Freeing Up Time for Greatness: A Psychological Lens to “Death By Meetings” Habits

About 10 years ago, I worked with a client who couldn’t understand why adding a layer of assistant managers to the healthcare organization – a million-dollar investment – didn’t reduce the overload of frontline clinical managers. This was a well-intentioned, highly supportive and not inexpensive investment; healthcare leaders truly have the weight of the world on their shoulders, experience compassion fatigue right alongside their frontline staff, and have a huge job such as leading a staff with upwards of a 250:1 ratio.

This initiative was truly an attempt to improve leaders’ wellness, focus and effectiveness. Cut down the number of direct reports, committees, and duties, and you have more time for prioritizing what matters most. (In fact, a recent article discussed a similar strategy to support Chief Nursing Officers (CNOs) burning out in COVID.)

It makes sense right? As the saying goes, “many hands make light work” (or at least lighter), right?

The trouble was that managers, as well as the assistant managers, reported being just as overwhelmed as before this initiative was launched. How could this be?

To better understand this seemingly paradoxical situation, during a facilitated session of the human resources and organizational development professionals, one brave brand new safety officer asked sheepishly: “I’m just wondering, why do we have standing room only in our meetings?

[Insert the noise of a needle scratching across a record.]

Wait, what? “Tell us more about that” I offered (Pro Tip: this is facilitator speak for “I don’t get it but we might be onto something here.”)

Well, it’s just that it seems every meeting I go to there are so many people that inevitably someone has to stand. Do we need so many people at every meeting?

It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, one by one, metaphorical lightbulbs burst forth from everyone’s heads. Yep, they now saw it too. This fresh pair of eyes revealed something that had been an “invisible” aspect of their culture up to that point: “if you’re not in the room, you’re not in the loop.”

For this organization at least, they learned an important lesson: to support leaders, they need to be given permission to not have all the answers and feel they need to have their fingers on the pulse of everything happening in their teams and projects.

We all have aspects of our culture that confound us. Ah, those blessed fresh eyes!

In fact, once I saw it in this team, I saw it over and over and over again in my own and other organizations and industries. Hence, the ‘death by meeting’ culture. If you believe this might even be partly true of your industry or workplace, you might be wondering, so what to do about it?

Consider these ideas:

  1. If you run out of chairs (literally and metaphorically), that means you have too many people at the meeting; make some people ad hoc
  2. If you can find a smaller meeting room, do it and test if you have more folks than chairs
  3. During your busiest time of the year, put a hiatus on all meetings and then “audition” them back into the organizational structure
  4. If there aren’t agenda and action-oriented next step summaries (you may call them minutes), don’t go to a meeting
  5. Cut the meeting in half to test what’s really important
  6. Ban all “half-loop” content (i.e., the FYIs that could be shared in a written update or the meeting structure where the chair does all the talking)

Now, with virtual meetings, there are no physical constraints. We have to be even more intentional of self-governance and team oversight of the type, volume and quality of work gatherings.

(To dive deeper into seeing meetings as gatherings, gradThe Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker.)

Suppose you’re committed to ensuring that you and others don’t fall victim to the “death by meeting” unhealthy habits we get into at work. In that case, I think you’ll find this Harvard Business Review article helpful. Given what the authors found, this is something we need to self-monitor and examine from an organizational content standpoint.

If you would like more resources on effective communication for your team, check out these previous posts:

PS – if you see that communication might be one of the roots of this issue, you may be interested in checking out this microlearning course. The FINE communication formula helps you communicate succinctly, and the “communicating in loops” allows you to ensure feedback enriches dialogue, decisions, and relationships.

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