The Science of Conducting Successful Meetings
Sally MacKain, Ph.D., LP; NDCRC Director of Clinical Treatment
How many hours per week do you spend in meetings? Is it time well spent? Do you leave meetings with a sense of a way forward? Frustration? Could your team use a meetings “tune-up”? Workplace meetings are a mainstay of all organizations. For treatment court teams, regular pre-court staff meetings are required as a Best Practice (NADCP, 2018). But teams engage other meetings as well, including those with community stakeholders, program evaluation and planning, and others.
Industrial/organizational (I/0) psychologists Joseph Mroz and colleagues reviewed over 200 empirical studies of meetings in their article “Do we really need another meeting? The science of workplace meetings” (Mroz, Allen, Verhoeven & Shuffler, 2018). They identify worthy goals and provide specific recommendations for conducting successful meetings.
Nationally, they note, the average employee spends 6 hours per week in meetings, and that half of those meetings are rated as “poor” by those who attend. For most organizations, there is a clear need to revisit current practices and consider improvements. Mroz and colleagues identify four primary purposes of meetings:
1) Information Sharing;
2) Problem solving and decision making,
3) to develop and implement organizational strategies, and
4) to debrief a team after particular events.
They recommend that care should be taken before, during and after meetings to facilitate positive outcomes. For example, before a meeting, attendees should have read the agenda, be prepared and arrive on time. The agenda should list clear goals and outcomes and be realistic in terms of allotted time. During meetings, leaders should make the meeting short, and relevant. Humor and laughter can stimulate positive behaviors, but complaining leads to poor performance. Leaders should also intervene when communication becomes dysfunctional or off-track. A clear agenda as described above can go a long way toward mitigating these issues. By the same token, leaders should attend to perceptions of fairness and encourage participation from all attendees. After meetings, effective leaders send out action items and minutes and seek feedback about how others perceived the meeting, to improve the process.
While many of these recommendations seem obvious, researchers have objectively analyzed the costs, interpersonal conflicts, and inefficiencies that arise when these recommendations are not followed. The authors describe a problematic dynamic noted in a study by Simone Kauffeld and Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, that many readers may find familiar:
When one person starts to complain in a meeting by expressing so-called “killer phrases” that reflects futility or an unchangeable state (e.g., “nothing can be done about that issue” or “nothing works”) other meeting attendees being to complain, which begins a complaining cycle that can reduce group outcomes (p. 488).
This “cycle” is common among professionals in human services fields, and while realism and pragmatism are valuable, pessimism can be contagious and toxic. This is one of the major challenges in treatment court work—even when participants behave in ways that look like “giving up,” staff would do well to convey a sense of hope in how they conduct themselves in meetings.
Mroz, J. E., Allen, J. A., Verhoeven, D. C., & Shuffler, M. L. (2018). Do we really need another meeting? The science of workplace meetings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(6), 484–491. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418776307