Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Two Meeting Personalities

A while back, I wrote about the secret life of committees and mentioned an article about why you should never invite seven colleagues to a meeting. Later I mused about a meeting-driven life. There is yet more science to be explored on the topic I discovered today in Science Daily. The article dates from 2006, and explores the question of whether workplace meetings are a good thing or evil. It is based on research led by psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg of University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

The research team found that in public, most of us decry meetings as time-wasters, but our true feelings may be different:
"When speaking publicly, people generally claim that they hate meetings," said Rogelberg, "but in the surveys you see a different story -- some people's private sentiments are much more positive.
One important factor turns out to be whether or not the meetings are well led. In my experience, that's about half of the picture. The other half is the communication styles of those present. I'm an Act III kind of guy--I'll ask for Act I and Act II if I'm interested, but normally one act is enough. I may not be typical, because there is often far more explanation than I can stand in one meeting. But back to the article's findings.

Apparently there are two kinds of us. Some really don't like meetings because of the sense of not getting things accomplished. The other type actually likes them because they are not burdened by an itching agenda, and they enjoy the social aspects of meetings.
"People who are high in accomplishment striving look at meetings more from the perspective of seeing them as barriers to getting real work done," Rogelberg said. "But the others may view meetings as a way to structure their day or a way to network and socialize. As a result, these people see meetings as a good thing."
As a practical matter, then, perhaps we should all identify ourselves as belonging to one camp or another. Pins or arm patches would do the trick, or little markings on staff rosters. Those who don't like meetings breaking up their day (Type I) could be scheduled accordingly, in blocks, but only when absolutely necessary. The meeting-social types (Type II) could gather frequently in exclusive groups for their sort. Of course these 'talky' committees might not accomplish much. Another Science Daily article notes about workplace groups that:
From the operating room to the executive board room, the benefits of working in teams have long been touted. But a new analysis of 22 years of applied psychological research shows that teams tend to discuss information they already know and that "talkier" teams are less effective.
The authors advise that the remedy is:
[T]eams communicate better when they engage in tasks where they are instructed to come up with a correct, or best, answer rather than a consensual solution.
In other words, don't make it a social event. This would make our Type I committee members less grumpy, at the expense of the Type II's enjoyment. I guess the lesson is that if anyone in the room is enjoying the process, the meeting isn't proceeding efficiently. Perhaps the Type II crowd could benefit from the new drug Despondex, which is designed to take the edge off of people who are too cheerful.

The good news, I suppose, is that groups still function better than individuals, according to this article and this one. Scientific proof that committees are here to stay.

But the Internet has created a whole new kind of group. In a graphic novel, it would be the committee that fell into the vat of toxic waste and woke up with new powers and strange motivations. As a force for good, see the power that is the Mechanical Turk. As a force for the strange, see this article about 4chan's hack of an online TIME poll. For both of these examples, the whole being greater than the parts on a large scale. Imagine if your whole institution met as a committee and actually got something done. Scary, isn't it?


  1. This was already my favorite assessment blog. The 4chan reference puts you off the charts.

  2. Hehe thanks! My favorite 4chan 'art' is LOLcats as Metallica's "The Sandman". Can't find the original right now, but here's a copy.