The Unbearable Lightness of Meetings

March 7, 2012

By Adam M. Grant, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.'”     ─ Dave Barry

In the summer of 2011, two managers in the financial sector reduced the time they wasted in meetings by 20%. “It freed up an entire day per week,” exclaimed Mario, and “I’m able to focus in on strategy and efficiencies,” said Jeanne. What did it take for both of these managers to free up so much time?

The catalyst was the Job Crafting Exercise™. Designed in 2008 by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, the tool enables people to map the current building blocks of their jobs, and develop a plan for reallocating their time, energy, and attention to achieve better alignment with their strengths, motives, and passions. In May of 2011, when Mario and Jean mapped their responsibilities, they were both stunned—and frustrated—that they were spending more than half of their work time in meetings. Research led by psychologist Steve Rogelberg shows that in contemporary organizations, meetings are one of the greatest sources of misery.

As he reflected on ways to modify his schedule, Mario realized that when meeting invitations arrived, instead of automatically accepting them, he could ask, “Why am I being invited, and what is my contribution?” He found that roughly 20% of the time, colleagues were inviting him to be polite or inclusive. Since he had no unique contributions to make to those meetings, he declined the requests but offered to help outside the meeting if he could. Within weeks, he was able to eliminate one out of every five meetings without any social or reputational costs—and with considerable gains to his time and the organization’s strategic priorities.

As she examined her strengths, motives, and passions, Jeanne was struck by the fact that although she was skilled at financial analysis, she no longer enjoyed it. Several of her employees did, and Jeanne was depriving them of the opportunity to take on larger, more visible analytic roles. She decided that when her contribution to a meeting would primarily involve financial analysis, she would send one of her employees in her place. This saved her at least one meeting per week, and “My employees are appreciative of the fact that I’m delegating important responsibilities to them.”

Mario and Jeanne believe that the changes have made them happier and more effective, and they are not alone. After taking thousands of leaders, managers, and employees through the Job Crafting Exercise™, I am often struck by the power of this two-hour activity for inspiring people to imagine new possibilities in their jobs. Amy, Justin, and I just completed a multi-year experiment in a Fortune 500 technology company, and it turns out that the Job Crafting Exercise™ boosts happiness and performance. The tool helps managers and employees to prioritize and add tasks that are interesting and meaningful, delegate tasks that are not ideal, and leverage their strengths more effectively. Interestingly, Jeanne is one of a number of managers who has taken the Job Crafting Exercise™ back to her team. Her goal is to build on her own successes to help her employees bring their strengths, motives, and passions more directly into their daily jobs.

Of course, Mario and Jeanne haven’t been able to remove meetings from their days altogether, but our discussions after the Job Crafting Exercise™ have helped make meetings more bearable. For example, a team of management researchers led by Allen Bluedorn found that by standing up instead of sitting down, groups were able to reduce the length of their meetings by 34%, increasing satisfaction without sacrificing decision quality. Armed with this insight, in addition to attending fewer meetings, Mario and Jeanne are enjoying shorter and more productive meetings.