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  • Lars Christensen

The surprising science of meetings by Steven G. Rogelberg



I finished this book in November 2022. I recommend this book 8/10.

You spend so much time in meetings, but probably never had any "best practices." Here is your chance to learn what research shows about running effective meetings.

Get your copy here.

My notes and thoughts:

  • It is estimated that the annual cost of meetings in the United States is a whopping $1.4 trillion—or 8.2 percent of the 2014 US GDP. Furthermore, this tremendous time investment yields only modest returns. "Too many meetings" was the number one time-waster at the office, cited by 47 percent of 3,164 workers in a study conducted by Salary.com focused on workplace time drains. Translating this into dollars, one reasonable estimate is that over $250 billion a year is wasted by having too many mad meetings.

  • P4. Fifty-five million meetings a day in the United States alone. Forty-plus years ago, in 1976, Antony Jay reported in the Harvard Business Review that there were approximately eleven million meetings per day in the country. Clearly, a massive increase in meetings has occurred over time.

  • P17. Meetings bring individuals together as a coherent whole. As a result, this coherent whole can be more adaptive, resilient, and self-directing, especially in the face of a crisis. Meetings can be stages for leaders to truly lead, share their visions, be authentic, and inspire and engage their team. At the same time, meetings are a form of localized democracy where ideas and innovation can emerge through employee interaction—even the smallest voices have the opportunity to be heard and to be given life and influence. Perhaps most importantly, meetings are sites for promoting consensus, thus serving as a focal point for collective drive and energy.

  • P20. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was passionate about seeking to improve meetings. He once wrote, "Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment worth $2,000, you shouldn't let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers." A poorly conducted and unnecessary meeting is indeed a form of time theft, a theft that can be prevented.

  • P27. In multiple studies my colleagues and I conducted, we found that meeting leaders consistently rated their meetings more favorably than non-leaders. Thus, a leader's experience of the meeting appears to be fundamentally different from the experiences of other meeting attendees, with leaders thinking things were, well, quite glorious. Research shows if you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one. Well, guess who typically talks the most in meetings? The leader.

  • P30. There are signals that, if we look carefully, inform us about meeting leadership abilities:

  • If attendees are on their phones throughout the meeting multitasking, that is likely a negative reflection on our leadership.

  • If attendees are engaged in a host of side conversations, that is a negative reflection on our leadership.

  • If we are doing most, if not all, of the talking, that is indeed a negative reflection on our leadership.

  • If one or two attendees are dominating the meeting discussion, it likely suggests that we did not construct an agenda highly relevant to all, that we have not created a psychologically "safe" setting in which folks can engage, or that we are not actively facilitating the meeting—all of which is not a positive reflection on our leadership.

  • P31. Run a survey of your team meeting every three months.

  • Q1: Overall, how useful are our Team meetings? (Very useful, Moderately useful, Somewhat useful, A little useful, Not useful.)

  • Q2: With regards to promoting communication, teamwork, and coordination, how effective do you feel our Team meetings are overall? (Very effective, etc.)

  • Q3: Overall, are you glad we are having Team meetings? (Yes, No.)

  • Q4: What do you think is working well about the Team meetings? (Comments.)

  • Q5: What do you think we can do better/differently to make our Team meeting more effective? (Comments.)

  • P33. You can adapt this survey for your own meetings or just go with a very basic, three-question stop, start, and continue survey:

  • What am I not doing so well as a meeting leader (need to stop doing)?

  • What should I start doing that I am not currently doing?

  • What am I doing well as the meeting leader (need to keep doing)?

  • A survey such as this can be administered using an anonymous online survey platform. The survey directions provided to participants are key. Here is an example: I want to be the best possible leader I can be. I want our meetings to use time effectively. To achieve these goals, I need your candid feedback. Please answer the following questions as honestly as possible. I will summarize the overall themes in the results, report out to all, implement actions to promote positive change, and then resurvey down the road to see if it helped.

  • P35. A leader with a servant-and-giver mindset recognizes his or her unique responsibility to make the meeting a good use of time. The meeting is not about the leader personally feeling the meeting had value; rather, it is about deriving value more broadly. Such leaders recognize that, as leaders, they must truly own others' experiences of the meeting. They think carefully about the design and execution of the meeting, from soup to nuts—they never just "phone it in." Instead, they plan and design the meeting experience they are orchestrating. This planning could take just a few minutes, but it is a sincere pre-meeting reflection on the agenda, the goals, the order of topics, potential problems, dynamics, and useful strategies to try. It further includes creating a psychologically safe environment where people can share genuine comments, concerns, and feedback.

