Dr. Steven Rogelberg reveals what research says about one-on-one meetings and offers useful tips to help make your next meeting more productive.


Making Meetings Less Awful

Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, reveals what research says about meetings and offers useful tips to help make your next meeting more productive. (Episode 13)

Publish Date: November 20, 2019

Episode Length: 37 minutes

/ Resources / Podcasts / Making Meetings Less Awful

In this Episode

Meetings can feel like time-wasters, but it doesn't have to be this way. In this episode Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of the new book The Surprising Science of Meetings, reveals what research says about meetings and offers useful tips to help make your next meeting more productive.


Craig Irons: Hello again and welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast from DDI. My name is Craig Irons and I'll be your host today. If you had to identify, in one word the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be meetings. These are the words of Pulitzer prize winning humor writer, Dave Barry, but of course to most leaders, meetings are no laughing matter.

They can consume too many of the 480 minutes we have each day to make an impact. They could take us away from tasks we may think are more pressing and they can either bore us to tears or drive up our stress levels, sometimes at the same time. But our guest today on the Leadership 480 Podcast, Dr. Steven Rogelberg believes it doesn't have to be this way. Stephen is a professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and author of a terrific new book called The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance.

Craig Irons: Steven Rogelberg, thank you for joining us on the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Steve Rogelberg: Well thank you. It's great to be here.

Craig Irons: You know your book, it's doing really well and you've had some really nice accolades for it, haven't you?

Steve Rogelberg: I have. It's been a crazy ride. Yeah, the book was released I think January 1st and yeah, I mean I was certainly hopeful that people would read it, but on January 2nd, Washington Post named it the number one leadership book to watch for in 2019, and then it just kept building off of that. And as someone who's been studying and doing research on meetings for 20 years, it's just incredibly exciting to see that there's an appetite for this meeting science.

Craig Irons: Well that's really exciting as an author, I'm sure. Now let's just dive right into it. So you know, meetings have a bad reputation for wasting time, for keeping us from getting work done, but is that a fair assessment or do meetings have a bit of an image problem?

Steve Rogelberg: So I think meetings have a meetings problem and so my research with a host of organizations generally finds that around 50% of time in meetings is a good use of time. So I don't like to think that means 50% of your meetings are good or 50% of your meetings are bad. I think almost every single meeting has positive qualities about it. The issue is that the ratio of good time to bad time is just not where it needs to be. A 50% return on your meeting investment is not, not kind of the ideal. I would like to see organizations achieving closer to 80 to 90% of time in meetings being seen and experienced as a good use of time.

Craig Irons: Wow. So I would say that's a pretty lofty ambition.

Steve Rogelberg: Yeah, but I think it's possible. I really do. I think that's what's I think so exciting about the book is that it lays out the research and the research does provide a path forward. And by leaning up our meetings, by inviting the right people, by engaging in better leadership practices, like we can make that time into a good use of time, that 80 to 90%... Now maybe not the 90% but that's 80% of return on investment is absolutely possible.

Craig Irons: So let's take a step back to really the bedrock of your book, and that is of course your research on meetings that you have done. And I guess you know, understanding that you are a meetings researcher, a question that comes to mind for me is how on earth did you come to be interested in studying meetings? I mean, were you sitting in a meeting one day and thought to yourself, "There has to be a better way." How did this become an area of interest for you?

Steve Rogelberg: Well, as young as five years old, I hated meetings. No, I'm just kidding.

You know, as an organizational psychologist, I am moved to want to study topics that are frustrating to people at work and yet also really important, and meetings fall right into that sweet spot. So my concern about people ending their days, feeling that level of frustration, feeling like they didn't get much done despite the fact that they were in four or five hours of meetings, that truly worried me, especially when you think about the fact that there are 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. alone.

Craig Irons: Wow.

