Modern meetings are not about decision making but should be thought of as a form of “therapy” for employees, according to an academic who has led a new study into the topic.
Patrik Hall, a professor in political science at Malmö University in Sweden, said the right type of meeting could have a positive effect by giving employees an outlet at work. But he said most workers were not engaged by meetings, and most work gatherings failed to lead to measurable output.
Hall, who is studying why organisations undertake an ever-increasing number of meetings despite their unpopularity among staff, said meetings could provide an opportunity for employees to connect with each other, complain or create an identity around their department or organisation.
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"A municipality or a gigantic organisation will move desperately slowly. Here, the purpose of a meeting can be for participants to acquaint themselves with the organisation and understand who does what,” said Hall.
“Some people find this frustrating. Why are we sitting here? A departmental meeting is an example of a meeting that many feel is pointless. Here, the meeting is intended to remind employees that they belong to an organisation.
“When you have meetings with colleagues at the same level, as a professional, you get to discuss different issues that interest you. Meetings with individuals at higher levels in the organisation instead arouse feelings of meaninglessness. There is always a subtle power struggle against the leadership of the organisation,” he added.
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HR experts in the UK were broadly in agreement with Hall’s findings, but said there was a more nuanced argument to be had around the topic.
Nick Bacon, professor of human resource management at Cass Business School, said too many employers still centralised decision making, which led to a proliferation of meeting: “Many organisations have increased the volume of meetings to inform employees of decisions that have been made. At the same time, decision making on important matters remains centralised and employees are not involved in those decisions.
“Managers struggle to understand why employees are not more engaged because they are holding regular meetings. Employees feel meetings just tell them of decisions that have been made, but don’t genuinely seek their views or inputs into the decision making process.”
Rosalind Searle, professor in human resource management and organisational psychology at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, added that well-organised meetings could be useful, particularly as an opportunity to listen and support employees following a turbulent period.
“A meeting where people are clear about the agenda is useful, but when they are poorly structured or managed, people can feel frustrated,” she said. “They can be structured in a way that pits people against each other and this can increase division in a workplace.”
Searle added that where meetings were used as an opportunity for employees to vent their concerns, organisations needed to follow through with actions on the issues raised. “If frustrations aren’t listened to and acted on, people will become cynical, and this will shift from anger to contempt,” she said.
“If people feel they’re not being listened to, and meetings are just for management to show off what they’ve done, people can become disengaged, and meetings become a forum for them to come together and moan about the organisation.”
And Graeme Martin, professor of management and director of research at the University of Dundee’s School of Business, said it was important for meetings to be managed professionally. “If chaired properly, meetings can produce more effective outcomes and provide a forum for ensuring employees and managers have the opportunity to express their voice,” he said.
“However, the chair has to signal that participation is expected at the beginning of the meeting and do everything they can to encourage participation and discourage over-contributors,” Martin added.