The 3 Most Common Meeting Room Syndromes

Most of us have attended hundreds if not thousands of meetings. Meetings are part of the work and corporate culture, in particular, in the US. According to Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist at the University of North Carolina, most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week. The best estimates suggest that there are about 55 million meetings a day in the US alone.

there are about 55 million meetings a day in the US alone

For many meetings, the goal is to have the participants identify a set of solutions and agree on the best one. There are usually a few recurring issues with those meetings:

  • The Smartest-Person-In-The-Room Syndrome. Some participant might feel the need to score points with the boss or the team by proposing solutions that sound smart. Their goal is not to find the best solution or to contribute to a better understanding of the issue. They want to impress others and to increase their authority by pushing the meeting toward their proposals. Their ideas look intelligent and smart only in the limited and peculiar context of a meeting. In any less scripted context, the same ideas would be easily dismissed with a simple, common-sense sentence. Often the result of such meetings is a low-quality choice, a sub-optimal decision that pleases the ego of those people and temporarily consolidates their authority.
  • The Compromise-At-Any-Cost Syndrome. Reaching the consensus among participants on a single solution or decision requires a compromise among the different solutions. There are reasonable compromises and bad compromises — a good compromise is when the adopted solution has a better ratio pros-over-cons that each candidate solution. Typically, as the meeting approaches the end, the pressure to reach a compromise rises. The focus gradually shifts from selecting the best solution to choosing the most inclusive option, the one that minimizes the number of people or departments in disagreement. The result is often an unfortunate compromise that brings together everybody at the expenses of the quality and effectiveness of the adopted solution.
  • The Fake-Decision-Process Syndrome. According to Jen Sandler, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, many times the meeting is not the place where a team really makes decisions. It is instead a place where a boss, clearly lacking self-confidence, simulates a consensus-building process to impose his or her choices. The meeting facilitator moves the team toward an apparent consensus by rewarding contributions and people aligned with the pre-selected outcome and by dismissing all contrary opinions and observations. Those meetings passively confirm a decision made before the meeting by someone else while spreading the responsibility for it among all participants.
The Compromise-At-Any-Cost Syndrome
The Compromise-At-Any-Cost Syndrome

There are easy ways to avoid those three common meeting-room syndromes. Here the best recommendations I was able to gather:

  • Make sure that everybody has access, within a reasonable timeframe, to the detailed meeting agenda, and to complete information about the topics to be discussed. Steven Rogelberg recommends framing the agenda not as a list of topics to be discussed, but as questions to be answered. Before starting the meeting, check that everybody read the documentation and is fully aware of the agenda.
  • Invite the right people. Think about who should be in the meeting, depending on what is going to be discussed and what decisions are going to be made. Make sure the expertise you need is present by inviting the right people for the task.
  • Create an environment focused on collaboration that welcomes and encourages honest and constructive confrontations. Facilitate a frank discussion where ideas are evaluated by their merit, not by the authority of the originator. Pursuing a non-confrontational approach at any cost can devoid the meeting of any value. According to Priya Parker, a group-conflict-resolution facilitator, unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict.
  • Always set a clear goal for the meeting. “Monday Afternoon Sales Meeting” is not a purpose, it’s a category. The more specific you are, the more likely the meeting will converge to a decision, possibly a good decision. Priya Parker recommends limiting the agenda to topics that can’t be discussed effectively by email or chat.
  • Set a maximum duration for the meeting (possibly less than one hour). Do not extend the meeting over the scheduled length. According to Steven Rogelberg, psychological research shows that when you add a little bit of pressure, it creates more focus on optimal performance. If the meeting did not reach a consensus by the end of the time allocated, close the meeting and schedule a new one with a more specific agenda and, when possible, with only a subset of participants.

The reputation of meetings is so poor that many people simply avoid holding them, Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, for instance. Some companies have instituted no-meeting days, to give employees a chance to do their work without being dragged off to the conference room.

(in a meeting) unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict

Suggested Readings

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. 
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker.
The Surprising Science of Meetings by Steven G. Rogelberg.
The Surprising Science of Meetings by Steven G. Rogelberg.
The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities</em> by H.B. Schwartzman
The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities by H.B. Schwartzman

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