How to Make Meetings Less Terrible (Ep. 389 Rebroadcast)
In the U.S. alone, we hold 55 million meetings a day. Most of them are woefully unproductive, and tyrannize our offices. The revolution begins now — with better agendas, smaller invite lists, and an embrace of healthy conflict.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Angela DUCKWORTH: How satisfied are you with your life?
Stephen DUBNER: How do you hack the happiness curve?
DUCKWORTH: How do we explain increasing rates of depression?
DUBNER: Are you suggesting that young people are unrealistically optimistic?
DUCKWORTH: Are you a hard worker?
DUBNER: Marx said money is everything. Freud said sex is everything. And Einstein said everything is relative.
And I say: you should subscribe to No Stupid Questions, right now, wherever you get your podcasts. As for Freakonomics Radio, here’s a question for you: has sheltering in place protected you from meetings? No, me neither. And virtual meetings can be even worse than the regular ones. So we thought it was time to dig into our archive to play you an important episode we put out last year. It’s called “How to Make Meetings Less Terrible.” Most of the rules still apply — maybe more so — in a socially-distanced world. Hope you enjoy.
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I’d like you to be particularly open-minded today. I’d like you to entertain the possibility that two absurdly disconnected stories may in fact have a deep connection — and that if you’re willing to see it through, this connection may yield insights that substantially improve your life. Or not. But let’s try. The first story is set in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Hallie WALKER: The Okavango is absolutely beautiful. It’s the world’s largest inland delta. So it’s surrounded by desert, and it’s this kind of emerald jewel in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa.
Hallie Walker is a Ph.D. student.
WALKER: I study behavioral ecology at the University of Idaho.
When we spoke, she was in Mozambique.
WALKER: Yeah, right now I’m studying three species of spiral horned antelopes.
In the Okavango, Walker was studying a species known as the African wild dog.
WALKER: So what’s amazing about this study site is these dogs have been followed for 25 years. So they are raised with vehicles right there. And they’re so habituated that they really don’t recognize the vehicle.
This allows the researchers to get close enough to record really good video.
WALKER: So the recordings are pretty intimate.
In the videos the dogs lie around, keeping cool in the shade. Sometimes they pile on each other and play. And sometimes the dogs make these strange sounds.
WALKER: It’s really odd. The sounds they make are unvoiced, kind of like sneezes.
WALKER: So sneezes really only happened in those rally events that I was observing.
And what is a “rally event”?
WALKER: Yeah, a rally is— African wild dogs are incredibly social animals. So they spend their whole lives in packs.
In each pack, there are dominant dogs and less-dominant dogs. Let’s say the pack has just been lying around, and the dominant dog gets up.
WALKER: And he greets other dogs. Just like your dog greets you when you get home from work. They try to recruit other pack members to stop resting and sleeping in the shade, to go hunt. And that either ends in a successful rally, where the whole pack leaves the resting site and goes to hunt, or an unsuccessful rally, where they lie back down.
And the sneezes, remember:
WALKER: Sneezes really only happened in those rally events. The only other sneezes that we observed, it was 15 percent of them, looked like they were just sneezing because they got dust in their nose.
So what did the sneezing have to do with the rally events? Were they some kind of communication? Well, consider our second story. It’s about this person:
Priya PARKER: Priya Parker. And I’m a group-conflict-resolution facilitator.
How does one become a group-conflict-resolution facilitator?
PARKER: One grows up in complicated family.
PARKER: Well, I’m biracial. I’m half-Indian, half-white American. And when I was nine, my parents divorced and they both remarried other people, who were radically different from their original marriage. And they had joint custody. So every two weeks I would go back and forth between these two households. And my mother’s household was Indian and British, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, liberal, democratic, vegetarian household. And my dad and stepmother are white American, evangelical Christian, conservative Republican, twice-a-week churchgoing, family. And I was part of both families.
So: plenty of opportunity for conflict resolution in a family setting. Parker went on to formally study conflict resolution and she ultimately resolved actual conflicts, or at least tried to, in Africa, India, the Middle East. These days, she’s hired primarily by companies in conflict. Companies, it turns out, often try to resolve their conflicts by holding meetings. And a lot of these meetings are unsuccessful. Why?
PARKER: There is a belief, sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken, that all meetings should be de-risked. Yes there is an opportunity to kind of be embarrassed or to lose face. But we have so over-indexed on not wanting that to happen that we’ve drained the meaning and the relevance out of so many of our meetings.
