Meetings are terrible, right?
Certainly, meetings get bloated with too many participants—the stereotypical “this could have been an email” type of get-together that always feels like it’d run better with half as many folks. It’s common enough that Shopify auto-deleted all meetings with more than 2 people earlier this year.
By contrast, despite their status as a core part of people management, 1:1s generally offer higher bandwidth throughput but can fall prey to the same blasé ineffectiveness as bigger group meetings. This article points out the placebo effect of replacing bigger meetings with a series of smaller ones; the size of the meeting is not the only factor in determining efficiency. Conducting a series of individual 1:1s may feel like an accomplishment, but that runs the risk of mistaking chatter for progress under the umbrella objective of “catching up.” Worse, your calendar often ends up paying the cost of absorbing more synchronous, busy events.
It’s not like people don’t know the ingredients that make for better meetings. A few simple rules make a difference:
- Set an agenda;
- Stay on time;
- Commit to the next steps.
But good meetings are still hard to come by. Why?
One factor is that most company cultures make it easy to invite others to meet, and subsequently difficult to decline. We are socialized to be friendly with our colleagues, and it’s only polite to attend a meeting when invited. This is exacerbated with corporate hierarchies and power structures, where a senior manager can call a big meeting with subordinates and they’re expected to show up regardless of relevance. Thus, the strategy of periodically deleting meetings en masse—scheduling bankruptcy—can work when it comes from the top, implicitly permitting everyone else to bypass these hierarchical conventions.
Another factor is the reality that most project progress is slow and uneven. For every meeting that culminates in crisp and clear decisions, there are a dozen inconsequential status updates, discussions that dead-end into irrelevance, or action items created but never followed through. When projects get stuck, the instinct is to call a meeting to unstick it, assuming that the lethargy is due to unresolved decisions or poor prioritization1. This is a common seagull management tactic—believing that their authority and expertise are the missing ingredients in successful project execution.
Intertwined throughout is the specter of social and organizational power dynamics. In The Culture Code, the author describes a social experiment where groups of strangers are tasked with team activities and compared the difference between kids and adults. They noted that the kids ended up performing better: they just started experimenting with solutions off the bat. Meanwhile, the adults were busy making introductions, figuring out roles and leaders, and subsequently moderating communication norms; they spent much of their allotted time calibrating social statuses.
Yet, that’s an important part of working as a team! The experiment showed that there’s a cost to getting used to one another—the forming and storming stages of team development—but they’re prerequisites to reach the latter stages of efficiency and capability, to get to norming and performing. The process is ultimately about acclimation to social dynamics2, which gets at the notion that the sum can be greater than its parts. Reaping the benefits of great teamwork is leveraging complementary skills from individuals earned from familiarity3.
In complaining about “meeting culture,” folks are referring to the first anti-pattern of meetings, driven more by convenience and misplaced authority than utility. But the overcorrection is then leaning too hard into the second anti-pattern, where too much effort is spent on building relationships with diminishing payoffs. As you’d expect, the happy medium is somewhere in the middle—some meetings to connect and build rapport, and a handful of group meetings with clear purpose and outcomes.