Steven Rogelberg ,PhD, “meeting scientist” and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance
Whether you are part of the C-suite or a team leader, you’ve no doubt led at least one meeting in the last few weeks. Only 20 percent of leaders who facilitate meetings have some form of organizational meeting training. If you fall in the 80 percent who have been known to fly by the seat of their pants, now might be a good time to reexamine your meeting-leadership skills as we enter a new year of virtual, hybrid, and in-person meetings. For the latest science-backed tips, our own Kate L. Harrison spoke with Steven Rogelberg, PhD, “meeting scientist” and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, which was recognized by The Washington Post as the number one leadership book to watch for. Having researched meetings for more than 20 years, Rogelberg is arguably the leading organizational meeting expert in the world!
”In our research, we discovered that the best meeting leaders have something in common:
a similar mindset of recognizing that they are the stewards of their attendees’ time
Q: What is the current meeting landscape like, and what is the biggest challenge that it’s facing?
Steven Rogelberg: Meeting efficiency—making sure the right people are in the room and are using the time effectively. There are simply too many bad meetings and too much wasted time in meetings. Don’t get me wrong, we need meetings for communication, cooperation, and consensus decision-making. Organizational democracy takes place in meetings. But doing meetings ineffectively has a negative impact on team success, innovation, and creativity. It promotes individual frustration, fatigue, and lack of productivity. The sheer volume of poorly conducted meetings most people must attend is a problem, and it can make finding time to do other work very difficult. When surveyed, 47 percent of employees say that attending meetings is their number one time waster, and 73 percent of people admit that they use meeting time to do other work, possibly because they feel so pressed for time.
Q: I think everyone can agree that it would be nice to have fewer meetings, but not all of us write books on the topic. What inspired you to take up this cause?
SR: Bad meetings can drain the life out of both individuals and organizations. However, meetings done well, leveraging evidence-based solutions, can be transformative and hugely positive. Improving just one meeting at a time can yield organizational benefits—from cost savings to better organizational strategy. It also increases individual feelings of satisfaction, engagement, and accomplishment. I wrote the book to elevate meeting science, as meeting science can truly help make both leaders and organizations better by promoting efficiency, productivity, increased innovation and employee engagement, superior decision-making, better communication, and increased camaraderie across the workforce.
Q: In your book, you say that good leaders should think of themselves as “stewards of people’s time.” Can you explain?
SR: In our research, we discovered that the best meeting leaders have something in common: a similar mindset of recognizing that they are the stewards of their attendees’ time. When you adopt this mindset, you become intentional with your meeting decisions from start to finish. For every meeting, you think about who needs to be there, what you want to achieve, how long you think it will take, and the appropriate setting. The thought of someone leaving your meetings saying it was a waste of time is something you fully dedicate yourself to avoiding by properly designing and executing the meeting.
Q: “Smaller is better” seems like a good rule of thumb, but there is nothing worse than feeling like you missed an important meeting. How do you balance this as the organizer?
SR: Smaller is indeed better from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint. Larger meetings can lead to attendees “hiding in a crowd” and not fully engaging due to feeling more anonymous. It’s better to have the right people in the room and then afterward follow up with those who did not attend with a summary and any specific action items.
You can also have a candid conversation with your team about meeting norms. Talk about what makes for a good meeting and when it is and is not appropriate to invite each other to various meetings. A final idea is to have employees attend only part of the meeting, using a timed agenda. This will let you be more inclusive while controlling the bloat.
Q: In your book, you talk about meeting culture and thinking of running a meeting like being the host at a party. Can you give some examples of what this means in practice?
SR: Facilitation begins the moment the first attendee enters the meeting and lasts until the last person leaves. You are as much the host as you are the meeting leader. Set the tone by greeting people as they arrive or even playing music. Basically, help attendees make separation from what they were doing before the meeting to the meeting itself. During the meeting, ask questions, engage others, and model active listening. Remember that yours is not the only voice in the room.
