PITTSBURGH – For millions of workers who attend frequent meetings, the ritual gatherings often can feel like a waste of time.
“People find meetings generally to be unpleasant,” said Aimee Kane, associate professor of management at Duquesne University’s Palumbo Donahue School of Business. “Meetings can be notorious for wasting time.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Because of diverse backgrounds and ideas, discussing problems and goals in a group setting can be a valuable way to get things done. Too often, meetings fall apart because they aren’t structured correctly, experts say.
For starters, they should have a clear purpose that’s communicated to participants in advance so everyone has time to prepare, Kane said.
It’s also important to use techniques to encourage equal participation, such as calling on everyone in the room in turn. Otherwise, “Because of rank or personality, one person might dominate the meeting,” she said.
Nisha Nair, clinical assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, advocates “brain writing,” in which all participants write ideas on index cards that are then circulated to the group.
The technique helps counteract “group- think,” or the desire to maintain anonymity in groups, which tends to stop people from speaking up and sharing their true opinions, she said.
Brain writing “forces everyone to be engaged and generates more ideas,” she said.
It’s also helpful to write ideas on a board so people remember them, and then rank them, Kane said. That way, “You see what people really prefer, not just who is talking the loudest.”
In general, meeting face-to-face will be more productive than conference calls or e-mail discussions, which are prone to misunderstandings, Kane said.
It’s also important to reduce the frequency of meetings by handling simple tasks outside of the room. For example, use e-mail to circulate information or get people to sign off on a project, she said.
“I think the frustration with meetings has to do with the limitations of the human mind to process information and do it in a social setting,” Kane said. “That’s why when we structure them, we get better results.”
For networking professional Berny Dohrmann, the most critical ingredient is setting up a system of rewards to recognize employees’ contributions.
“Too many meetings are organized around punishment — ‘Sales are down and we have to get them up or you are fired,’ ” said Dohrmann, who knows a bit about punishment, having spent 18 months in federal prison in the mid-1990s in connection with a defaulted junk bond.
“Find ways to use praise and recognition [for performers] and others will conform to get the praise,” said Dohrmann, who for nearly 30 years has been running CEO Space, a Florida-based conference and networking company for business owners.
“They will like coming to meetings because they like showing results” and know they will get recognized.