Radically Honest Meetings

Meetings drive … productive people especially crazy … [but] serve valuable if hidden functions. For example, meetings publicize information about status. Who speaks? Who finds it necessary to praise whom? Who displays a confident demeanor? Meetings help managers and employees figure out how to build necessary coalitions. …

Meetings also confer a sense of control. Attendees feel like insiders who have a real voice in decisions. This boosts their motivation to implement ideas discussed as a group. For this reason it is especially important to listen to the blowhards and the obstructionists, who otherwise would pursue their own agendas rather than support a common plan.  Frequent meetings help a business apply bonuses and yearly evaluations with greater precision. … meetings reaffirm the value of the individual to the company. …

That is Tyler Cowen at his best.  Now when people talk about why we have meetings, or what function meetings served, we don’t usually talk about showing and judging status and buying off blowhards.  Could we talk more honestly about the function of meetings, or would that defeat the purpose? 

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  • This was, of course, near-perfectly described by J.K. Galbraith in The Great Crash; he analysed at some length the phenomenon of meetings that are convened to carry out no business, pointing out that “the prestige that accrues to their chairmen leads all the participants to convoke further assemblages over which to preside”.

  • Tyler Cowen

    It is worth noting that of all the pieces I have written, this one is perhaps the most influenced by Robin.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I think Scott Adams, in his less slapstick strips, deals with some of these issues as well.

  • It’s hard not to read all this detail and think of the recent posts on how more detail makes something sound more plausible to people, but also makes it less plausible the entire description is accurate due to the conjunction fallacy.

    Although I suppose a typical person is supposed to realize that those words are all prefaced by “according to Tyler Cowen’s intuition”.

    Aside from that, I agree that greater transparency (and empirical research into)economically significant activities like meetings should be fruitful in figuring out how to reduce social waste. And it does seem like there’s a lot of economic waste, and a lot of nontransparency, regarding status signals and buying off socially unproductive/freeriding behavior like that of blowhards.

    Off the top of my head, here’s some other behavior (underdiscussed on this blog, to my knowledge), that may have nontransparent reasons and motivations behind them, that in aggregate seem very economically wasteful:

    1. cultural aversion to telecommuting (mostly management side)
    2. cultural aversion to outsourcing (mostly citizen side)
    3. cultural aversion to open borders for talented labor and capital (mostly citizen side)

  • I don’t know what it’s like in your research groups, but when I schedule a meeting, it’s for the goal of sharing ideas and moving forward on our research, not about displaying status etc. I’m sure that “Dilbert-style” meetings occur all the time–I’ve been to some of them–but be careful about speaking of “meetings” in general. Honesty is fine but it doesn’t always equal cynicism.

  • Andrew, I think your post is interesting in that it’s more a positioning of self within the discussion (I’m that guy that doesn’t use meetings to display status, I’m that guy that’s against cynicism), than a relation of any new knowledge or idea.

    Also, I think it illustrates how nontransparent stasis is maintained: if one attempts to increase transparency about a phenomenon, it can create an opening for another person to remark the situational equivalent of “I don’t know what it’s like in YOUR research group”.

    I think it’s an empirical question the degree to which there are nontransparent status maximizing behaviors, and the degree to which some people have the propensity to read nontransparent status maximizing behaviors into situations where they’re not occuring.

  • Hopefully,

    I suspect that most of the contributors to this blog use meetings to get work done, not to display status. By sharing my own experiences, I’m not placing myself above or trying separate myself from others here.

    I actually don’t know what it’s like in Robin’s research group so I can’t say what his meetings are like, but I’d guess they’re more like our research meetings here and less like Dilbert’s meetings. I did have lunch with Robin and his colleagues and we had a lively discussion which did not seem to me to have anything to do with status. As I said, we’re all aware of Dilbert-style meetings (and Dilbert is funny partly because it’s so true) but that doesn’t mean that all meetings are like this.

  • michael vassar

    In my workplace meetings often seem fairly useless, but in practice work seems to slow down without them. They help to clarify responsibilities, priorities, etc, and tell each person in the team that the whole team, not just their immediate superior, is counting on them to do a good job in their one to three current top priority projects.

  • I’ve never worked in a place where department meetings were used correctly. They are used to convey information from management, but that could be done much more efficiently by sending out an email. These meetings are very much of the status-defining ilk.

    On the other hand, small project-based meetings are often productive and useful from a planning, idea-sharing and motivating point of view. These meetings also reinforce the power hierarchy, but they are at least worth the time and cost of the employees (not to mention the demoralization of people who have to spend time wasted in meetings).

  • michael vassar

    To be fair to hierarchy, it really is sometimes very valuable for a company’s efficacy for the hierarchy to be well established, clear, and seem natural, e.g. to ground it in the social, not just the formal.

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