  • P45. Larry Page, Google's co-founder, and former CEO returned to the company in April 2011. In one of his first memos to employees, he argued that hour-long meetings must allow for a bathroom break in between. This started the fifty/twenty-five rule. One-hour meetings shortened to fifty minutes, and thirty-minute meetings shortened to twenty-five minutes. (There is a setting in Outlook for this.)

  • P48. You can customize the "Round the huddle" by letting each team member pick one from the following list:

  • What did you accomplish since the last meeting?

  • What did you finish since the last meeting?

  • Any key wins for you or the team that you can share?

  • Any key client updates?

  • How are we doing on our company's top three metrics?

  • How are we doing on your team's top three metrics?

  • What are you working on right now?

  • What is your top priority for this week?

  • What is the one most important thing you will get done this week?

  • What are your top three priorities for the week?

  • What obstacles are impeding your progress?

  • Any "stuck points" you are facing?

  • Any roadblocks the team can help with?

  • Anything slowing down your progress?

  • P51. A second key hazard to avoid is not honoring the shorter meeting times. Running over the scheduled huddle end time is highly problematic. Our research suggests, in fact, that running late may have more negative consequences on attendees than starting late: it serves to negatively affect any scheduled activities post-meeting, and by ending late, the meeting is breaking an implicit time contract of sorts with attendees. Breaking this "contract" results in stress, dissatisfaction, and frustration among attendees, which not only affects them personally but also can spill over to how they interact with others. By honoring the end time, you work to mitigate these issues. Beyond this benefit, the increased sense of urgency from a short meeting, with a hard stop time, will decrease rambling and unproductive, off-topic conversation.

  • P52. The meeting leaders should never be afraid, no matter the length of the meeting, to end the meeting early: (1) when it looks as if the meeting goals have been met (no need to drag it out), or (2) when the attendees seem to be just spinning their wheels and are not being productive. In the case of the latter, sometimes just stopping and regrouping at a later time or using a different communication medium (e.g., email) can be just what is needed to ultimately turn a losing effort into a winning one.

  • P57. These are the types of interaction-requiring topics you would like to see on the agenda:

  • Identification of key risks or challenges the unit is facing or will be facing.

  • Identification and discussion of key metrics to access progress. Evaluation of key processes or changes made.

  • Discussion of what is going well and not so well—areas of improvement.

  • Dissemination and interpretation of key information or policy changes.

  • Calls to action and planning or strategy activities.

  • Solving important problems and making collective decisions.

  • After the action, reflection, and discussion of key learnings.

  • Discussion and celebration of victories and individual and collective excellence.

  • Short-range and long-range forecasting.

  • Identification and discussion of new opportunities.

  • Dialogue around coordination of efforts.

  • Budgetary planning, issues, and adjustments.

  • Key talent issues, both positive and negative.

  • Presenting a new product or idea and getting feedback.

  • P61. I also recommend that you sometimes end the meeting with a Q&A session. This is basically just an "open swim" to promote good communication in the team. These sessions can include questions employees have about the topic covered in the meeting or topics not covered in the meeting. To avoid having an awkward silence, some leaders establish the number of questions to be asked, thus ensuring that the time is used (e.g., "before we end the meeting, I would like to answer five questions that folks have").

  • P62. Should you use timed agenda items? If you answer yes to one of these, you should consider:

  • Do attendees tend to get caught up and dwell on minutia?

  • Do attendees tend to veer off course and on tangents?

  • Are you noticing that your meetings are highly routine, and do you think trying something new might spice things up (this assumes that timed agendas are not something currently in place)?

  • Have you used timed agendas in the past with these attendees, and did it work well?

  • Are you hoping to integrate quest attendees at one or more points in the meeting where they are needed but don't want to hold them captive for the entire meeting? Timed agendas are an effective and efficient way to do this.

  • Are there certain topics on the agenda that you want to be sure get the deep attention they need?

  • P66. Agenda questions:

  • Generally, the agenda should be distributed two to three days ahead.

  • There are times when you, as meeting leader, may have to be spontaneous and reorganize the agenda given some emergent crisis or event that occurred just prior to the meeting.

  • You could take the opportunity to share specific feedback on how the meeting went at the end.

  • Please cancel the meeting if you don't have a compelling agenda.

  • P71. As meeting size increases, process inefficiencies and progress problems increase, given coordination issues and the like. Thus, the larger the meeting, the less optimally the meeting group performs, on average. The ultimate challenge, therefore, is to have the right number of attendees—not too few and not too many. Not only is this good for meeting quality, it is also ultimately good for the employee; our past research shows that when individuals attend meetings not relevant to their job, their employee engagement erodes.

  • P72. For each meeting goal, the leader should ponder the following questions:

  • Who has the information and knowledge about the topic in question?