Steve Rogelberg: Yeah. I mean it's just my appetite to trying to find a path forward was really strong, especially because the elimination of meetings is a false goal, right? We need meetings. We need meetings for communication, cooperation, consensus, decision making. So we don't want to eliminate meetings, we just want to make them better. And there is a way forward.

Craig Irons: You know, a lot of times when I'm sitting in meetings, I catch myself thinking, "Boy, I could be getting a lot of work done if I wasn't sitting in this meeting." Really losing sight of the fact that the meeting itself is an important form of work.

Steve Rogelberg: It's can be. I mean a world without meetings is much more problematic, right? I mean, organizational democracy takes place in meetings.

Craig Irons: Right.

Steve Rogelberg: Meetings were an evolutionary perspective, right? So back during the industrial revolution, we had command and control systems where you would just follow the boss and the boss would shout orders. But we've since learned that well, organizations can reach new heights to the extent that they engage their people, right? To tap into that creativity and promote inclusion and meetings become that mechanism to allow voices and teamwork to happen. So they're just so critical to organizations abilities to really become more resilient and agile and be successful.

Craig Irons: So thinking back over my career and even back to when I was an undergraduate in college, back in the late 1980s one of the textbooks I was assigned for an organizational communication class was called How To Run Better Business Meetings, which was a book that came out of the 3M Corporation. Then a decade later, I edited a book on meetings. Now here we are 20 years after that, still talking about meetings. So what is it about meetings that seems to forever make them a topic for discussion?

Steve Rogelberg: It has, it has. I think meeting frustration occurred way back during cave person time, right? People, you get people together and you know there's going to be reason to find problems, but I do think that we are at a point of inflection. You know, again, harking back to the success, the accolades around the book, to me it's just like... What I get excited about is not the fact that these things promote more sales. What I get excited about is it truly does communicate that leaders and organizations have reached a kind of a point in time where they're not going to accept bad meetings as a way of life. That they're willing to have an open mind to a different approach. And my book versus, I think, the vast majority of other meeting books, what makes it different is it doesn't present a magic formula because magic formulas they never work.

Craig Irons: Right?

Steve Rogelberg: So what my book does and says, "You're a meeting leader. You're actually making tons of decisions, whether you realize you're making or not, you're making lots of decisions from who to invite, how to lead the meeting, how to facilitate the meeting, how long the meetings should be." And what I want you to do is be intentional and there isn't one best way of doing it, but here's a variety of options and pick the option that fit with you and the culture of your organization. So it's a much more flexible approach. And if I can get meeting leaders to start buying into this notion of intentionality and recognizing that they're inherently a steward of other's time, then I know that they will then go down a path where that meeting time is going to honor folk's time, and as a result lead to better outcomes.

Craig Irons: So picking up on that idea of being a steward of meeting participants time, you know, one thing you talk about in the book that I found absolutely fascinating is that the effectiveness of a meeting can be subjective. You know, in other words, the person leading the meeting can come away with a far different view than everyone else of how effective that meeting was. Can you talk about that?

Steve Rogelberg: Yes. So basically if you survey individuals after a meeting, typically one individual will leave that meeting feeling more positively about the experience than others. And just as you alluded to, it is the meeting leader. The meeting leader seems to have a bit of a blind spot, but this, you know, this doesn't, shouldn't surprise us, and that the meeting leader is controlling the experience, the meeting leaders agenda is absolutely being met. The meeting leader is doing all... Is able to talk when they want to talk.

Steve Rogelberg: So the meeting leader has this elevated experience of it. And this is really important, right? Because if you have this elevated viewpoint of a meeting, then you're constantly saying, "Well, it's not me, it's everyone else." And thus your appetite to make changes might not be as strong as we would like it, especially because, and here's another statistic I think that will blow your mind. Research suggests that only around 20% of leaders ever receive any training on how to lead a meeting.

Craig Irons: Wow.