Have you ever been to a meeting where no one says what they really think? Of course you have.
PARKER: But unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict. And in my experience, because of the norms of our culture, and particularly in the U.S., most of our gatherings suffer from unhealthy peace, not unhealthy conflict.
So Priya Parker likes to introduce healthy conflict into meetings. To turn the meeting from a time-wasting orgy of passive-aggression into a well-oiled decision-making machine. If you were looking for a model to do the same, you could do worse than copying our friends, the African wild dogs. Remember, the sneezes happen when one of the dogs rallies the pack to go hunting. Hallie Walker was trying to discern the difference between a successful rally and an unsuccessful one. It turned out the sneezes were a strong indicator.
WALKER: In successful rallies, there about seven times more sneezes than in unsuccessful rallies.
Could it be that the sneezes are how the dog pack votes on whether to go hunting? That a sneeze means “Sure, let’s go hunting now!” And no sneeze means, “Nah, let’s lie in the dirt for a while.”
WALKER: So our research actually didn’t establish any direct causality. That’s the kind of subtlety I definitely want to get across. So we have a very strong correlation between the number of sneezes, so it could be that they’ve already decided and they’re clearing their nasal passages to leave. It is a cue. We know for sure that it’s a cue. But we don’t know for sure that it’s a signal. If that makes sense.
But Walker did find a relationship between the number of sneezes and the status of the dog that attempted the rally.
WALKER: When a dominant individual was the one that got up and started the motion—
Dominant as in, the boss. Picture a meeting at your company. It’s being led by the global sales manager.
WALKER: When a dominant individual started the motion, then it only required three sneezes to guarantee success for them to leave the area. And if it was a sub-dominant individual—
Now picture: same meeting, but instead of being led by the global sales manager, it’s the assistant to the regional manager.
WALKER: If it was a sub-dominant individual, it required more than 10 sneezes for them to leave. So we drew from that shifting quorum threshold that your vote matters, but some votes just matter more. So if the dominant dog wants to leave, it takes fewer individuals to add support to the motion to leave. But it takes a lot more momentum to convince the dominant individual to leave their resting site.
Have you ever been in that meeting? Yes; yes, you have. You have been in every kind of terrible meeting there is. How do we know? Because we asked Freakonomics Radio listeners for their meeting stories, and here’s what you told us:
Hagai SCHACHOR: I have no idea what I’m doing there because it’s not relevant to my work at all.
Gina LIM: Most of us ended up working late because we had to be in the meeting most of the day.
SCHACHOR: And to add to that, the guy who invited all of us said, “I’ve got to run, enjoy the meeting,” and he just, poof, left.
JOHNSON: Until they were literally climbing up on the table and each had a knee on the table, shaking fists and screaming at each other.
LIM: My boss berated me in front of everybody for being disrespectful.
JOHNSON: And I didn’t really understand, thinking, “This is what I’ve got myself involved in, in meetings like this?”
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There are, of course, many kinds of meetings, with different rules and customs and outcomes depending on where they’re held and with whom. You’ve got community-board meetings and family meetings and the weekly floor meeting in a college dorm. You may belong to a knitting club or a rugby team or a religious group that meets regularly. With such variety, there’s no way this episode can be remotely encyclopedic. So we will focus on the most standardized meetings: the ones held by professionals in offices, whether it’s a construction company or a tech or healthcare firm; whether it’s a non-profit or an academic or government department. Because all those places have a lot of meetings.
Steven ROGELBERG: The best estimates suggest that there are around 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. alone.
That’s Steven Rogelberg.
ROGELBERG: Most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week.
He’s an organizational psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
ROGELBERG: And as you move up the organizational hierarchy, individuals spend more and more time in meetings.
He’s written a book called The Surprising Science of Meetings.
ROGELBERG: Basically, it’s the examination of meetings as a workplace phenomenon — trying to understand why they go bad, trying to understand the dynamics that emerge in meetings, and trying to figure out how to make them better.
Which is important because — again, 55 million meetings a day.
ROGELBERG: And it’s not a surprise to find executives spending anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of their time in meetings.
DUBNER: So does that fact mean that the people who end up running companies or institutions are basically the people who are good at meetings?
