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Why are we still overloaded with meetings when we know they don’t work?

Dr. Karen Morley

Do you know how many of your leaders are getting up at 4am in order to ‘get their work done’ before the day’s meeting frenzy begins? 

It’s likely to be more than you think. Or perhaps not – perhaps you’re also trying this tactic to get on top of your meeting overload?

This is an alarming pattern that I’m seeing in my conversations with senior leaders. For example, one high performing, high achieving leader who is in line for promotion has recently started getting up at 4am to clear his work schedule. He wasn’t getting ‘the important work done’, had no time to think; his days and weeks were jammed-packed with meetings. To feel satisfied that he was doing a good job, he’d resorted to stretching his working day by three hours. (Yes, starting at 7am just wasn’t doing the trick!) Apart from feeling increasingly exhausted, he still wasn’t feeling that much more productive.

Then a repeat conversation with a senior executive running a major business brand: in that organisation, people felt no compunction about calling meetings on top of meeting.  It was stressful just to look at her schedule. The ‘open diary’ system, designed to increase visibility in the new work-from-home world, seemed to fuel an insidious if unintended disrespect for others’ time. 

When meetings take up all your top performers’ time and yet they no longer ‘get work done’, there’s a real problem. Unproductive meetings are a large part of the burnout epidemic. It’s a price people shouldn’t have to pay, and if it results in ill health and resignations, one your organisation can’t afford.

Sure, during COVID, there needed to be a sense of urgency. Some things, in some organisations, for some people, really couldn’t wait. But we are well and truly past that: a cadence of back-to-back meetings for 12 hours a day as BAU has never been a recipe for success. 

Nobody seems particularly happy to work this way. And nobody seems to think it’s the most effective way to get work done. It’s not like people are choosing such a cadence. So why then are we still overloaded?

Meetings do work. They are, rightly, one of the most common methods to get collaborative work done. Yet according to meeting consultant and researcher Steven G. Rogelberg, about 50 per cent of meeting time is ineffective, and post-COVID experience suggests that figure has worsened.

So many meetings are ineffective because we’re not being disciplined enough about meeting protocols, nor in establishing an appropriate meeting cadence. And psychological factors, such as FOMO, also contribute.

As a senior leader in your organisation, you set the work cadence, the tone for how people interact, and what’s acceptable in terms of how work gets done. Rather than accept that time confetti – the frittering away of tiny scraps and slivers of effort – is an inevitable consequence of a busy 21st century working world, see yourself as a time steward. Leadership is a service to others, including to their time. Time is a precious resource, not something to fritter away like confetti. Be intentional about making and modelling smart meeting choices so that people love attending them and get quality work done.

Establish a protocol for meetings that helps get good work done

  1. Reduce the number of meetings you have and make them decision-based.
  2. Give yourself a time buffer between meetings: don’t schedule them back-to-back.
  3. Reduce meeting times – make them 15 minutes or 25 minutes, not 30 or 60 minutes. That helps with breaks and focus.
  4. Prepare well – always have a clear goal for meetings and an action-oriented agenda to guide participation.
  5. Invite only those people required to make the decision.
  6. Begin with the most important items.
  7. Use inclusive practices such as taking turns to get full value from everyone present.
  8. If the meeting is remote, record and share it so that others remain informed. 
  9. Make meeting endings explicit – confirm what’s been covered and actions agreed. 
  10. Always follow up on outcomes and responsibilities.

Dr. Karen Morley

Establish a meeting cadence to focus on what’s most important

Many leaders get trapped in a cycle of ‘urgent’, problem-solving meetings. Instead, establish a structured cadence of meetings, to proactively manage your team’s shared work:

  • One-to-one check-ins with each team member – focus on personal connection, building relationships, work progress and delegation. These meetings should occur weekly.
  • Team check-ins – focus on progress on shared work goals and problems. These should occur fortnightly.
  • Monthly team check-ins – focus on cohesion, team norms, dynamics and allow shared issues to be surfaced.
  • Alignment check-ins – focus on direction and purpose, celebrate progress, provide news about major updates and engage senior leaders on organisational priorities. These occur about every six weeks or so, depending on how well your team works and how much remote work you do. 
  • Strategy check-ins – focus on strategy review and reset. These should be longer meetings held every six to twelve months.

Such a cadence sets you up well to both identify and then deliver on priority work.

But wait you say, you already do that. You’re aware of issues of burnout and stress, and are committed to fair and reasonable work practices. You’re modelling sensible work hours, managing your calendar, spending time with the right people, reinforcing wellbeing and encouraging others to pay attention to their work:life balance.

In my first case above, that was the experience for the executive: his CEO was doing and saying all the right things. There was no question of their intent nor their integrity. However, the issue of too many meetings and not enough time persisted. 

Ashley Whillans and colleagues point to powerful psychological reasons why we just can’t seem to break through meeting overload. Rational responses only go so far; to really break through the meeting madness we need to address these factors too.

Dr. Karen Morley

Address psychological factors, such as FOMO

  1. Meeting FOMO – we worry we’ll be judged or forgotten about if we don’t attend everything. This is part of that real productivity killer ‘presenteeism’.

    It’s a particular trap for high achievers and the highly ambitious. As a senior leader in your organisation, help high achievers by not overloading them. Support them by giving them permission to say no.

    Those who are highly ambitious are likely to thrive on the adrenaline and enjoy the limelight of appearing to be in demand. Don’t be fooled by this – instead, check their actual achievements, and suggest there are better ways to be successful. It’s time to stop inviting everyone to everything, and to decline many of the meetings you get invited to, and to help others do the same.

  2. Selfish Urgency – leaders schedule meetings when it suits them without considering what may or may not suit their team. I had a recent example of this – a leader whose team had agreed to ‘no meeting Wednesdays’ who promptly started scheduling his meetings with them on Wednesdays, because, guess what, they were ‘free’ then! Don’t fall into this trap.
  3. Meetings as Commitment Devices – all too often the practice of getting people together to check on progress and commitment punishes those who have met their goals and does nothing to increase motivation for those who haven’t. There are better ways to keep people motivated to achieve deadlines.
  4. Mere Urgency – When we’re busy, attending meetings can help us feel like we’re getting something done. Recurring meetings often create this kind of trap – it seems easier to have the meeting than to figure out what to do instead. Avoid this.
  5. Meeting Amnesia – Without the right kind of follow-up and accountability we forgot what we did last time and end up in cycle of ‘Groundhog day’ meetings. 
  6. Pluralistic Ignorance – We’re all experiencing the same thing but assume others aren’t: they almost certainly are. If you’re wondering why you’re there, so are they. If you think it’s a waste of time, so do they. Time for some meeting feedback.

Meetings are useful for collaborative work, but they are rife with problems. We have too many, suffer through boring ones, and need therapy after excruciating ones. We get caught too often in a groundhog day cycle of same people, same topic, just different day.

 By establishing clear meeting protocols, reinforcing a cadence of important meetings, and address psychological factors that trap us in unproductive habits – and encourage others to do the same – you can put an end to meeting overload. 


Written by Dr. Karen Morley.
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Dr. Karen Morley
Dr. Karen Morley, principal at Karen Morley & Associates, is an authority on the benefits of gender balanced leadership and how to help women to succeed at work. She helps leaders understand the value of inclusive leadership to organisational as well as social outcomes. She is the author of Beat Gender Bias: How to play a better part in a more inclusive world; Lead like a Coach: How to Make the Most of Any Team; and Gender-Balanced Leadership: An Executive Guide. Dr. Karen Morley is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.