Meetings As Flattery

The real reason leaders end up in too many meetings? Because it’s flattering: having your presence “required” at many meetings makes you feel important — it’s tangible proof of how much your people and your organization need you. But being in too many meetings every day wreaks havoc on your schedule and your ability to focus on bigger goals. I’ve seen too many corporate leaders sacrifice their own strategic vision — and ultimately, their own performance — because they’ve let themselves become hostage to Conference Room B.

More here.  Much of business process functions to signal who is important and who is allied with whom, rather than to actually get stuff done.  Huge efficiency gains await the organizations that can figure out how to expunge these parasites.

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  • anon

    I think in most industries, meetings function as a kind of controlled shirking. Workers have to be onsite eight hours a day, but it’s hard to be productive for the whole working day, and office culture requires people to “look busy”, whether they’re accomplishing something or not. So you might as well have a lot of speculative meetings and hope that some good ideas come out of them. But as Paul Graham points out, meetings do more than “wreak havoc on one’s schedule”; they wreak havoc on people who cannot have a hourly schedule, and need to allocate their time in larger blocks in order to be productive.

  • Bill

    Knowledge is power and knowing what is going on is powerful.
    What if a meeting were covered by a video camera and downloaded to a wide distribution within the organization? Would you still attend?

  • Mike

    Interesting.

    What’s the story in academia? From what I hear from professors (I am only a postdoc), they have many meetings, and they complain endlessly about them. And yet I have a hard time believing these meetings are about signaling status. Academic status is signaled by other things, like numbers of publications and/or citations, delivering seminars, being plenary speakers, receiving awards, etc. Maybe you suggest the meetings allow different subgroups of a department to jockey for status? I wonder if all the meetings are rooted in a different historical explanation.

    In the context of business and politics, it makes perfect sense that those at the top would have to attend tons of meetings. They are managing large institutions with many parts doing many things. The amount of information relevant to its proper management is enormous, so effective managers seem to have two options: spend much of their day reading reports, or spend it being told the contents of reports at meetings. The latter suits many people more.

    You mention the “vision” of business and govt leaders but unless this is grounded in the facts of the operation of the institution, this sounds very “pie in the sky” to me. Anyone can have grand ideas about where an institution should go. I presume business leaders are selected because of their ability to develop plans that incorporate the complexities of their institutions and their relationships to others. The distinction seems to me like the distinction between what we call a “crackpot” and a legitimate theorist in physics. Crackpots are full of ideas, but that doesn’t take much talent — what takes the real talent is developing ideas that account for the vast detail of what we already know about the world.

    • http://www.rationalmechanism.com richard silliker

      “Crackpots are full of ideas, but that doesn’t take much talent — what takes the real talent is developing ideas that account for the vast detail of what we already know about the world.”

      How do we know what we know is real. How many paths have turned into deadends.

    • http://permut.wordpress.com/ Michael Bishop

      My impression is that most academics spend considerably less time in meetings than other professionals.

  • Bill

    Whether meeting attendance is a sign of status is a testable hypothesis using social networking software.

    Have people identify who has status in the organization and map meeting practices to test the hypothesis. Map also who is not at the meeting.

    • http://permut.wordpress.com/ Michael Bishop

      Bill, yes one can easily measure a correlation between status and meeting attendance, but that information alone does not prove Robin’s claim that people spend too much time in meetings in order to signal status and affiliation.

      • Bill

        There is probably a difference between “time in meeting” and attending a meeting at all. I do not know how you could test the efficiency of a meeting, but what I proposed would test the hypothesis of status attendance.

  • Bill

    Sometimes not attending a meeting is a sign of status as well if you send a delegate.

  • http://permut.wordpress.com/ Michael Bishop
  • botogol

    a trend I detect is more and more pre-meetings: to ensure that the meeting itself is untroubled by any confusion, controversy or disagreement.

    So what is the meeting itself for? Signalling prestige of the attendees, yes, but also to make sure that the commitment of those same high-status people to the pre-agreed decision is overt and recorded, thereby significally reducing the scope for subsequent back-sliding or denial.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    It doesn’t sound so much about signaling status as about getting a fix. It feels really good, hard to turn down, just like a super-saccharine dessert.