ROGELBERG: Oh, I wish that was the case. But, no, that does not appear to be the case. Some of the research I do looks at satisfaction with a meeting. And if you survey people immediately after a meeting, one person is invariably more positive than everyone else. And this one person is the meeting leader. The person who’s leading the meeting says, “Hey, this is really good.” And why wouldn’t they feel that? They’re controlling the whole experience. They’re talking the most. They’re like, “Hey this is nirvana.” But everyone else is reporting much more negative experiences.
DUBNER: So, in other words, you don’t have to be very good to be considered even, let’s say, top quintile.
ROGELBERG: That appears to be the case. So when you consider the fact that “too many meetings” has been identified consistently as the number-one source of frustration at work, the number-one time-waster at work — you know, research has shown that around 70, 71 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. Now this is jarring, because senior managers are the ones calling the most meetings. So if senior managers are calling them unproductive, we know we have a problem.
Bad meetings have just been accepted as a cost of doing business. I give these speeches to senior H.R. leaders and talent leaders across the Fortune 100 companies, and I ask them, “How many of you have any content on your employee-engagement surveys that covers the topic of meetings?” Do you want to guess how many people raise their hands?
DUBNER: Two percent.
ROGELBERG: Hey, that’s a really good guess. Yes — that’s right. There is no organizational intentionality around this. And with no organizational accountability, leaders are just part of this system, where bad meetings are just the cost of doing business. Like the rain is in London. So I study meetings because I dislike them tremendously. I study them because I know it is a source of frustration for so many people.
Okay, so: we hold a lot of meetings even though most people don’t like meetings and consider them unproductive. But there’s a wrinkle:
ROGELBERG: Well, we know from the research that people actually want to have some level of meeting activity per day. And if you ask people to design their perfect day, it’s very rare that they say zero meetings. And this shouldn’t be a big surprise. We know from social-psychological research that humans are inherently social creatures. There’s value of interaction and engagement with others.
So maybe we pretend to dislike meetings even more than we actually dislike them. In any case: just about everyone agrees that meetings could use some improvement. So let’s start by taking a step back and asking: what is a meeting, exactly?
Helen SCHWARTZMAN: A meeting is a gathering, let’s say, two or more people, who assemble for a purpose that’s ostensibly related to the functioning of an organization or a group.
Alright, that sounds pretty sensible.
SCHWARTZMAN: Meetings seem to be a communication event that is basically neutral.
That’s Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.
SCHWARTZMAN: It’s just a place where you come together. You have a problem, you solve it. You have a decision to make, you make the decision, you whatever. And when you actually study organizations, you find that’s not really the way that it works.
In 1989, Schwartzman published a book called The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities.
SCHWARTZMAN: I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings.
Jen SANDLER: We actually have vastly superior technologies to do exactly the things that people say go on in meetings.
That is Jen Sandler, another anthropologist who studies meetings. She’s at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
SANDLER: So the question of why we continue to meet becomes really important. So one answer to that is that we don’t need to. And the other answer is that’s not what meetings are for. That might be what we tell ourselves that they are for. And most of us have this experience too, where we go into a meeting that is ostensibly to make a decision, but it’s clear that decision has been made prior to the meeting. And then we might ask as participants in that meeting, why are we even meeting then? We’re meeting maybe to legitimize that decision or for somebody to say that was a collective decision even though it wasn’t.
Okay, it may not come as a shock to you that meetings do not always serve their advertised purpose. Or that there was barely a purpose at all. We heard this sentiment from several listeners — including, here, Michael Conklin, who used to work in the oil-and-gas industry:
Michael CONKLIN: After coming back from a short vacation, my boss came into my office frantically and said, “You just missed three meetings in the last two days.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I must have missed so much. Tell me all these things that have changed.” And the boss froze and said, “Well, nothing really changed. Just keep up the good work.” I figured that was a pretty good indication those meetings did not need to take place.
So let’s hear what the experts say about meeting basics: establishing a goal; setting an agenda; deciding whom to invite; even determining the length. What would you guess is the average length of a meeting?
ROGELBERG: Magically, the average length across the world is one hour. And there’s just no reason for that. This is a modern phenomenon that has emerged due to calendaring programs like Outlook and Google Calendar.
DUBNER: So if you could invade everybody’s calendar on earth and have a new preset that was not 60 minutes, what would it be?
ROGELBERG: I just want the leader to think about how long the meeting should be. So give it a set of goals. Make a decision. This is particularly important given something called Parkinson’s Law. And Parkinson’s Law is this idea that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. So if you schedule an hour, it’s going to take an hour. But if you schedule 48 minutes, it’s gonna take 48 minutes.
