The 3 Most Common Meeting Room Syndromes

© Franco Folini

During our professional life, most of us have attended hundreds, if not thousands of meetings. Meetings are part of the work and corporate culture, in particular, in the US. According to Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist at the University of North Carolina, most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week. The best estimates suggest that there are about 55 million meetings a day in the US alone.

The Syndromes

For many meetings, the goal is to have the participants identify a set of solutions and agree on the best one. There are usually a few recurring issues with those meetings:

  • The Smartest-Person-In-The-Room Syndrome. Some participants might feel the need to score points with the boss or the team by proposing solutions that sound smart. Their goal is not to find the best solution or to contribute to a better understanding of the issue. They want to impress others, or simply please their ego, and to increase their authority by pushing the meeting toward their proposals. Their ideas look intelligent and smart only in the limited and peculiar context of a meeting. In any less scripted context, the same ideas would be easily dismissed with a simple, common-sense sentence. Often the result of meetings disrupted by this kind of syndrome is a low-quality choice, a sub-optimal decision that pleases the ego of those people and temporarily consolidates their authority.
  • The Consensus-At-Any-Cost Syndrome. Reaching the consensus among participants generates decisions that are a compromise among the all the different solutions on the table and personalities around the table. A compromise incorporates feedback and ideas from all stakeholders and leads to an outcome should satisfy the entire group. Each person, or stakeholder, has a unique point of view and is impacted differently by change. Consensus can be built on a reasonable or bad compromise. A good compromise is when the adopted solution has a better ratio of pros-over-cons than each candidate solution. Typically, as the meeting approaches the end of the allocated time, the pressure to reach a consensus rises, and people are more willing to compromise, just to get off the meeting. The focus gradually shifts from pushing the best solution to supporting the most inclusive option, the one that minimizes the number of people or departments in disagreement. The final result is often an unfortunate compromise that brings together everybody at the expense of the quality and effectiveness of the adopted solution.
  • The Fake-Decision-Process Syndrome. According to Jen Sandler, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, many times, the meeting is not the place where a team makes decisions. It is instead a place where a boss, clearly lacking self-confidence, simulates a consensus-building process to impose his or her choices. The meeting facilitator drives the team by rewarding contributions and people aligned with the pre-selected outcome and by dismissing all contrary opinions and observations. Those meetings passively confirm a decision made before the meeting while spreading the responsibility among all participants.

The Cure

There are easy ways to avoid those three common meeting-room syndromes. Here the best recommendations I was able to gather:

  • Make sure that everybody has access, within a reasonable timeframe, to the detailed meeting agenda, and to complete information about the topics to be discussed. Steven Rogelberg recommends framing the agenda not as a list of topics to be discussed, but as questions to be answered. Before starting the meeting, check that everybody has read the documentation and is fully aware of the agenda.
  • Invite the right people. Think about who should be in the meeting, depending on what is going to be discussed and what decisions are going to be made. Make sure the expertise you need is present by inviting the right people for the task.
  • Create an environment focused on collaboration that welcomes and encourages honest and constructive confrontations. Facilitate a frank discussion where ideas are evaluated by their merit, not by the authority of the originator. Pursuing a non-confrontational approach at any cost can devoid the meeting of any value. According to Priya Parker, a group-conflict-resolution facilitator, unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connections as an unhealthy conflict.
  • Always set a clear goal for the meeting. “Monday Afternoon Sales Meeting” is not a purpose; it’s a category. The more specific you are, the more likely the meeting will converge to a decision, possibly a good decision. Priya Parker recommends limiting the agenda to topics that can’t be discussed effectively by email or chat.
  • Set a maximum duration for the meeting (possibly less than one hour). Do not extend the meeting over the scheduled length. According to Steven Rogelberg, psychological research shows that when you add a little bit of pressure, it creates more focus on optimal performance. If the meeting did not reach a consensus by the end of the time allocated, close the meeting and schedule a new one with a more specific agenda and, when possible, with only a subset of participants.

The reputation of meetings is so poor that many people avoid holding them, Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, for instance. Some companies, like Basecamp, have instituted no-meeting days, to give employees a chance to do their work without being dragged off to the conference room.

Suggested Readings

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker.
The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance by Steven G. Rogelberg.
The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities by H.B. Schwartzman.

Franco lives and works in the eCommerce territory, a wild area between the Kingdom of Technology and the Land of Marketing. He speaks fluently the language of both realms. For many years, Franco has been helping people bridge the divide and successfully collaborate.

If you want to find out more about Franco, visit his LinkedIn profile or send him an email folini[at]gmail.com

eCommerce & Digital Marketing Strategist, entrepreneur, and more.