Steve Rogelberg: Right? So when you think about 55 yeah, it's crazy. 55 million meetings a day and only 20% of leaders are receiving training. And leaders have this blind spot. And organizations typically have no assessment of meetings on their engagement surveys. So there's no feedback mechanism. There's no training mechanism. And you have this blind spot. That is a perfect storm of leaders being out of touch.

Craig Irons: You know, that's kind of incredible if you think about it, considering all of the time that people spend in meetings that organizations would really turn a blind eye to the fact that they need to make the experience better for everyone and to make meetings more effective.

Steve Rogelberg: Exactly. So we talked about the meeting leader blind spot, but there's just an organizational blind spot. Organizations are not... Don't have systems in place to make meetings better. And some of this stems that you can't go into an organization and find a CMO, a chief meeting officer, right? Who owns making meetings better? I mean, I would contest that an organization absolutely needs to have someone be a CMO of sorts. I don't mean as an independent standalone job, right? But as part of their job, they are owning meetings. They are making sure that this massive investment, perhaps the single largest investment an organization makes without being checked on, this massive investment is realized and has a good return.

Steve Rogelberg: And so we definitely want to not only engage meeting leaders and thinking about meetings differently, but we also want to engage leaders of organizations in recognizing that they can build systems that help sustain better meeting practices.

Craig Irons: So let's take a step back from talking about this, the organizational level back to the individual level. So just thinking about the role of planning a meeting and making it successful, what does a meeting leader need to do beforehand to ensure that that meeting is going to be a success?

Steve Rogelberg: So there's so much, right? There's so much, which is why it's a whole book. There's so many potential decision points. So let me cherry pick-

Craig Irons: Please.

Steve Rogelberg: Just to keep the conversation going. So let's focus on the agenda piece since you raised that. So we all under kind of a conventional belief that having an agenda is perhaps the most important thing you can do to have a good meeting. And interestingly, the research actually doesn't really support that. Having an agenda in of itself does not, does not necessarily predict effectiveness of the meeting. And when you step back, this is probably not a surprise, in that so much of agendas are merely recycled meeting to meeting. What matters more is what's on the agenda, right? Is it relevant to people and what matters even more after that is how it's facilitated, did the the leader engage folks? Did the leader try different techniques to bring kind of good conversation.

Steve Rogelberg: So agendas matter, but we also want to make sure that the leader it building the agenda properly. For example, are they soliciting input from others? Are they ordering their agenda so the most important items are covered first, right? Because whatever's first on the agenda gets the most attention. And would you like me to share another agenda bonus tip?

Craig Irons: Please.

Steve Rogelberg: Okay. So when we think about agendas, they're typically structured as a set of topics to be discussed. So your agenda bonus tip is I would like leaders to consider framing their agendas as a set of questions to be answered. So this is fundamentally a different activity. Thinking of your agenda as a set of questions to be answered, really gets you to think more. Not only do you think more, but now you have a better idea of who to invite to the meeting because they're relevant to the questions. You have a better sense of when to end the meeting because the questions have been answered. And if you just can't think of any questions, you likely don't need a meeting.

Craig Irons: That's great. So I want to dive into some of the strategies that you mentioned in your book because they're really terrific. But you know, one thing I want to ask you first is, given all of the research you've done and the research you've looked at that others have done, when it comes to this body of research about the science of meetings and you've really sort of dug into it, what has surprised you the most?

Steve Rogelberg: That's an interesting question. So I often get asked, what's surprising about meeting science? And my answer is typically that there is a meeting science that typically is what surprises people. You know, for me personally, I would actually go back to something we talked about earlier, which is that percentage of people who receive training that the fact that only 20% or so. I think that's just an incredible statistic.

I also find it really interesting... I have data on something called meeting recovery syndrome. And what this research has shown is that when you have a bad meeting, you just don't leave it at the door. It sticks with you. You ruminate about it and you co-ruminate on it. And some recent data we just collected shows that you report that it negatively affects your productivity.

