, to show that they are good and that they deserve promotion or a salary rise," he explains.

Meetings can also encourage adversarial, macho behaviour, says Prof Cooper who believes that women are much better at running meetings. "Women hold shorter, more constructive meetings or dispense with formal meetings altogether and have a brief one-to-one chat and then get on with it," he says.

Clare Harris, who works in publishing, adds, "men get into this glass box in the office and bore on for hours. If I need to discuss something with a colleague I'm more likely to stand at their desk for five minutes and we can make a decision."

Part of the problem is that few people receive training in running effective meetings, says Mr Begeman. "It is a skill that is often neglected in management training. The group dynamics in meetings are extremely powerful and if managed incorrectly can lead to errors in judgement, bias and group-think."

Professor Cooper says that an autocratic boss will sum up a meeting based on what he thinks and not what was discussed. "People won't contradict him or her and so the outcome is distorted," he says. On the other hand, a manager who goes into a meeting with no agenda or attitude will let it drag on for hours with no result.

Perhaps the best way to shorten meetings is to get rid of the coffee and biscuits and make meeting rooms as uncomfortable as possible to discourage people from lingering. Advertising agency HHCL & Partners has a meeting room with no chairs. "It's amazing how quickly things get done when people have to stand up," says a company spokesman.