If you doubt the legitimacy of Parkinson’s Law, consider this story from a listener named Chad Wiebe. He’s a financial planner in Canada.
Chad WIEBE: So my boss at the time said, “Let’s have a four-hour long meeting,” which is excruciating. So at the end of this planning meeting we had half an hour still to fill. I put my hand up and I said, “You know what, I think it would be really appreciated if we just cut everybody loose a half hour early, let everyone get back to the office a little bit earlier.” And I was met with silence for about 10, 15 seconds before one of my other middle managers piped up and said, “You know what? I just brought in a client who’s a magician.” And so, we hired a magician. For half an hour. It was unbelievable.
Here’s Steven Rogelberg’s advice: rather than hiring magicians to fill out your scheduled meeting time, set a tight time frame and use that tightness to your advantage.
ROGELBERG: Psychological research shows that when you add a little bit of pressure, it creates more focus on optimal performance. So if this results in you starting your meeting at 1:12 p.m. and ending at 1:50, so be it. You are in control. Make choices.
PARKER: We go into autopilot and we follow specific scripts and we don’t actually think about asking the first question of all meetings, which is, “What is the purpose of this meeting?”
Priya Parker again. Her book is called The Art of Gathering.
PARKER: So it’s our Monday morning staff meeting, it’s our Wednesday afternoon sales meeting — that is not a purpose, that is a category. So what is the primary purpose? What is your desired outcome of the staff meeting? If you are having this on a Monday morning, what do you want to be different for this week? If we weren’t to have this Monday morning meeting, would anything be different? And if nothing would be different, scrap the meeting.
ROGELBERG: If a leader truly recognizes that they are inherently a steward of others’ time, they do meetings differently. They think carefully about what the meetings should cover. They think carefully about how that meeting should be facilitated. And we do this all the time when it comes to meetings we have with customers. When we meet with a customer, we think about that in advance. But when it comes to employee meetings, we just dial it in. We rely on habits. And a great example is the research shows that 50 percent of agendas are recycled. We would never do that with customers.
PARKER: My biggest piece of advice is, if you’re going to get people together in person, when time is limited and resources are limited, gather around the things that you can’t figure out over email.
ROGELBERG: So when you are thinking about your agenda, consider framing it not as topics to be discussed, but consider framing it as questions to be answered. By framing it as questions to be answered it’s easier to determine who needs to be there because they’re relevant to the questions.
DUBNER: I feel like every time you call a meeting that involves a lot of people from different arenas, you are inevitably asking each of them to waste a lot of time.
ROGELBERG: Meetings are getting larger and larger and larger. And this phenomenon is not happening out of bad intentions. Typically, we just don’t want to exclude anyone. And at the same time, technology makes it so easy for us to just hijack someone’s calendar. And the research shows that larger meetings are just filled with additional dysfunction. While people generally complain about having a meeting, they complain just as much if they are not invited to a meeting. Given this reality, there’s a couple of things that we can do. So first of all, we can actually design the agenda such that part of the agenda is relevant to a large group of individuals, and then part of it is relevant to a smaller section of that. So a big group attends for part of the meeting and then people leave. And then it’s a smaller group that has additional discussion. And what a leader can do is once they start thinking about meeting attendees as being core vs. secondary, that can be a very useful distinction.
PARKER: Most of us have been raised with the age-old adage “the more, the merrier.” And for most gatherings, unless it’s literally a rave, a soccer match, or a concert, the more is the hairier or the scarier.
ROGELBERG: If you go to those secondary individuals and you tell them, “Hey, I’m having a meeting. Here are the topics we’re going to talk about. If you have any input on these topics, please feel free to email me. I will also show you the minutes of the meeting. And at any point down the road you want to go to future meetings you’re more than welcome.” And people really appreciate being given, arguably, the best gift in the world right now. Which is time.
PARKER: The more specific your purpose is, the more people can actually see themselves and say, “What I do is not actually relevant to that.” So don’t make exclusion personal. Make it purposeful.
DUBNER: Okay, I need some personal advice, because I try to avoid meetings as much as possible, so I’m showing my bias. I don’t typically enjoy meetings. But also because of what I do for a living, I just want my days unencumbered. I want my days for reading, writing, thinking, and interviewing people, and I don’t want meetings. So, sometimes they’re unavoidable, and sometimes they’re great and useful. I don’t mean to rain on them. But one thing I don’t like is when you arrange a meeting with someone, it’s usually via email, and then they send me a calendar invite. But I don’t want somebody else’s software living on my computer. And then every time there’s an update to it, I get another alert. I don’t want the distraction. I took the time to plan the meeting. I know how to plan a meeting. I put it in my calendar. I’ll be there. You’re not — you don’t feel my pain. That’s okay. We can move on.
