The Psychology of Meetings

Adrian Furnham

Why do we spend so much time in meetings? And how can it be better spent? Adrian Furnham shares 12 tips.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Effective meetings

Meetings frequently 'take minutes and waste hours'. Usually three-quarters or more of a senior manager's day may be taken up with meetings. Despite deep cynicism about their productivity and usefulness they remain the major part of the senior managers day. Many a caller has been fobbed off with the simple phrase 'He is in a meeting'.

Meetings have little or nothing to do with the quality of decision making or the communication of information. Their two major functions are quite simply first, diffusion of responsibility and second, decision acceptance. They are there to ensure that all present take equal blame and responsibility for the decision (particularly if it goes wrong).

Improve meetings

Frustration with the time-and-effort-wastefulness of meetings has led various organisations to attempt to implement certain strategies to improve them. Some follow a structure. Thus all meetings begin with expectations and end with benefits and concerns.

Some try to shock with efficiency by calculating Return of investment ROI on all meetings by working out the real cost (in money) of the meeting. This involves calculating the salaries of people present per hour and totalling it all up. How to calculate investment? It is surprisingly easy. On average people work around 100,000 minutes a year. This is calculated on a ±8 hour, 220 working day year. So if a person is paid $50,000 a year they cost 50c per minute.

Meeting by colour codes

A recent fad is to colour code meetings beforehand to indicate the type and amount of acceptable and unacceptable verbal and nonverbal behaviour at the meeting. Some like to follow the black to red alert-categories used by police and security services. Others like a simple traffic light system.

But the trouble with both these arrangements is that they bring conceptual associations. So a simple one-to-five with varied colours works best.

It starts with some criterion like level of contribution or level of support. The colour or number chosen for the meeting indicate the desired behaviour. Thus a high number might indicate the expectation that everyone will "chip in" regularly. A low number means the meeting is more about receiving information.,

This system is usually used for three types of issues. The first is about process not content. That is, how attendees treat each other. In brainstorming there are very clear rules about no criticism of others' ideas; about valuing quantity over quality; about acceptable piggy-backing on somebody else's ideas. The same applies here.

Some process prescriptions are about politeness. Others are about simple things like how long one may speak for, or indeed how to get the floor in the first place. So a green meeting may indicate that what is required is short, crisp interjection. A blue meeting may indicate that it is acceptable to develop an idea.

Humour is a dangerous issue

Some meetings may prescribe others proscribe humour – always a dangerous issue. Jokes can lighten but can also offend. They may introduce inappropriate levity where seriousness is required. One useful rule is about criticism. A blue meeting may indicate no criticism; green criticism of certain features; yellow that no criticism is allowed unless a feasible alternative is apparent; and red anything can be said.

But more importantly the system can be applied to content. Thus the rule may be about rule-breaking – about really thinking outside the box; about radical reformation not just adaptation. The colour-indicated rules might put certain things out of bounds. One of the advantages about the system is that it sets expectations beforehand. It's a bit like a dress-code – black tie, smart casual, dress-down.

The rule says a lot about how the meeting is expected to go and, therefore, its outcome.

Non-verbal behaviours

The nonverbal behaviours at meetings are particularly important. This is often a function of the physical features of the meeting room and space. Is it done standing up or sitting down; is there a table; can everyone see each other; what are the ranks of people present; what topics are being discussed; what are the hidden agendas, etc? The behaviours are most interesting when they change and indices of anxiety are also attention-grabbing.

  • First, there is eye contact: who looks at who most and most frequently and when parties avoid eye contact. This is usually an index of discomfort.
  • Second, there is posture reflecting how tense or relaxed people are.
  • Third, meetings can show a lot of displacement fidgeting such as foot tapping, hair pulling etc when people are bored, frustrated or trying (unsuccessfully) to look relaxed and concentrating.
  • Also look out for a displacement yawn. It is known that people faced with a tedious task, often yawn or suddenly feel extremely tired or sleepy. Desmond Morris, the evolutionary psychologist, reported on a curious case of soldiers feeling a tremendous urge to sleep immediately after they were told to go in to an attack. He explains that this behaviour was not a product of physical weariness but a displacement response to a threatening situation.

Choose your seat strategically

Orientation can change during meetings when people push back their chair or turn it to face somebody while turning their back on someone else. Make sure you choose your seat strategically when trying to push your agenda across in a meeting. We know that sitting opposite the other party implies competition and antagonism.

Co-operation can, conversely, be instilled by physical proximity and seating side by side. The person that is being persuaded in a meeting is more likely to agree if he or she is physically surrounded by the members of the other 'camp'. Certainly, while literally pushing your case through, you should be aware of the other party's behaviour. If they are growing uncomfortable with the setting, they would try to move away from it.

The use of gestures may be particularly telling where speakers use repetitive, inappropriate, or clumsy gestures to indicate signs of agreement.

Some signals can also be in conflict with each other. For instance, smiling, a general sign of joy and accord, that is accompanied by the aversion of head and pushing away of the, let's say, report, do not match.

We know that people who agree display a cluster of certain gestures to indicate their community, and each of the behaviours from this cluster reinforces the same message. If there is a sign that does not fit the general pattern, it might signal ambivalence or, in fact, inner contradiction to what is being said.

Twelve tips more effective meetings

There are many website and business books that give advice about running a meeting. Here are some:

  1. Always plan and circulate an agenda before the meetings. Get everyone to agree beforehand what the outcomes of the meeting are to be. Take charge of the agenda and the outcomes. Be clear why some are, and are not, on it. Give some idea of the length of the meeting.
  2. Get in the meeting first. Choose a place at the end of a table (symbolic head). Have a policy about people arriving late. Some ignore, others humiliate, still others ignore. At some point this needs discussion
  3. If the meeting doesn't have a formal chair-person, chair it yourself.
  4. Be the one to start the formal part of the meeting, the usual stuff about minutes of the last meeting.
  5. Be sure to log the 'off agenda' items and put them aside for later suggesting that if they are not covered during the meeting they may be covered at the end. It is very easy to get side-tracked. Stick to the agenda.
  6. Come back to "other items" at the end. People get tired: some suggest that you put the controversial items later in the meeting when people are more "mellow".
  7. Be careful of the power-hungry trying to "unseat" you. Remain calm and stick to the plan.
  8. Manage both the mavericks: say when people are being unreasonable, over-emtional or manipulative.
  9. If people do walk out, email them immediately afterwards to follow up outlining what the issue was.
  10. Follow up the meeting, confirming what you agreed and who need to do what. Get the others to acknowledge receipt of the email confirmation of the action plans.
  11. Listen carefully to what is being said or not said. Repeat the question or statement being made, asking for clarification that you have understood it.
  12. Get the more difficult people to make a summary of the meeting: what was agreed etc. Do not leave until there is agreement on this.


This article is first published in Psychology Today on February 4, 2017. Link to article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201702/the-psychology-meetings

Published 6. February 2017

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