    The Big Men in a hunter-gatherer tribe couldn’t have had very many other Big Men to have ego-boosting meetings with. It’s like how little access to sugar they had — the odd handful of berries and the occasional honey comb.

    Ditto even for the ruling classes of farming and even Early Modern eras. There were more prestigious people to interact with than before, but transportation and communication costs were still fairly high. Sugar still wasn’t dirt-cheap either.

    But in the present environment, communication and transportation costs are trivial compared to the pre-Modern era, so it’s a lot easier to get our fix of ego-boosting meetings. When the cost of something dear to us falls, we consume a lot more of it.

    Trouble is that, as with sugar, we aren’t adapted to a world where meetings are cheap. So, natural selection hasn’t had enough time (maybe 50 years or so, barely 2 generations) to weed out those whose social intuition is leading them astray — those who gorge on meetings — and retain those who have something of a taste for meetings but who get satiated much more quickly. Same story for why so many still have a sweet-tooth — sugar’s only been super cheap for a couple generations.

    By only looking at the signaling aspect, we miss the bigger problem with how to control the waste. On top of the problems we’d face in controlling the signaling, we’d have the further difficulties that we face in trying to get poor people to stop eating so much sugar. It’s a cheap, quick rush and hard to forgo.

  • Robert Koslover

    Woah, Robin – way to rock the boat. Does your Dept. Chair know how you feel about having to attend all those pointless, ego-puffing-up meetings that he calls?

  • eadwacer

    In my experience, it’s much the opposite, particularly in government. A topic is seen to be important based on who attends. If the highest ranking person at the Security Committee meeting is an assistant systems administrator, no-one will take it seriously. Therefore, when there’s a problem and we have to come up with a new policy, we say that we will have a Security Committee and it will meet once a month and it will be chaired by the CEO, or Deputy Undersecretary of etc.

    • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

      This seems correct to me. It is not in contradiction though. Both the meeting topic (and attendees) and the high ranking person invited benefit from the affiliation. This is the same as interpersonal affiliations usually – the lower status person gains status for following someone cool, and the cool person gains status by having another follower.

  • jonathan

    The key word is “let” but then what do you expect from people? I’ve just finished reading about the Somme and one issue is whether Rawlinson – and of course Haig – was too detached from the fighting level. How do you balance? It’s not easy. Steve Jobs gets into specific detail of specific projects but not others. How many execs are that smart and disciplined?

    • cezary

      Oh, are you a board member at Apple Inc.? Or are you quoting some prose? Clark Kent also didn’t attend all the meetings it was expected from him, sometimes he had to save the world.

  • Simon K

    Meetings are often really about ensuring that the group of people who could interfere with a course of action are on-the-record as having approved it. This ensures that later attempts (whether well-intentioned or otherwise) to change it have to be made by the same group. This is somewhat self-reinforcing – the people with the social status to change the decision have to agree to it and agree (as usually happens!) to change it, which means they attend lots of meetings, which further reinforces that they’re the guys with the status to change decisions.

    You can argue that this is all very inefficient, and certainly there are parasites who are in the inner circle but not really needed there. But I’d say the cost of allowing the parasitism is much smaller than the cost of not getting buy-in from the people you need it from, so we tend to have longer, larger meetings that would be strictly efficient. Many business decisions are made in conditions of extreme uncertainty, but have to be executed by people across the whole company, who may disagree and could disrupt the plan if they chose. Having the meeting puts everyones proverbial body-parts under the axe if the decision is not carried out.

  • ChrisA

    Surely if there were large gains in getting rid of meetings, these would be obvious in business success and people would have noticed this effect. After all you believe in this free market competitive approach in other areas. In real businesses meetings, from my experience, are very useful and necessary when you have a large team working together on a common goal or project, in fact I have often found that we don’t have enough of them as people often dislike them and see them as a distraction from their real work. There has to be regular discussions to pass information around that is needed and a meeting is often the most effective way. I would suggest perhaps that the issue about useless meetings is largely confined to academia and government, which copy business by a process of sympathetic magic but can’t go out of business. Some companies have a large enough moat around their business to act like this for a while, but most don’t.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    The person driving the meeting can make a huge difference in its efficiency.

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  • Ryan Vann

    I have a different perspective, namely that meetings are a means to a) justify a job position b) engage in highly level shirking.

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