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Meeting Employees Halfway

By keeping group sessions tightly focused and on schedule, managers can earn their employees’ respect and commitment.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Bottom LineEmployees often view meetings as a waste of time. But if managers can strike the right balance when leading meetings, they can exploit an already established part of the workday to boost employees’ morale and productivity.

Remember that sarcastic “demotivational” poster that made the rounds a few years ago, showing a group of hands coming together above the slogan “Meetings: None of Us Is as Dumb as All of Us”? Despite the ubiquity of meetings, they remain deeply unpopular with employees, and have been recognized as a major source of on-the-job disgruntlement. Nevertheless, each day more than 11 million business meetings take place in the United States alone, and research has determined that managers in large companies spend up to three-fourths of their time organizing and running meetings.

According to a new study, however, meetings don’t have to be a drag on either morale or productivity. In fact, the authors found, well-run meetings can serve as much more than rote gatherings or resented disruptions to the workday, and can actually facilitate more active engagement from employees.

Given that meetings are typically considered an inherent part of the job by employees—unlike extra training sessions or out-of-the-office bonding exercises—they are an incredibly valuable tool, already in place, through which managers could turn a perceived negative aspect of the workday into a positive event. To do so, the authors found, managers must keep meetings running on schedule, make the topics relevant to the employees in the room (or on the conference call), and be willing to ask for and accept input from their subordinates.

Engagement, characterized as an upbeat, fulfilling state of mind among working employees, leads to higher levels of commitment, drive, and willingness to learn from colleagues and supervisors. But it’s not just touchy-feely stuff. More engaged workers have been shown to perform better and work harder, with significant, positive impacts on a company’s bottom line. For example, one recent report found that firms with more engaged employees achieved higher returns on investment than firms staffed with less enthusiastic workers.

The authors of this paper conducted in-depth surveys of more than 300 working adults who attended meetings led by their supervisor on a regular basis. About half of the participants also supervised others. They found that the two best ways for managers to help employees find more meaning in their work through meetings was to make the gatherings more relevant to goals related to the attendees and to conduct sessions that started and ended on time. Both of these approaches convey a sense of respect to their employees, who suffer a lack of engagement when they view meetings as a distraction from other tasks, or as a waste of time and energy. For this reason, managers should consider providing an “opt-out” clause so employees can excuse themselves from some meetings, the authors suggest.

Surprisingly, employees’ sense of “voice”—or their ability to provide input to bosses during meetings—did not relate to the meaningfulness of their work, the researchers found. Suggesting an opinion isn’t enough, perhaps; employees want to see it acted upon. However, having the ability to express opinions in meetings did boost workers’ sense of psychological safety (they felt comfortable being themselves, when appropriate and beneficial, in the workplace).

Suggesting an opinion isn’t enough; employees want to see it acted upon.

“In terms of voice, it stands to reason that when employees feel safe to share ideas in meetings without personal attacks upon their self-image, they would also feel psychologically safe in other areas of their work,” the authors write. “Thus, the meeting may become a location to promote feelings of safety that subsequently permeate the work environment.”

Importantly, these conclusions held when the authors controlled for employees’ overall satisfaction with their jobs and bosses, their availability for meetings, and their meeting load, “suggesting that employees with few or many meetings are still affected by the way managers facilitate the meeting tool,” the authors write.

On a practical level, making the most of meetings starts with coaching managers and developing their leadership skills, which should be an important part of the onboarding process for new supervisors. The authors also suggest establishing appraisal systems or distributing employee questionnaires that include sections on how managers perform when leading meetings. Companies could also focus on specific managers by surveying all employees who attended their meetings over a given time frame.

Finally, to make meetings more relevant, managers should ensure that they have the right people in the room, and stress the link between their work goals and the overall strategy of the firm. When supervisors can connect the purpose of a single meeting to the shared goals of the company, the session could take on more meaning for employees. At least it won’t leave them rolling their eyes as they shuffle out of the room.

Source: Manager-Led Group Meetings: A Context for Promoting Employee Engagement, by Joseph A. Allen (University of Nebraska at Omaha) and Steven G. Rogelberg (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), Group & Organization Management, Oct. 2013, vol. 38, no. 5

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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