  • What are the key decision-makers and important stakeholders relevant to the issue?

  • Who are the people who need the information that is going to be discussed?

  • Who are the people who will implement any decision or act on the issue?

  • P73. Seven or fewer is the ideal group size for decision-making and problem-solving. Eight to twelve attendees are doable if the leader has outstanding facilitation skills. For idea generation, agenda setting, and huddles, fewer than fifteen individuals are ideal. Overall, a meeting leader wants to have the leanest meeting possible, given the goals at hand.

  • P75. Research has demonstrated that asking for input from others, even if none is subsequently provided, engenders a feeling of support, buy-in, and an overall feeling of inclusion.

  • P92. Unfortunately, I know it may be hard to believe, but attending a meeting does not appear to put people in a good mood. In my early research, I found that meetings are often experienced as a work interruption. We proceed through our workdays engaged in tasks and activities to meet goals and accomplish objectives. A meeting occurs in the midst of these activities. Although most workplaces have many team-based elements, work is largely evaluated individually; individuals are held personally accountable for inadequate performance. Given this, a good amount of our time is spent working on individual-based objectives and goals. While we work, a meeting can break these rhythms.

  • P94. First, meeting leaders must realize that they are uniquely positioned to promote a positive meeting environment. Research has indeed found that the mood of the meeting leader is a good predictor of the eventual mood of attendees.

  • P96. Next, a meeting leader can consider using no more than one to two minutes to focus on recognition, celebration, and appreciation—ideally, this is directed at a collective accomplishment, but this can also target individual achievements.

  • P99. In the context of mobile phone use in meetings. Surveying over five hundred professionals, the conclusion was quite robust:

  • Eighty-four percent of respondents said it is rarely/never appropriate to write and send texts or emails during meetings.

  • Fifty-eight percent of responders said it is rarely/never appropriate to even check the time with a phone during a meeting.

  • Older professionals, especially those with higher income levels, reported even lower tolerance for the use of technology during meetings.

  • P100. A common question asked when discussing this intervention is whether the technology-free zone should extend to laptops, in general, the answer is yes. Laptops can be just as distracting as phones. Certainly, you can imagine some exceptions to this rule (e.g., attendees who may have meeting-critical into on their laptops). To add to this, an interesting study conducted found that students taking notes by hand instead of with their laptops had a significantly better understanding of concepts presented during the class. So, besides decreasing distractions, not using a laptop during the meeting can result in a better and deeper comprehension of what was discussed.

  • P101. Asking someone to play the role of devil's advocate can be useful in generating critical thinking. However, there are additional roles that can be assigned as well, depending on the agenda at hand. Most notably, certain individuals can be asked to role-play a particular stakeholder not present at the meeting but relevant to the agenda item (e.g., an elderly customer).

  • P105. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

  • P113. An example of mining for questions. This would be a good exercise after our next year's strategy gets shared.

  • P124. Good points about the use of Sub-teams (Make sure there is a goal and an end in mind.)

  • P131. Keep your agendas fresh! Do not open your go-to agenda Word document; change the date in the upper left corner, and print it out to bring to the meeting. Ask attendees for items to include on the agenda, and have someone else on the team lead the meetings. If you are the manager of the team, you can't be down in the weeds trying to control time, take minutes, and introduce the next topic while you are trying to lead. You need to be able to have a strategic vision of the battlefield and lead the mission.

  • P134. With a servant-and-giver mindset, leaders do not use the meeting to elevate themselves; instead, they actively prepare and participate in an effort to facilitate a good meeting experience. The leader manages crucial meeting dynamics: engaging all attendees, asking the right questions, modeling active listening, drawing out input, playing traffic officer, and managing emergent conflict. Such leaders seek to facilitate actively bit without foisting their will on others. These actions build trust, safety, and honesty and generate terrific amounts of input, innovation, and buy-in.

  • P141. Recommendations for meeting preparation example.

  • P155. Examples of active listening:

  • Model active listening as others speak. Ask excellent questions so that ideas are truly understood.

  • Keep clarifying and summarizing where things are and people's input so that everyone understands the process and the discussion at hand.

  • Listen carefully for underlying concerns and help bring them out so that they can be dealt with constructively.

  • Keep engaged with the note-taker so that issues, actions, and takeaways are recorded and not listed. Confirm with the attendees that all is correct.

  • P156. Examples of ensuring active participation:

  • Actively draw out input from others (e.g., asking those who have not yet contributed to share their thoughts). Keep mental track of who wants to speak and come back to them.

  • To keep an attendee from dominating the conversation, use body language (e.g., a subtle and small hand movement to indicate the need to stop speaking) and transition statements (e.g., "thank you for that").

  • Keep side conversations at bay by reigning folks' comments in.


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