6 tips from the latest research on better meetings

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Much business writing regards meetings as, at best, a necessary evil. As much as some of us may like to think they’re a great opportunity to get engagement and get things done, it will never be the majority view. But we should still try to get as much out of them as we can.

So, here’s 6 tips based on the latest research on how to get the most out of meetings:

 

1. Remove anchoring bias

Ok, so this isn’t exactly new research. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – the stars of Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project – found that anchoring has a powerful effect on people’s view of information. In meetings, this means that discussion throughout the rest of the meeting focuses on the first suggestions. Kahneman recommended that, to overcome this, participants would write and circulate summaries of their position prior to the meeting.

 

2. Remove agreement bias

Anyone who’s been in a meeting may disagree with this, but some of us have seen it at first hand: people don’t actually like disagreeing with each other, especially if there’s a powerful person in the room. Research by Tom Gole of BCG and Simon Quinn of Oxford University ran an experiment at a school debating tournament, in which they found that judges who disagreed with others in earlier rounds tended to vote for higher seeded candidates in later rounds to avoid “too much” disagreement.

This one is very difficult to overcome, especially if there are senior or powerful people in the meeting. If your meetings require voting, then you may want to introduce voting in reverse order of seniority. This article recommends rewarding disagreement, although this can also be difficult for companies.

 

3. Keep the meeting as small as possible

This advice is based on research, but it needn’t be. It’s just common sense that the more people you have in a meeting, the more likely it is that some people will hide, and others just won’t have their view heard even if they want to. Plus, it places a heavy burden on the facilitator. For more effective meetings, keep attendance tight.

 

4. Ban laptops, tablets and phones

This goes back to the old truth about multitasking: people can’t do it. Not really. Some can switch more quickly between tasks, but they can’t do too things with their brain effectively at the same time. In fact, as expected, a person who multitasks will take “50% longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes up to 50% more mistakes”. A person checking their emails or Googling something in a meeting is simply not listening or contributing as effectively to the person with no tech in front of them. Further, they distract others. If someone senior in the meeting starts using tech, then there will be a knock-on effect.

It’s also bad manners. If you’re a junior member of staff presenting or talking in a meeting, and someone senior is on their phone or laptop, it can be hurtful.

 

5. Keep them short

Parkinson’s Law, that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion, is a mode of thought that can be abused. But it is particularly applicable to meetings. Limiting the time of meetings forces people to be more efficient, and may help with that ban on tech.

 

6. Don’t underestimate the importance of small talk

Countless books and articles have said that meetings should be run by strict agendas with even stricter timescales, removing chit-chat and focused on getting important stuff discussed as efficiently as possible.

However, this may be a counter-productive approach. Research by Google found that teams that engaged in small-talk before and/or after a meeting were generally more productive. By talking about their weekends or what their children had been up to before a meeting, they tended to be better at teamwork and have stronger bonds, making them more effective than those who only focused on work in a meeting.

Have an agenda, of course, but don’t try and get rid of the stuff you regard as ‘pointless’ at the very start of the meeting. It might give your team the edge it needs!