And so I think that's a really meaningful finding, because when we think about a bad meeting effecting the here and now the fact that it has these lingering effects I think are really particularly important.

Craig Irons: We're talking today to Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of the book, The Surprising Science of Meetings. Steven, so the one fix you just discussed there, which was around an agenda and structuring an agenda so that it's a series of questions as opposed to topics for discussion. That seems maybe not just to be common sense perhaps, but you know, considering this and also some of the other strategies you outlined in your book. I mean they're not really rocket science. They just seem to be almost subtle changes in how we think about meetings and and our behavior when it comes to meetings. But you know, if changes like this that are relatively small could have a fairly big impact, why do we find them so challenging to implement?

Steve Rogelberg: Well, I think what happens is that people engage in practices that they themselves have experienced and then we replicate those practices. So we look at the dysfunctional practices of others, and even though we think they are dysfunctional, we still see them as normative. And so that serves to sustain these dysfunctional practices over time and across people.

So I don't think it's purposeful. No one sets out to say, "I want to be a bad meeting leader." But these normative cultural characteristics, just keep sustaining these dysfunctional practices. So what I have found really powerful is when organizations, and this is probably one of my most fun things that I've seen come from my book, is when I see these organizations, basically get people into groups and their intact departments and teams and they read the book, and talk about the book. And as an organization they start saying, "Oh my gosh, you know, here's a new way of thinking about meetings." And then they say, "Let's commit to doing X, Y, and Z from here on in and let's give it a go for three months and then we'll do some evaluation and see how we're doing."

And those conversations are really energetic. It's amazing how, how much people are wanting these conversations and just having these conversations, you know, and recognizing you do have a bunch of potential evidence-based paths, leads to kind of jumping on some low hanging fruit, and then you can see the better returns that we talked about at the start of our conversation.

Craig Irons: So in your book you discuss some specific strategies for making meetings better. Can you talk about some of those strategies?

Steve Rogelberg: Well let's talk a little bit about meeting lanes. Because to me this is a great example of some low hanging fruit. So most meetings are an hour long. And why do you think that is?

Craig Irons: I'm going to guess that if I'm scheduling a meeting in Outlook, that that would be the default.

Steve Rogelberg: Excellent. So yeah, so these meetings are often an hour because that's the default setting and that's not a good reason, especially given Parkinson's law. So Parkinson's law is the idea that work expands to fill whatever time is allotted to it. So if you schedule a meeting for an hour, it will magically take an hour, but we can use this to our advantage, right? We could say, you know what? Let's schedule this meeting for 45 minutes and it will take 45 minutes, 35 minutes. It will take 35 minutes. Like we have that control. A meeting leader can say, "Okay, given these goals or these questions that we want to answer as a group, how long do I think this should reasonably take?" And then schedule it for that. Parkinson's law should lead to that outcome. But I'd even challenge you to go further. I'd say once you determine how long you think it will take, I would encourage you to even dial it back five minutes or so, create a little extra pressure.

Psychological research has shown that when teams are experiencing moderate levels of pressure, they tend to be more focused and perform more optimally. So basically we could start thinking more carefully about our meeting times such that you know, these meetings occur, with the sense of urgency, which is great. And every time that you, let's say have a 40 minute meeting instead of an hour, you're basically then giving back 20 minutes to everyone there, which is an incredible gift that you can give, right? They're going to very much appreciate it. 20 minutes across, compounded across all those attendees is a whole host of additional time spent serving customers and doing other important tasks.

So I think this is just a nice example how this intentionality can come into be, right? So don't be a slave to your calendar program. Instead, make the calendar program serve you by you deciding what makes sense and scheduling it that way. And there's just so many wins for both the meeting itself and the individual employees who are getting time returned to them.

Craig Irons: And someone pointed out to me that in Outlook you can actually change that default from an hour so that you can schedule a meeting for any length you like. So actually, we have that power to make that change.