PARKER: I actually think it’s actually very deep. So we live in an age where— you’re talking about software, but basically we live in a multicultural, diverse, “everybody is kind of their own island but also all sorts of other things” world. And we’re all gathering all of the time. And gathering at some level is a form of imposition.
DUBNER: At some level? At every — no, sorry, yes, yes, sorry, no, no, no.
PARKER: Well, actually what I love about how you’re talking about it is, it should be thought of as a form of imposition. And you only take the meetings or the gatherings where you think that you are willing to tolerate that imposition. And what you’re talking about is— I actually think your instinct to say, “I want to have my days free, I want to think, I want to write, I want to interview,” is a much healthier instinct, because you’re raising the bar for anything to get through to you. For many of the companies and organizations I work with, I don’t say gather more, I say gather better. In many cases that means gather less.
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Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, and Priya Parker, a group-conflict-resolution facilitator, are trying to make your meetings less terrible. Okay. So how should you start a meeting? First example: how not to start.
ROGELBERG: So, it starts late. A person arrives 10 minutes late, and then the leader says, “Okay, we can start now.” Or worse yet it’s the leader herself or himself that shows up late. And then they start the meeting with a whole bunch of news and announcements. Things that clearly could have been communicated in other mechanisms. Then the leader says, “I have a really important issue to talk about.” And they start talking about that issue, and they dominate the discussion. And then another person in the meeting starts to dominate the discussion. And, next thing you know, the leader looks at her or his watch and says, “Oh gosh, we’re out of time. But you know what? Let’s run 10 minutes after the meeting time, just to see if we can close the loop.” And says, “Okay. Look, I’ve heard from you all.” But in effect, they’ve only heard from one or two people. And the other people either didn’t have a chance to speak or were completely irrelevant to the discussion.
So the meeting ends 10 minutes later than it should. The leader thinks that there was a good decision made, but no one else feels that way. And they go back to work and they go, “Oy vey. What just happened?” It’s called Meeting Recovery Syndrome. What we find is that when people have bad meetings, they don’t necessarily just leave it at the door. It sticks with them. They ruminate, they co-ruminate, and they even report it negatively affecting their productivity after the meeting.
Or you could start your meeting like this.
PARKER: Don’t open it with logistics, open it— spend the first 5 or 10 minutes connecting people in a specific way.
Here’s an idea Parker got from someone who ran a weekly staff meeting.
PARKER: She started her meetings by saying, “Let’s everybody do a rose and a thorn,” which is sort of this old exercise of like, what’s the best part of your week, what’s the worst part of your week. And that’s just the first 10 minutes, the rest of the 50 minutes was used for “business.” And she called me up and she said, my meetings have transformed. And I said, why? And she said, “Well first, our team has changed over time because the risks people take vary week to week. Some people share silly stuff. Some people share deep stuff. Some people share stuff from work, some people share stuff from over the weekend. It’s actually changed what’s allowable in the conversation.”
She’s like, “But the second thing that has been most interesting is — I didn’t realize this — but people have started to say more real stuff in the context of work, because by starting the meeting with including a thorn as the base default, I didn’t realize I was playing a role as cheerleader, and they didn’t think that I could handle, or wanted, to have 50-50 thorns. It’s changed the norms of what’s acceptable and what we talk about for the rest of the meeting.”
DUBNER: So Priya, you write that businesses tend to “run on a cult of positivity.” What do you mean by that, and how do you counter it?
PARKER: Whether it is panels that are asking guests to talk about all of their successes or launch a product, or whether it is a meeting in which you’re talking about how wonderful or how great things are. And so part of the unwinding of the cult of positivity is to go back and ask, what is the purpose of this gathering? And often, positivity prevents progress.
DUBNER: Talk about the difference between generous authority and ungenerous, or as you term it, imperious authority.
PARKER: Part of the role of a host is to practice generous authority. And I define generous authority to do three things with your guest. First is to connect them to each other and to the purpose. To protect them from each other. And to temporarily equalize them. Because in any type of group people will fall into the default patterns that they always fall into. Whether they know people or not. And your role as a host is to temporarily allow them to behave in a way that helps you collectively go to that purpose.
