Logistical tricks are great, but if you really want meetings to be effective, you also need to take their emotional toll into account, says a new study.
Stand up, walk around, assign a referee, end with a "closing round," there is no shortage of logistical tips and tricks out there to keep meetings short, focused and productive. But according to a new study, you can implement all these excellent ideas and more and still end up fighting meeting exhaustion if you don’t also tackle the emotional problems that make many meetings such a chore.
One of the most exhausting things about work isn’t the work itself. It’s being nice to everyone and regulating your responses to get along, forge connections and generally keep the office vibe from degenerating into something more like a middle school cafeteria. We usually think of this sort of emotional labor, which psychologists term “surface acting,” in relation to customers, but meetings, because of their semi-public nature, are also a big culprit when it comes to the need to feign the correct emotion.
Linda Shanock, a professor of organization science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and her team recently looked into the cost of all the teeth gritting, insincere laughter, and careful phrasing that goes into keeping the peace during many meetings. They asked 178 study participants to rate their agreement with statements like "I tend to fake a good mood when interacting with others in the meeting" and then looked for a correlation between lots of surface acting and lower ratings of meeting effectiveness.
Participants who indicated higher surface acting had higher emotional exhaustion (or burnout) scores. The authors interprets this as consistent with previous findings that surface acting is frustrating and emotionally draining, and also consistent with the subjective feeling referred to as 'meeting recovery syndrome'. In addition, habitual surface actors were more likely to have an intention to quit the organisation entirely. Again this is linked to the harmful effects of surface acting.
For organizations the takeaways from the findings aren’t yet clear -- it could simply be that the type of companies that drive employees to fake happiness (generally not the ones with the healthiest office culture) are the real driver of all the acting and the exhaustion people report after meetings. The researchers are conducting follow-up studies to determine whether acting is directly causing meeting frustration or a symptom of larger, underlying problems at dysfunctional offices.
But the lesson for bosses and small business owners is clearer and more immediate. Faking it burns people out. So whether you’re the one plastering on the inauthentic smile or you sense your employees are playacting their way through your meetings, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and demand (from yourself and others) that everyone get a little more real. Setting a better example of polite but forthright interaction is a simple place to start.
How much acting goes on in meetings at your company?
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel