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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Economics 101: Why do productive people hate meetings so much?

In financial terms, one Fortune 50 company estimated losses in excess of $75 million per year due to poor or pointless meetings

Business travellers will pay VAT on many of their expenses during their time in the Emirates. Photo: Getty Images
Business travellers will pay VAT on many of their expenses during their time in the Emirates. Photo: Getty Images

Almost everyone dislikes meetings, yet we still hold so many, especially in the Arabian Gulf, where many organisations seem to love them.

Why is this the case, and what can we do about it?

Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University, has recently co-written a book The Elephant in the Brain that helps explain the persistence of seemingly useless meetings, and many other puzzling phenomena. He argues that humans are political animals, meaning that while we often act selfishly, it also serves our interest to conceal our selfishness, not just from other people, but also from ourselves. His book focuses on getting us to confront our real motives in many social situations. How does this account for the prevalence of meetings in the modern workplace, both inside and outside the Gulf?

Before we explore this, it is worth considering how costly meetings are. In a recent TED talk on bad meetings, communications experts David Grady and Jason Fried noted that in the US, most employees attend 62 meetings a month. Executives average 23 hours per week in meetings, where almost eight were unnecessary and poorly run - almost 2 months per year. In financial terms, one Fortune 50 company estimated losses in excess of $75 million per year due to poor meetings. If the equivalent data were available for the Gulf, we would probably expect something similar if not worse. What explains our appetite for wasting so much time and money?

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Isn’t the goal of meetings to exchange critical information, and to coordinate action? In fact, as Prof Hanson and others argue, this explanation is naive and incorrect, as indicated by the data above. Our brain likes to hide the real reason from us, which is that meetings boost our self-esteem. We all like to feel important to the people around us, and to the organisations where we work. Compliments are nice, but talk is cheap; time, however, is not, and that is why meetings convince us that other people regard us as important. In fact for many people, the only thing worse than being invited to a meeting is not being invited to one.

Prof Hanson also argues that meetings also demonstrate alliances. When managers want to introduce potentially disruptive policies, they need the support of key members of the organisation, and they also need to make sure that potential opponents are aware of that support. Meetings become stages where managers exhibit the coalitions that they have formed. This channel is also important in the Gulf, where culture means that forging and dissolving alliances is commonplace, bringing with it the need to update others on the latest configuration of power. However, these kinds of meetings don’t take as much time, and do contribute to productivity.

The real problem lies with the meetings that just make people feel important, even though people refuse to admit their actual function. Why do our brains conceal our true motives from us? Because it is useful to us to pretend. As social animals, humans must rely on others to survive, such as when we suffer bad health, or temporarily lose our sources of income. People are more likely to help those who will reciprocate in the future, and so it is useful to cultivate a reputation as being the sort of person who helps people unconditionally. One way to convey that image is to pretend to be nicer than you actually are. Doing this convincingly typically requires lying to yourself. Therefore, we are designed to conceal our innate selfishness, and to project false altruism.

In the context of workplace meetings, it is against our interests to admit that we like forcing people to sit and listen to us because this is a selfish trait that makes people unconsciously less likely to help you when you need their assistance. Instead, we all participate in a personality masquerade that results in the loss of millions of hours and dollars.

Is there anything that we can do about this? Strictly enforced rules help, as they curtail our ability to engage in destructive selfish behaviour. For example, in the case of people who exceed their allotted time in seminars - typically the result of someone demonstrating their importance to the audience by forcing them to listen additional minutes - programming the microphone to switch off automatically is very effective. In the context of conventional meetings, useful ideas include having strict time limits, requiring the circulation of agendas, and allowing people to only attend the parts of meetings that concern them.

Good luck confronting the elephant in your brain!

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.