Meeting overload: how to reset the balance

Published 7th August 2018 by Investors in People

‘Meetings culture:’ what is the root cause?

Collaborative overload

Collaboration can drive competitive advantage, but without clear expectations, it may provoke an “overreliance on emails, meetings and other collaborative tools” that limits effectiveness and leads to burnout.

For example, employees may assume you want them to make all decisions collaboratively, even though this will increase the number of meetings and slow down the rate of change.

Organisations must provide training and direction on what collaboration means in practice. When people have shared expectations on when and how to collaborate, it’s less likely that collaboration will cause meetings to spiral out of control.

Flat structures and cross-functional working environments

Flatter structures work well for many companies, but they can encourage decision-making by consensus – which fuels the number of meetings – if organisations are not clear on where decision-making authority lies.

In this case, rotating decision-making responsibilities or deferring to experts may be better solutions than traditional hierarchies. No-blame cultures help if the over-reliance on decision-making by consensus is driven by a fear of making bad decisions.

Cross-functional working environments also suffer from meeting overload because they cut across the organisation’s established hierarchy. Being clear on roles and responsibilities is important: often overall decision-making authority is imbued in a project owner or senior stakeholder.

Lack of direction, values or goals

When employees are disengaged due to a lack of direction and goals, they may prioritise prosocial activities, such as meetings, as a shared coping mechanism for negative feelings or a way to look busy.

Providing clear goals and cascading these down to individual employees is key. But the line manager is also crucial, helping employees maintain their motivation for high performance by linking these goals with professional and personal aspirations.

Poor employee voice or fear of leadership

If staff can’t redress grievances or get their ideas heard through formal channels, meetings may become a way to influence colleagues informally ‘behind closed doors.’

Additionally, meetings might provide an outlet for emotional frustrations that otherwise have nowhere to go.

All organisations should take steps to strengthen employee voice, but it’s particularly important for those with a meeting problem driven by poor performance in this area.

Meeting overload: fixing the symptoms of poor meetings

Spread responsibilities across attendants

Non-contribution in meetings may happen for a variety of reasons, such as fear or laziness. Often the same people speak up in every meeting. This is detrimental to diversity and innovation.

To encourage participation, rotate responsibilities so that everyone takes notes and chairs meetings.

It is the chair’s responsibility to ask all attendees for their opinion, otherwise you’ll hear from the people with strong personalities and introverts may struggle to get their opinions heard.

Be explicit in what type of meeting you’re running

Is everyone there to make a decision or just to generate ideas? If it’s the latter, do you only want fully-formed ideas or does anything go?

Frustration stems from mismatched expectations: make sure everyone is aware of the type of meeting you’re holding and its purpose, because this guides behaviour.

This is important before, during and after the meeting. For example, if you’re expecting people to bring innovative ideas to the meeting, you must provide the source material in advance, because creative idea generation relies on unconscious incubation.

If you want people to prepare effectively, make them present

Preparation is often key to successful meetings. This is particularly true when the topic is complex and there’s not enough time during the meeting itself for people to familiarise themselves with the subject matter and form viable opinions.

But meeting preparation regularly slips down the priority list compared to other operational concerns, while the collective nature of a meeting means that lack of preparation is often masked by others.

It’s useful, therefore, to have everyone present briefly on their preparation and where it’s taken them in terms of thinking, as a way to ensure people come to the meeting in the best possible place to reach the outcome you’re all looking for.

Make people accountable for follow-up actions

Meetings should have follow-up actions and the chair should set deadlines and expectations, so that people see meetings as driving positive action. These actions will often be around making changes based on the meeting, or implementing new ideas.

However, actions may be simply about solidifying the outcome of the meeting. If the outcome is ‘shared understanding on project goals,’ you could ask the team to codify their shared understanding in a document produced collaboratively.

For further advice on improving meetings, take a look at our article on what small companies should cover in all-hands meetings.

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