Steve Rogelberg: We do, we do. And, and more and more organizations I think are starting to push on that. You know, we don't have to start a meeting on the hour, right? We can start a meeting at 1:15 we could start a meeting at 1:25 like we can do these things. So, you know, if we're constantly finding that people are showing up late to our meetings because they have lots of stuff before that, well, okay, let's change our start time. And so if we started 10 minutes after the hour and then go to the next hour, that's a 50 minute meeting. And what's just so exciting, and I really... I think meeting leaders will absolutely see this is whatever... They will marvel at Parkinson's law coming into place every time they have a meeting.

Craig Irons: The thing I find really interesting about Parkinson's law and I see this every day, is that if we have a meeting scheduled for an hour but we actually finish covering everything we needed to cover in maybe 35 minutes, we continue to maybe move on to some other topics and we find a way to fill that hour.

Steve Rogelberg: Yes, you are absolutely correct.

Craig Irons: So a listener who is listening to our conversation today who may want to take one thing away and apply it to the very next meeting that they are a part of, what would you recommend as being one thing different that the listener could do with the next meeting they have facing them?

Okay. Well, I'll offer a piece of advice that some listeners might be able to use but it's always going to depend on the type of meeting that you're having, but let me share this. So a very common activity in meetings is for kind of the group to engage in ideation, brainstorming. So if that is on your agenda, if you do see that, hey you want to have people kind of generate potential solutions to a challenge, I want to challenge you to do it in silence.

The research shows that when groups brainstorm in silence, just writing ideas down or using an app to enter the information or typing into a Google doc and it shows on the screen when brainstorming is done in silence, nearly twice as many ideas are generated and the ideas generated tend to be more innovative and more disruptive. So my challenge is try using silence, see how it works.

There are other apps where you can quickly test consensus by letting people vote on a few different options and see where, see where everyone truly is at as opposed to individuals kind of changing where they're at based on what they see the boss is saying. So that would be, I think something you could kind of sink your teeth in is thinking about some alternative approaches for engaging the people who attend your meetings.

Craig Irons: So we've spent a lot of time here today talking about meeting leaders and the importance of their planning before meeting and putting together the right agenda and making sure they take a very intentional approach to meetings, which is a word you use that I absolutely love. But what about attendees? Do they also have some responsibility as far as helping to make a meeting more effective?

Steve Rogelberg: Well, that's a good question. And participants, they relinquish a lot of power when they come into a meeting room to the meeting leader. But with that said, participants can still embody the types of characteristics that they want to see in others. Right? So they appreciate people listening, they can listen. If they appreciate people being succinct, they can be succinct. So they can kind of be a model attendee by engaging in these constructive behaviors.

They also can engage in shadow facilitation of sorts where they can notice some dynamics in the meeting and look to rectify it. So if they notice, for example, that Sasha isn't talking much, they can say, "Hey Sasha, what are your thoughts about this?" So they can kind of do some of these positive facilitation behaviors that should elevate the meeting as well.

Craig Irons: So if we can take some concrete steps to make meetings better, the things we've talked about today in terms of how leaders can be more intentional, how they can plan better, how they can make the best use of a tool such as an agenda and so forth. Could we get to a point here where people actually begin to look forward going to meetings? Is that too much to ask? Is that sort of a pie in the sky goal or is that something that you think is a good goal for us all to aspire to?

Steve Rogelberg: I don't necessarily want... I don't know if that's realistic. But what I do think is realistic is I can make it so they don't dread going to the meeting.

Craig Irons: Fair enough.

Steve Rogelberg: Which is a total win, which is a total win. I think meetings inherently take you away from the activity you were doing before that, and our research suggests that their kind of experienced as interruptions. So an interruption will always kind of engender some angst, but I do think that if leaders build a track record where their meetings are well run, right? You used the term 48 minutes, right. So that when they really start being dialed in to making those 48 minutes meaningful and productive and engaging for those that they are stewards of, then it will create an environment of engagement, of inclusion, creativity, of cooperation, all kinds of positive outcomes.

