Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.


A reader asks:

I'm trying to figure out if I'm a crabby cynic or if I'm missing some genetic code that makes people enjoy sitting in meetings.

I work in a very busy legal department in a non-attorney role. Too often I have observed that when a new process or other change is announced at a meeting, lots of people join in to agree with the change. The general counsel will say, "We are instituting a new process to facilitate X because blah, blah, blah." Then four or five people in the meeting will jump in and expand on why this idea is such a good one. It's the same idea when management decides not to pursue something. "We are not doing Y because of blah, blah, blah." "Good!! It's a bad idea because of this!!" "And that!" "And the other!"

Several of these people are on the management team and would have been included in the discussions leading up to the decision. I can understand a question asking why management decided to do X instead of Y, but is there a reason I need to hear six reasons why something is a good idea in addition to the two reasons provided by the general counsel in his original comments?

People complain about how many meetings we have and how long they last, and then they keep talking in the meetings. I speak up when I have a question but other than that, I keep quiet.

I'm at the bottom of the food chain, so I'm not asking for help in managing how the general counsel runs a meeting. I'm asking for a different perspective so that maybe I can get onboard with the idea that saying a good idea is a good idea multiple times is a valuable way to spend time.

Green responds:

They're doing it because they're insecure, want to seem/feel important, and mistakenly think that opining on everything being said will raise their stature. They've confused number of contributions in a meeting with value of contributions.

Or they're just talkers, and no one has asked them to stop.

Or they're blowhards.

Or -- less likely but still possible -- this sort of discussion is actually contributing something that's both worthwhile and intended because part of the purpose of these meetings is to generate buy-in and/or to hear people's reactions to these decisions. That's less likely, since you note that some of the culprits are people who were part of making these decisions, but it's possible and worth considering, especially since you might not be well-positioned to see that as clearly from your vantage point.

But unless that last explanation is correct, your office is doing a few things wrong:

1. They're using meetings for announcements. Meetings shouldn't generally be used for announcements; they should be used for things that require discussion (or for things that are sensitive enough that they require meeting in person). If they're announcing things there because they think people may have questions about a new policy or process, that's fine -- but then that brings us to the next point:

2. They need to set better meeting norms. That could mean laying out clear time limits for each topic at the outset (either in an agenda or verbally at the start of the meeting -- "we're going to spend two minutes on some quick announcements and then move into discussing X..." or even just "I want to keep this brief because I know everyone is busy"), or it could mean saying something like, "We have a lot to get through, so I'm going to ask that people hold questions and comments until we've run through these first three items." It could even mean that the person leading the meeting says at the start, "We've traditionally had a lot of people chiming in with their opinions on decisions. If you feel strongly about something, please raise it, but otherwise I want to be sensitive to people's time and try to hold this to X minutes."

It's important to navigate that carefully though, because you don't want to suppress useful input or make people feel like you don't want to hear their input, as bad things will come of that over the long-term. There's a balance to getting this right; if you go overboard in either direction, it tends to have a disruptive effect.

3. And they probably need to change their norms around how often people are meeting and how long meetings last. If people are complaining about spending too much time in meetings and a large chunk of meeting time is taken up by people talking aimlessly, they need an organization-wide commitment to cutting the amount of time meetings take up. The only real way to do that is with visible commitment from the top, and the organization's leaders need to model better meeting habits themselves to show that they mean it, since people will follow their cues.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Oct 8, 2018