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The Payoffs and Penalties of Holding Meetings

Danger lurks if a problem-solving discussion turns into unfocused complaining.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Meetings Matter: Effects of Team Meetings on Team and Organizational Success (Fee or subscription required.)

Author: Simone Kauffeld and Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock (Technische Universität Braunschweig)

Publisher: Small Group Research, vol. 43, no. 2

Date Published: April 2012

There is real value in conducting good meetings, according to this paper, which finds that companies that held constructive group sessions could trace the dividends for years. But perhaps the biggest benefit of having a good meeting is not having a bad one — because the negative effects of bad meetings on employee satisfaction, team productivity, and company performance are much more dramatic than the positive impact of good sessions, the researchers say.

Although it’s widely recognized that getting the most out of team members’ expertise requires interaction and the coordination of tasks and tools, research that links meetings to organizational performance is scarce. The authors of this paper sought to address that gap by discovering which types of communication and behavior led to productive meetings and which dragged the sessions down. The difference, they said, turns on how well a meeting stays focused on defining problems and their solutions and how well it avoids turning into a gripe session that proves demoralizing.

The authors studied 92 teams from 20 midsized companies in the automotive supply, metal, electrical, chemical, and packaging industries. The teams met regularly for about an hour every two to four weeks, discussing a topic relevant to their activities or schedule. The sessions were videotaped and coded with a system that rated group members’ statements in 44 interaction categories.

Three main criteria were used to judge the effectiveness of the meetings. First, the authors circulated questionnaires to measure group members’ satisfaction with the meetings. Second, the team’s objective performance following the meetings was judged. For example, at a manufacturing firm, a team’s productivity would be measured by the number of expected versus actual parts made within a certain time frame.

Third, at various intervals — shortly after the meetings, and then a year later, and two and a half years later — the CEOs of the companies rated the development of their firm in terms of innovation, the streamlining of internal processes, employee turnover, the number of new products offered, and market share.

Overall, teams succeeded (and their companies had higher productivity) when they used problem-focused statements during the meetings — especially when members defined the objective of a meeting in light of the issues facing them, provided different perspectives on highlighted problems, and framed their concerns in terms of potential solutions.

Teams also got high marks when they used proactive communication — when members expressed interest in taking responsibility for the changes ahead or planned concrete actions. Meetings were also better when supervisors or facilitators had a strong voice, ensuring that the sessions stayed on point.

By contrast, unstructured meetings negatively affected team members’ satisfaction, group productivity, and organizational performance. Particularly damaging were “dysfunctional communicative behaviors such as criticizing or complaining,” the authors write. Seeking others to blame and shifting responsibility wasted precious meeting time and could lead to “complaining cycles, in which one complaining statement is chasing the next.”

Because meetings represent a unique opportunity for employees to discuss the negative aspects of their job in great detail, they pose a danger to morale if the complaining isn’t reined in and the discussion isn’t refocused on specific problems and their solutions.

“Interestingly, dysfunctional communication appeared to affect team meeting success more than functional communication,” the authors write. “For example, the negative relationship between counteractive statements and team meeting success was stronger than the positive relationship between proactive statements and team meeting success.”

In other words, it’s more important to have fewer bad meetings than it is to have more good ones. Accordingly, the authors advise supervisors and facilitators to ask their employees to formally reflect on meeting processes. If nothing else, this gives them the chance to vent via e-mail or questionnaire, channels that don’t carry the potential for damage that dysfunctional team meetings do.

Bottom Line:
The quality of meetings does matter. Teams that interact better — communicate in a focused way about problems, stick to the appropriate agenda, and volunteer to take action — accomplish their goals effectively and enhance organizational performance.

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