In the list of activities that waste time and cause worthless frustration at work, meetings rank near the top, just below performance appraisals and preparing budgets.

There you are, stuck in a meeting you don’t want to attend, thinking of all the work piled up on your desk, while you half listen to someone droning on endlessly about a topic you have no interest in. When the meeting finally ends, less than half the agenda has been completed and everyone gets out their calendars to arrange yet another time to meet.

Worse still, many meetings seem never to result in any clear decision at all, leaving you wondering why people came together in the first place. Some people spend most of their normal working day in meetings of one kind or another. The only time available to do their own work is either very early in the morning, before the first meeting is scheduled, or late in the evening when they should be relaxing at home.

Why do organizations allow such a continual waste of time and energy?

The first reason, I believe, is simple: rampant distrust.

  • Top executives don’t trust their subordinates to be competent enough to take full charge of important projects. They therefore require them to involve others in their decisions, in the belief this will guard against expensive errors.
  • Powerful colleagues don’t trust one another not to undermine their position in some way, so they insist on being “kept informed” before decisions are made—usually by demanding a meeting is held, then sending a subordinate who can stop unwanted progress and report back on suspicious activities.
  • Departments trust other departments even less. Same result, times ten.
  • People in general don’t trust others not to say something bad about them behind their backs, so they want to be there to defend themselves. (It’s a waste of time. People will always bad-mouth you, if they want to. They simply find another occasion when you aren’t there.)
  • Auditors don’t trust anyone (except themselves) with money, so they require decisions on expenditure to be made in committee, where others are always watching—often jealously. (It didn’t work too well in recent high-profile corporate corruption cases, did it? And weren’t the auditors involved in those shenanigans too?)
  • It’s always been that way. No one wants to take the risk of doing things differently, because they know there is one area in which they can trust others without question: to pile all the blame on them if anything goes wrong.

The secondary reason is less negative: a belief that many heads are always better than one.

This has some truth when it’s a matter of generating ideas. If the purpose is to get something done, many heads just about always slow things down. It’s amazing how easily a group of people can find delays and problems if they put their collective minds to it.

Then there’s a earch for consensus: that over-worked concept that appears to produce decisions to everyone’s satisfaction; while usually ensuring the only decision possible is one that offends nobody—because it’s harmless, conventional and unlikely to work anyway. Consensus is nice to have, but it’s rarely essential. If the proposed action is new and unfamiliar, it’s unlikely consensus is even possible in advance.

Many meetings may be unavaoidable, but here’s how to avoid adding to the plague of meetings yourself:

  • There are only three genuine reasons for a meeting:
  1. You wish to gather ideas and thoughts from those present.
  2. People have concerns about some topic and you are ready to answer them in person and immediately.
  3. A group of people wish to come together to celebrate a success or support one another in adversity.
  • If you have any other reason for holding a meeting, choose a more appropriate way to communicate. For example, merely passing information is typically better handled by memo, e-mail or some other document. If you can’t—or won’t—answer questions right away, collect questions by interview, in writing, or by telephone, and answer them only when you’re ready.
  • If any of these are your true reasons for holding a meeting, cancel it immediately:

    • You always have one. (Now’s the time to stop.)
    • You think people like to have meetings. (Sorry. They don’t.)
    • It’s a good way to set priorities and get everyone motivated. (It isn’t.)
    • It builds team spirit. (It doesn’t.)

    Meetings can be useful, but only if they’re held for good reasons (see above), are well managed, and last not one second longer than is absolutely necessary. In any other circumstances, they’re more likely to be a blight on everyone’s day. Give them up. Everyone will thank you—except those few who like to interfere in other people’s jobs as an excuse for not getting on with their own.

    P.S. Public and academic bodies are even worse. Only a public body could invent the Steering Committee, to oversee the Working Party, which discusses the eventual reports of one or more Study Groups, which first receive input from a series of sub-committees, which base their findings on expert staff reports almost none of the members understand fully anyway.

    Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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