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Tyranny of Corporate Meetings

Updated on February 23, 2020

Have you ever been in a sequence of soul-sucking meetings, day after day, week after week? You are not alone.

Harvard Business Review surveyed 182 executives across a broad spectrum of industries and found that 65% of executives found their meetings “keeping them from finishing their work,” 71% found the meetings they attend “unproductive,” 64% said that meetings “keeping them from deep thinking on important tasks,” and 62% indicated that meetings “negatively affected their teamwork.” The latter is a surprising finding as it is contrary to the wide proclamation that meetings bring people together to encourage teamwork. Study after study shows that there is no correlation between meetings and teamwork spirit or culture. Furthermore, a study at the University of North Carolina by Professor Steven Rogelberg found no relationship between meetings and the happiness/ satisfaction of the employees.

It is not only the sheer number of meetings or the financial cost that are soul-sucking. There are the abysmal psychological damages inflicted on employees by these meetings. Executives bullied by other executives; their peers undermine managers’ hard work; the competition of counterparts browbeats senior management, etc.

We can reduce the number of meetings, make them productive, peaceful, or reduce their madness by indirectly changing the culture.

Based on the observations of about two decades in the corporate world, I jotted down the following:

1) It is not rude to ask the meeting’s organizer, “why am I invited to the meeting.” Whether the organizer senior or junior to you, you can always politely and diplomatically ask him/ her “ May I know why is my attendance important” or “ I like to be prepared for my meetings, May I know what is expected of me in the meeting” then if you are answered, you most probably find that what is expected of you can be accommodated by sending some feedback or an opinion on the phone to the organizer or in an email without the need to attend the meeting. And if you are the organizer, it is counterproductive and sometimes impolite to send invitations to people to participate in a meeting without informing them beforehand why their attendance is essential. So, before punching the names on the Outlook invitation answer this question “why am I inviting this person to the meeting, what do we want him/her to say or do in the meeting? Can we not get his/her feedback in an email that could be answered within 24 or 48 hours? Cannot that feedback be solicited on a 2-minutes phone call?

2) Respect the time. Come on time and leave on time.

3) All the participants in the meetings are already colleagues; they see and talk to each other, probably more than they talk to their spouses. So, the “networking” before and after the meeting (sometimes this “networking” takes more time than the meeting itself) is counterproductive. And if you still think you should “network,” that is fine but do not judge other colleagues who pull off immediately after the meeting adjourns as “anti-social.” My observation of people who insist on this chatting before or after the session is most probably are either lobbying, acting busy and important, or scared. There must be someone they fear, a bully; they seek to silence his/ her intimidation by gaining a laugh with him/ her as if they want to say to that bully “ we are cool with you, we come in peace, please do not come hard on us save us some lashes.” Most of these brief gatherings are surrounded by masks of friendship, closeness, and mutual understanding, but underneath those masks are fear, insecurity, and intimidation. Silence intimidates people. They cannot help not talking, and if you do not chip in, they judge and accuse you of surliness.

4) Passion is not everything. Neither is mastery of the technical skills of your craft. Passion and mastery could cause you to lose your cool in a meeting if you were challenged by people who are not as skillful. Why would they challenge you if they are not as skilled? Well, people are talking and interpretation machines. People speak for many reasons. What one can do, however, is maintain the cool. Mastery of feelings is far more critical than the mastery of the skills, the craft, or passion. I am probably not entirely qualified to preach that. I lost my cool in several meetings and regret it every single day.

5) They do not pay you per word in meetings. So, if you do not have something worthwhile to say, keep quiet. Before saying anything in a meeting, ask yourself this question: will what am I going to say add value? Will it help the presenter/speaker communicate his message? Will it help the people around the table understand and communicate? Defuse a miscommunication without taking sides? Is it at all necessary? If not, then keep quiet.