ROGELBERG: So if I’m a meeting leader, I can do different things. Instead of asking people to prepare in advance, you allocate the very first part of the meeting to reading the preparatory materials because at that point at least you know everyone has done it. And then there’s other unconventional tools. Even if I have a large group of folks, and I want them to engage strongly on a topic, if I have people pair up and work in dyads, even just for a few minutes, and then come back together as a group, me having folks work in dyad changes the whole dynamic of the large group discussion. The level of communication and passion will be much higher. But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time. So, most typically, meeting performance is just not optimal.
The problem with meetings is that the proportion of good use of time and bad use of time is out of whack. I think that’s the critical issue. It’s just figuring out how can we increase the proportion of good time over bad time. Good time is when the attendees of the meeting are interacting in a genuine way such that the decisions and solutions being generated might surpass what any one individual could have done by themselves. And that time is not necessarily free of conflict. In fact, we want conflict in meetings. What we don’t want is personal conflict, but we want conflict around ideas. So if you have a group going to battle with incredible passion around ideas — that is a fantastic meeting. Especially if it’s a safe environment and people go, “Wow, that was amazing that we could have this level of disagreement. But in a way that does not castrate everyone in the room.”
Or, as Priya Parker put it earlier:
PARKER: Unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict. And most of our gatherings suffer from unhealthy peace, not unhealthy conflict.
So sometimes, Parker has to invent some healthy conflict.
PARKER: I was brought into an architecture firm — a 70-years-old architecture firm — to figure out their vision for the future. And they were debating whether to maintain being an architecture firm — which meant, in their case, whether to continue to be bricks and mortar, building buildings — or whether to pivot and become a design firm. And there was real disagreement in the firm. But you wouldn’t know it by being in the room. And any time someone would say something even related to one of the possible visions, everyone else would shrink back. They weren’t willing to go there. And it was very polite.
So during the coffee break, my client said to me — he literally whispered to me, “Priya, we need more heat.” And so we paused and thought, okay, basically the norm of politeness in this context is too strong for good controversy to happen through the way they normally meet. We quickly, in Photoshop, took two of the photos of the architects’ heads and slapped them on wrestlers’ bodies. We printed them out and put them on two walls — one side was the head, meaning design, and the other was the body, meaning the future would be architecture, bricks and mortar. And the architects came back. And we basically said, “Welcome back to the cage match. In one corner” — I was the emcee, I was like — “In one corner you have the body, and the other you have the head.” And fortunately for us, the two architects were game. And so they started jeering and raising their hands over their shoulders. We assigned coaches to each of the sides, they threw white towels around their neck, we played the Rocky music, right? We interrupted the script. And I said each side has two minutes to say the strongest possible argument for the future of the vision of the firm, whether it’s architecture or design. And then they get two minutes for rebuttal. And everybody else — this was the key insight — everybody else has to physically choose a side. No neutrality and no wallflowers. And what that did was, it broke the norm of implicit consensus, which there wasn’t.
DUBNER: And what was the outcome of this architect cage match?
PARKER: So at the end, the group voted, and the best argument was the body.
DUBNER: And was that choice considered binding?
PARKER: That choice was considered recommendational. But people knew that ahead of time. The deeper outcome of that meeting is that they have a shared memory that they are capable of this, they are capable of speaking in this way. In any room, there’s troublemakers and smoother-overs.
DUBNER: And the troublemaker plainly says, what I learned today is that we have too many meetings. That’s the nature of the troublemaker?
PARKER: Well, the troublemaker is a really useful role. Would you think of yourself as a smoother-over or a troublemaker?
DUBNER: Who, me? You haven’t figured that out by now? I’m plainly the troublemaker.
PARKER: So I think, in healthy contexts, if you share a common purpose, “troublemakers” can actually be really helpful. And one of the things that I often do in groups is have people raise their hand, who’s a troublemaker, who is a smoother-over, and then I ask, who’s both? And people who are both — and there are always a few in a group — are the ones who are most likely to be part of transformational conversations. And that’s because as a troublemaker, you’re willing to poke and prod and you’re not afraid of a little heat. But as a smoother-over, you’re also interested in repair and coming together. And going back to our earlier conversation, most human connection and gatherings suffer more from unhealthy peace than from unhealthy conflict. And in those contexts, if you’re a group of smoother-overs, I can diagnose immediately that this is a very unhealthy place.
