How to Stop Bad Meetings From Happening (Before You Get Dragged Into Another One)

Bad meetings happen in every company. They’re the bane of productive workers everywhere.

But if we all agree that a bad meeting does more harm than good, what can we do to stop one from happening in the first place?

Bad Meeting: Bored Woman Can't Listen to Blowhard Talking

Can you make a truly unbiased hiring decision?

Researchers asked students to simulate a hiring meeting. They had a choice of three candidates whose profiles were available to the entire group. Unbeknownst to most of the participants, there was also a hidden profile that only certain members of the group had. The hidden candidate was far superior to the other three.

What do you think happened?

Did the study participants with knowledge of the fourth candidate triumphantly whip out their sterling hidden profiles and declare to the group, “Hold it, this is the one we want!”?

Nope, not even close.

Out of 20 groups, only 4 chose the hidden candidate. The hidden profile stayed hidden in the vast majority of groups.

Writing for io9, Esther Inglis-Arkell spells out the implications of the finding (emphasis added):

Although meetings are supposed to be about pooling individual information, they can be dominated by the “shared information bias.” Put people in a group, and they’ll tend to spend a lot of time discussing information that everyone in the group already has, and either ignore or not mention new information. Sometimes this happens because the one person with new information won’t speak up. They might have the right idea. People tend to form an opinion early in a group decision-making setting, and then justify it to themselves. They’ll inflate and repeat information that supports their position, and disregard and belittle information that shows their initial decision might be wrong. Essentially, a group can easily get into a dynamic where they decide on the “right” decision early, with little information, and spend the rest of the meeting repeating their arguments to show how right they are.

Hat-tip: io9 via ERIC

Shared information bias can happen because the person with the new information won’t speak up.

To make things worse, in some highly hierarchical organizations, when folks try to share new information (especially negative information), they are often discouraged in one form or another.

As Ben Horowitz puts it when he describes working for bad organizations: “To make it all much worse and rub salt in the wound, when [employees] finally work up the courage to tell management how fucked-up their situation is, management denies there is a problem, then defends the status quo, then ignores the problem.”

Bad organizations like the one Horowitz describes practically breed bad meetings—ineffective, unproductive, and politically-motivated non-conversations between adults who should know better.

The inability to share new information, positive or negative, in a group setting is one of the major causes of bad meetings.

What are some others?

Bad Meetings Are Caused by Insecurity

Lonely at Work? Hold a Meeting!

Image via Agile Scout


In Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, author Joseph McCormack spoke to CEO Dan Ariens about what he saw as the cause of bad meetings:

Ariens identified two mistakes that cause meetings to drag: “If people are insecure about their position, they keep searching for the answer as they’re talking,” he explains. “They’re looking for people who will give them some consensus, and they’ll keep going until they find people who nod their head and agree. A more confident person will get right to the point,” he said.

Ariens also blames office politics for rambling, inefficient meeting styles: “People want to make sure that the layers of management are hearing them. They think they will sway opinions and take a leadership position because they own the floor.”

Ariens’ two examples illustrate the danger of having meetings without a clear purpose in mind. Insecurity and politicking can easily dominate any unstructured conversation, especially one at work.

Insecurity is also at the heart of shared information bias—in a world where members of an organization feel secure about their positions, the stigma of sharing new information wouldn’t attach so strongly.

The solution might be to discourage office politics and encourage contributions from junior members. But in an environment where corporate culture change is slow, it may be easier instead to invoke an old-fashioned quality we (should have) learned when we were children:

The power of listening.

A Conversation Is Like Tennis, Not Golf

McCormack writes in Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less about the rare quality of listening in this day and age:

Talking isn’t like a round of golf, in which each player takes turns and waits for the next shot. Talking is more like tennis; it’s about active listening, asking good questions, and bantering back and forth. After a while, a balanced rhythm emerges.

Thus, brevity becomes possible when you have one conversation, not two, and you can control its direction, cadence, and flow. And you accomplish this by doing something incredibly rare: listening. When you aren’t talking as much, you’re making the conversation more about the other person.

I posted this on Twitter a little while ago, and I think it overlaps with McCormack’s point nicely:

Increasing distractions, interruptions, and anxiety lead to bad listening skills. Bad listening leads to bad meetings. Too many bad meetings lead to bad managers, decision paralysis, and burnout on the job.

How do we get out of this self-created trap?

In a surprise to no one, I’m sure, the Japanese have already solved this problem.

White Hat Thinking: The Benefits of Japanese-style Meetings

White Hat Thinking

Photo Credit: Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography via Compfight cc

In Six Thinking Hats, management thinker Edward de Bono posits that Japanese business behavior is different from Western business behavior in one important respect:

Japanese business meetings aren’t about arguing.

At a Western-style meeting the participants sit there with their points of view and in many cases the conclusion they wish to see agreed upon. The meeting then consists of arguing through these different points of view to see which one survives the criticism and which one attracts the most adherents.

In other words, a Western-style meeting resembles a courtroom where the various participants act like lawyers advocating for their ideas (the clients). The most senior person in the room typically acts like a judge who decides which argument prevails and which direction to go in.

The adversarial nature of Western-style discussion goes back thousands of years, to the Greeks and Socrates. It’s in our cultural DNA to yell at each other until the other side “loses.” It affects our politics, our courtrooms, and our boardrooms.

What’s the alternative?

Japanese-style meetings use what de Bono calls “white hat thinking.” The primary purpose is to lay out the facts as they exist. No one walks in with preconceived notions about how to solve the problem—because they recognize that they don’t understand the full shape of the problem yet.

The purpose of the meeting is to listen. So why is there not a total and unproductive silence? Because each participant in turn puts on the white hat and then proceeds to give his piece of neutral information. Gradually the map gets more complete. The map gets richer and more detailed. When the map is finished the route becomes obvious to everyone.

When was the last time you were in a business meeting and the participants all rushed to judge the outcome before having the full facts?

How about the last time you did it in your personal life?

The truth is, it’s difficult not to pre-judge. Especially in areas of life you feel you know well. But here’s a set of instructions designed to stop pre-judgment from happening automatically:

    1. Take a deep breath
    2. Ask whether you have all the information
    3. If not, ask what information appears to be missing
    4. Ask what information, if it were known, could change your mind
    5. Seek out the latter until you’re satisfied with the conclusion

This sequence of steps has the added benefit of quashing your natural tendency to confirmation bias.

Commit to getting feedback, really listening, and incorporating better information into your learning.

And maybe (just maybe) we can make bad meetings a thing of the past.

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