In addition to making meetings nicer to attend, these practices can prevent the negative impact a bad meeting experience can have on both long-term employee happiness and short-term productivity. For example, one recent study found that the effects of a bad meeting can linger postmeeting in the form of attendees grousing and complaining instead of focusing on work—a phenomenon called meeting recovery syndrome.
Q: You make it clear in the book that end-meeting practices are also important for morale. Why is this so important, and what do you mean by “ending a meeting well”?
SR: First, meetings really must end on time or earlier than expected. Not ending on time causes significant stress to attendees who may have other obligations after the meeting, and it shows a lack of respect for the time of others. If a meeting goes long, it implies that the meeting leader does not value the team’s time, which may undermine the leader’s authority or the employees’ goodwill.
Furthermore, it’s not just important to end a meeting on time; you also must end it well. Especially for virtual meetings, make sure that the notes have clear action items assigned to directly responsible individuals with a clear time frame for next steps.
Q: Is there anything else that most leads fail to do well when it comes to meetings?
SR: A survey of over 1,300 managers found that while 79 percent thought that the meetings they personally planned and ran were extremely or very productive, only 56 percent said the same thing about meetings planned and run by others. So, this “I’m not the problem” attitude is the place to start.
Assume you are the problem and solicit attendee feedback, either in person or electronically, about how you can improve. Identify your key strengths and weaknesses as a meeting facilitator and then develop a plan for improvement.
For more innovative ways to run meetings smarter, check out Dr. Rogelberg’s website (stevenrogelberg.com), where you can find valuable resources such as meeting facilitation checklists, meeting assessment tools, alternative-approach meeting agendas, and a huddle-meeting implementation checklist—to name just a few. And of course, you should read his book!
Rogelberg’s 12 Bold Ways to Change Your Meetings, Starting Today
Premeeting and Agenda Practices
- Don’t overinvite. The quality of meetings plummets as the quantity of attendees goes up. Keep meetings as lean as possible. As meetings expand in size, dysfunction also expands. Try the questions vs. topics approach below to minimize attendance.
- Questions vs. topics. Think about each item on the agenda as a question to be answered. Framing items as questions gives you a better sense of who should be invited—only those relevant to the questions. If you can’t generate a question, remove that item from the agenda entirely. End the meeting when questions have been answered.
- Set meeting expectations. Develop meeting expectations by talking with attendees in advance about what makes for a good meeting, from their perspective.
- Don’t fly solo when planning the agenda. The leader should not be the only one contributing to the meeting’s agenda. Ideas for the agenda can also come from the attendees themselves.
- Remember Parkinson’s law. According to Parkinson’s law, work expands to fill whatever time is allotted for it. If a meeting is scheduled for one hour, it will automatically expand to one hour. Try a 30-minute meeting and you’ll have increased focus and a sense of urgency to finish within the allotted time.
- Answer critical questions first. Early agenda items receive a disproportionate amount of time and attention, so make sure your most critical questions come first.
- Assign owners. Each agenda item can be “owned” by a different person to help make the meeting more inclusive. This person should facilitate the discussion around the item.
- Create good beginnings. Because you are the leader, your mood sets the tone. Research suggests it produces a ripple effect: attendees’ moods will mirror your mood. Walk in with a positive attitude.
- Brainstorm in silence. Research supports the benefits of silent brainstorming in meetings as a way to gather better ideas, perspectives, and insights. Brainstorm via writing—everyone can do it simultaneously, no one needs to wait for their turn, and there is less filtering and critiquing, given the simultaneous generation of ideas.
- Facilitate, facilitate, and facilitate. Your job as a meeting leader is facilitation. Be sure voices are heard and meaningful discussion occurs.
- End on time. Meetings that run late are a tremendous source of stress for individuals, as attendees have planned their next time for something other than a late-running meeting.
- Assign DRIs. Apple introduced us to the term DRI (directly responsible individual): the one person who will be held accountable for the project or next steps. For any action items, there should be an assigned DRI.