I am happy to report that our listenership includes plenty of troublemakers as well as smoothers-over. They’ve told us about some very successful meetings:
Elise PIAZZA: My name is Elise Piazza and I’m a cognitive neuroscientist at Princeton University. I’m actually pretty lucky because I often hear people say, “That was an awesome meeting.” Lab meetings are opportunities for scientists to come together and share their latest data and then brainstorm next steps for the project, and occasionally we also discuss a recent, sometimes controversial, journal article. I often come away feeling energized because I’ve thought of a new question to test or an algorithm to implement. And sure, maybe science is inherently more fun and exploratory than other careers, but I think one of the reasons these meetings are so effective in general is that people with distinct skills and perspectives are coming together with the shared goal of helping their colleague improve.
And we heard about some less-successful meetings:
Al CHEN: Hey guys. My name is Al. So one of my one of the worst meetings I’ve attended was when I was working on my startup. We came together for our weekly team meeting, and the goal was to come up with new ideas for our mobile app, and we just ran into a creative block. We weren’t coming up with any good ideas. And I forgot whose idea it was, but one of my teammates suggested that we go outside and smoke some weed to get more creative. So we went behind the building in the loading dock, all of us got really high. And smoking weed was supposed to make us more creative, but in reality it just made us really unproductive and we just started hanging out and joking around, and I guess it made us better friends, but it wasn’t really a great meeting.
We also heard from some listeners who’ve taken an entirely different path.
John COSGROVE: My name is John Cosgrove, and I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I moved here from Ireland 20 years ago, and about seven years ago I started a company ironically in the meetings-and-events industry. And in the last seven years we have not had a single meeting, and our company seems to be running very successfully.
Indeed, 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. But still: 55 million meetings a day in the U.S. — that’s the reality.
Steven Rogelberg has found some other small measures to alleviate the pain. Snacks (of course). Getting people to switch out of their usual seats. Using anonymous surveys so people can raise objections without fear of reprisal. The research shows that just asking attendees to rate a meeting raises the quality of meetings at that firm. And what about when people sit through meetings staring at their phones?
ROGELBERG: One of the counterproductive behaviors we focused on was this idea of multitasking and really trying to understand why people multitask despite the fact that clearly it tends to bother others. But then the other piece of it is multitasking as a coping mechanism. When an employee walks into a meeting they are relinquishing control. And so how can you get that control back? Well, you can daydream. You can make lists. Or you can multitask. That’s how you can reclaim your power. So one of the techniques is trying to build a break in the middle of a meeting. So if I tell them, “Hey, I promise you in 30 minutes you can check your phone,” that’s going to help put their minds at ease.
And one final, important thing: how do you end a meeting?
PARKER: First, issue a last call. So the same way that a bar has a last call, they flash the lights or you literally say, “Last call.” And most meetings, most gatherings, don’t end — they stop. We run out of time, and then everyone scatters.
ROGELBERG: You know when to end the meeting because the questions have been answered. And if you can’t come up with any questions, you shouldn’t have a meeting.
PARKER: But then to help people understand, when we go back out into the world, who’s doing what? What was decided here, and are we all aligned?
ROGELBERG: People want to feel that their time was well spent. And this becomes a cue to tell you that indeed it was. If you know you have absolutely answered these compelling questions, then you leave there saying, “Ah, I accomplished something.”
PARKER: And to have a good memory at the end, which is what do you most want people to remember. And don’t end on logistics. End on what you want people to remember.
All right — job done, then. Thanks, Priya Parker and Steven Rogelberg. Thanks to our anthropologist and behavioral ecologist friends — and the African wild dogs, of course. And a big thanks to all the Freakonomics Radio listeners who sent us their meeting stories.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, Corinne Wallace, Mary Diduch, and Daphne Chen. We had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Hallie Walker, Ph.D student at the University of Idaho.
- Priya Parker, group-conflict-resolution facilitator.
- Steven Rogelberg, organizational psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
- Helen Schwartzman, anthropologist at Northwestern University.
- Jen Sandler, anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
- “Sneeze to Leave: African Wild Dogs (Lycaon Pictus) Use Variable Quorum Thresholds Facilitated by Sneezes in Collective Decisions,” by Reena H. Walker, Andrew J. King, J. Weldon McNutt, and Neil R. Jordan (Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 2017).
- The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, by Steven Rogelberg.
- The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker.
- The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities, by Helen Schwartzman.