Craig Irons: Let me ask you about the intrusion of technology into meetings. You know, in recent years video conferences have become more prevalent. I know you and I today are talking over Skype. So as meetings become increasingly virtual, does that have some impact on meeting quality or some of the considerations that go into making a meeting successful? Or is it really just to the same challenges and principles apply, I guess that applied when meetings were really just people all sitting around one table.

Steve Rogelberg: Well, basically the keys to running an effective face to face meeting are all relevant to running a remote meeting, but they become supercharged. The levels of dysfunction in remote meetings is much higher. They're fraught with additional challenges, and I'll give you an example. If you ask people what's the least effective meeting type? They typically say the face to face meeting. I'm sorry, the most least effective meeting type, they typically say the remote meeting. If you ask people which meeting type do you most prefer? They typically will say the remote meeting, right?

Craig Irons: Interesting.

Steve Rogelberg: And that speaks to the dysfunction. They prefer it because they can multitask and do other things. And that's obviously highly dysfunctional to the meeting being effective. So basically meeting leaders, and I have a whole chapter in the book about this, but I'll share just a couple of quick things.

So a meeting leader just has to be more dialed in to the dynamics of these remote meetings and their role as a air traffic controller. So, first of all, when at all possible, they want people to attend video. The more visual cues, the less likely that people will just be multitasking, right? You're creating accountability and you're asking people to be fully present. Then as someone who's an air traffic controller, you are calling people out, you're constantly saying, "Hey, Gordon, what do you think about this? Jane, give me your comments." Right? So you are just dialed in to making sure that no one could kind of fade out and you're using names, you're trying to create that identifiability again, more mindfulness and more presence.

You're using the chat room so that if someone wants to talk, they indicate it in that chat room so that you know, and then you could call that person out. So basically that facilitator of a remote meeting is someone who is not trying to dominate the experience, but instead they're really, really connected with the flow that's occurring and trying to create processes to keep that flow moving. And then they can also leverage other techniques that I don't think we have time to go into here, but there really are a variety of different ways that we can kind of conceive of these remote meetings differently that can be very helpful.

Craig Irons: So in addition to having written your book, you also speak regularly about meetings. So when you are up in front of these audiences, are you finding that this is a topic, you know, making meetings better that people are interested in and that they're really almost kind of hungry for any help they can get in terms of making their next meeting more productive?

Steve Rogelberg: They are tremendously open to it. I have been just blown away by the appetite for kind of the meeting science and what we can learn from it. I think people are hungry for different approaches, and I think the fact that there's science behind it, they're taking to it much more strongly than you can imagine.

So I absolutely, I'm excited. I'm excited about meetings. I'm excited that the science can help improve meetings. I'm excited that because things are so bad that if you make even 20% of your meetings 20% better, the incremental effects are great. And you know, while we can't control other people's meetings, we still can control our meetings, right? We can make better choices, we can lead our meeting effectively and then hopefully our practices become normative.

Craig Irons: I have one final question for you Steven, and this is a question that we ask all of our guests. This is a podcast about leadership, so I want to ask you if you could share a moment of leadership that had an impact on you?

Steve Rogelberg: You know what I have always appreciated in leaders is when they are honest brokers, they are transparent, they communicate. And so when I think about some situations at work that could have been from a colleague passing away unexpectedly, to a crisis, those leaders who can really kind of internalized this problem as more of a challenge and they, instead of closing up, they open up and really use this challenge as an opportunity to demonstrate excellent leadership and excellent inclusion. Those are the things that for me personally, kind of resonate and when I experienced them I'm very grateful.

Craig Irons: Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Steve Rogelberg: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Craig Irons: And thanks to you, our listeners as always, for joining us on the Leadership 480 Podcast. My name is Craig Irons reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.

Topics covered in this blog