6) Have you ever been in a meeting room full of executives and half of them have their eyes glued to their iPad and mobiles while you are standing making a presentation to them? How did it feel? Do not tell me that they are not interested because the presenter bored them and did not get their attention. There are chronically disinterested and wrongly complacent people. You cannot cure that. What you can do is that you maintain your professional and ethical manner; Look at the person talking or presenting. Even if you disagree with every word he speaks, keep looking. But in an unthreatening way.

7) Leaders are readers. Come to the meeting prepared. If you are in a leadership position or aspiring to become leaders of the future, read. Read the material of the meetings carefully to give an opinion or refrain from providing any advice. If the meeting requires voting or a resolution, and you come to the meeting unprepared, what is your plan? Are you planning to go with the herd? Who sold you this plan? Voting could work against you without you knowing it. Solution? Read.

8) Give recognition. If you are not part of the “we,” do not use it. Give people credit due to them.

9) Do not win by your title, in discussion or arguments in a meeting win by your intellect, integrity, value-addition, and leadership. Do not impose on the other party views because you are higher in raking than him on the corporate ladder. If you are higher on that ladder, people at the end will shut up because of fear, not because of respect. It is the fear of survival. In the end, people have bills to pay and shelter to maintain. The question is, do you want people to fear or respect you—that is a leadership question worth pondering.

10) Get rid of the “smartest person in the room” syndrome. You will be amazed by how people lower than you on the organization ladder are much knowledgeable than you. So, if you think you are the smartest person in the room, most probably you are not. Do not mistake people’s silence for weakness. People give you space because they do not want to wrestle with a pig.

11) Listen. Listen. Listen. Do not interrupt. However, is your title and the title of the speaker/presenter, do not interrupt. Listen attentively and respectfully.

12) Stop your “buts.” You do not need to tail every statement/ idea/ said by a presenter with your “buts,” showing how smart or experienced you are.

13) Do not pass the buck. If it is your responsibility, own it. Before you pass the buck, ask yourself, why am I on the payroll? If the topic of discussion is under your mandate, accept it, and deliver on it. No one cares how busy you are, do not bring that fact to the meeting, and do not bring the fact that you are understaffed to the discussion. Other people around the table do not have to listen to your suffering or miscommunications with the HR. Solve your problems outside the meeting, and do not dump your work on others.

14) Humility. Do not patronize. Unless the invitees around the table are maniacs and psychologically unstable who are trying to make you feel stripped of your corporate levels and entitlement, you do not need to show the attitude of superiority of your titles and influence. Relax. Enjoy the leadership position and let that be manifested by your understanding, support, contribution, and empathy.

15) Do not ask to test. Meeting rooms should not be a battlefield. Do not ask to test people’s knowledge or preparedness, do not ask to corner people or put people under a bad light.

16) Do not insinuate. Be bold and courageous to make your point directly, politely, professionally, peacefully, and ethically.

17) Rely on yourself. In a meeting, no one is going to stand up for you. Not your boss, teammate, nor even your subordinates. No one is going to risk anything for you. Even if you lobby before a meeting for a cause, you will be amazed at how people of various levels shift and change sides instantly. Do your job, stick to your principles, have your views backed by facts and evidence. Do your part and let go.

18) Meetings are not battlefields, but they are examination rooms, primarily if decision-makers attend them. They observe and assess you. Top decision-makers might not regularly interact with you during a year, but they will happily sign your promotion or eagerly reject it based on only one or two meetings you attended with them.

19) Do not wrestle with a pig. And it is only you who will get dirty, and the pig will like it. People from different walks of life attend meetings. However mentally and psychologically prepared you are, you will stumble upon a pig in a meeting, a person who is a bully who tries to drag you to mud, a futile baseless and value-less argument. Identify who the pig is and do not get into the mud with him/ her. In the twenty years of the corporate world, I do not deny that I succumbed to that and fallen into the mud on some occasions. I hope I learned the lesson; that muddy experience excruciated me for a long time.


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