Why are our Calendars so Full of Meetings?

excessive meetings
by , in Culture

We all have been in the position of trying to schedule a meeting with someone and because of their unviability can’t meet with them any sooner than four weeks out. Sure, people are busy with lots of added responsibility but meetings are a necessity as they are an effective tool for communication.  However, they can infest and take over our calendars leaving us wondering how it happened. The question that needs to be asked is how can we tell by looking at our calendars that a line has been crossed and we are having too many meetings?

Meetings in of themselves are not a bad thing. They are an effective tool because they provide a rich medium for communicating information. There is nothing like a face-to-face setting, be it one-on-one or in large groups, for conveying to attendees all the substance and emotion related to a topic. Meetings are also an efficient means for interacting, collaborating, and reaching consensus. The bantering back and forth between participants deepens their understanding of the topic making way for shared understanding and future action.

So when does such an effective tool get hijacked and become a burden to individuals and organizations? There is no one data point that can tell you this, but there are three specific trends that can be observed to give you a hunch.

  1. Who is initiating the meetings?
  2. Are the majority of meetings held one-on-one or with more than two people?
  3. What is the primary purpose of the meetings? (Providing status, resolving issues, obtaining approval, validating or giving feedback on actions, etc.)

If you watch these three trends closely you will notice two types of individuals initiating most of the meetings: those who want to make all the decisions and those who don’t like to make any decisions. These are the culprits who drive the meeting count up in organizations. Let’s look at them closer.

Decision Makers

Individuals who want to make all the decisions don’t trust others to make a decision as well as they can. They also don’t trust others to do a job as well as they can. As a result, they are very uncomfortable with giving others autonomy.  They are driven to be in the know about everything and not letting anything proceed in a direction other than where they want it to go. For them, meetings are an efficient means for obtaining information and controlling the decisions and actions of others. Most of their meetings are one-on-one with their subordinates. The second largest group of meetings is one-on-one with their peers.

Non-Decision Makers

Individuals who don’t like making decisions are the polar opposite. They don’t trust their ability to make a decision or do a job as well as others can. They are very uncomfortable with any sort of autonomy. They seek security in numbers, abdicating their responsibility and accountability, trying to distribute it to others. Meetings are an efficient means for them to allow others to make their decisions and validate their actions. The majority of their meetings are with their peers and management.

Organizational culture can play a big role in the abusive use of meetings too. People who would not normally exhibit the above characteristics can be heavily influenced by an organization’s culture.  Cultures that reward individual heroism and value it more than team results bring out the controlling nature in people. Also, cultures that publicly crucify individuals who make mistakes cause people to seek safety and avoid getting in harm’s way.

The only people who can change culture and individual behavior are organizational leaders. If the culture is contributing to too many meetings they must work on changing it. If the culture is neutral and only a few individuals are abusing meetings leaders can correct the behavior of the individuals. They need to tell controlling employees to stop having status meetings and rely more on email or reports. They need to tell the scared employees to stop bugging people with meetings and make decisions on their own.

Organizational leaders can also shock the system by not allowing meetings for extended periods of time. This allows people who normally have to attend meetings to gain some power and rebel against the excessiveness. After the extended period leaders can ask individuals to send in reports of what broke as a result of not being able to have meetings. This can generate a real dose of reality and reset habits.

There is a lot of good that gets accomplished in meetings. This should not be denied. It is only the abusive situations leaders should look to correct. Their goal should be to trade the effort wasted in unnecessary meetings for individual productivity.

Any ideas for what to do with those unused conference rooms?