The Way A Company Runs Meetings Explains Its Internal Culture

Your initial, gut reaction when you read the word below has the potential to tell me a lot about you, and possibly a lot about the organisation you work for. Ready?


What happened when you read it? Did you think about snacks, agendas, white boards, decisions? Or did your eyelid start twitching as you imagined gruelling hours spent under fluorescent lights, listening to other people drone on during meandering conversations about things that are largely irrelevant to you?

For the majority of my professional life I have been firmly in the second camp, viewing most meetings as some kind of uniquely cruel psychological experiment. But recently I’ve been rethinking my long-held enmity towards meetings- surely such a uniform loathing of all meetings can’t be rational, right? And so I’ve given some thought to meetings – their use, their meaning, and how I can increase my tolerance for them. Considering the amount of time most of us spend in these gatherings, I’m not sure that we (as HR and people managers) give enough consideration to how they impact our employee’s experience, engagement and productivity. I’ll bet none of your carefully crafted job descriptions include the verbiage:

“The Senior Manager, Client Services will frantically attempt to execute on all duties outlined above in the scraps of available time between the several meetings per day that he/she will be required to attend”.

I guess what I’ve come to grudgingly realise is that meetings aren’t what happen in between our work – they often are our work, and that seems to become more applicable the higher your climb on the corporate ladder. Senior executives spend roughly 33% of their days in meetings.

It’s also true that an organisation’s approach to meetings can tell us a lot about it – its level of formality, its expectations about time, its approach to decision making, its informal power structure, even its culture. Meetings, after all, are a sort of ritual, and rituals can reveal some of an organisations’ shared underlying assumptions. And that’s useful, right?

The Power to Decide

Take for example Steve Jobs’ somewhat legendary approach to meetings. It’s been said that Jobs rigorously enforced a practice of limiting meetings to include only those people critical to the discussion or decision at hand. This approach suggests a shared understanding that particular employees are empowered to make decisions. In an organisation that takes a more consensus-driven approach to decision making, such a practice would likely not be effective. In this case, larger groups might meet for longer to allow for the exploration of multiple viewpoints before settling on a course of action.

Meeting Time

Or let’s consider Marissa Mayer’s alleged approach to meetings. It’s been reported (by anonymous insiders, so take it all with a grain of salt) that Mayer is frequently late for meetings with the senior employees who report to her at Yahoo, and that during her time at Google, Mayer would not even schedule meetings. Rather, she held ‘office hours’, requiring those who wished to meet with her to wait outside her office for their turn. Just as national or ethnic cultures vary in their conceptualization of time, and their expectations related to punctuality, so too do organizational cultures. Monochronic cultures see time as a finite and linear resource, and thus tend to be committed to punctuality and to focusing upon the one thing that time has been allocated for. Polychronic cultures, on the other hand, see time as more flexible and malleable- they believe that multiple things can sometimes be accomplished at once to achieve efficiencies, and the need for punctuality is relative rather than absolute. Mayer’s alleged approach to meetings is a perfect example of the latter conceptualization in action, while Jobs’ is an example of the former. To an individual who doesn’t share the same assumptions about time, either of these could be a jarring experience.

Sense-making in Meetings

And to muddy the waters even further, consider that meetings may not always be just about getting things done. Organizational theorists have sometimes viewed meetings as  ‘sense-making’ activities, in which their underlying, latent function is to provide a forum for participants to ‘perform’ the roles ascribed to them within an organisation, drawing cues from these interactions that help them to develop, test, and subsequently realign the individual internal frameworks they rely on to interpret and assign meaning to organizational events, relationships and interactions.  In simpler terms: meetings can offer employees an opportunity to test and revise what they think is true and important in their experience as a member of the organisation. There is no ROI to be calculated when it comes to sense-making, but deprived of this opportunity, employees may feel disconnected, unheard, or out of sync until another sense-making opportunity pops up to take its place.

Before you Murder the Meeting…

So, what does all this mean for us as HR practitioners, managers or meeting-haters? Well, for one thing I think understanding that meetings can serve different purposes can lead to a profound shift in the way we view them (as it has for me). If you hate meetings, trying to see them as an opportunity to observe others and decode any sense-making and underlying assumptions at play can make it feel more active; more useful. For managers and HR- a heightened awareness of the prominent place meetings hold in the organizational lives of our employees and colleagues is long overdue. But rather than taking an ‘all meetings are bad’ stance, a more nuanced approach might be in order. Identifying your organisation’s (and your own) underlying assumptions about time, and approach to decision making, can help assess if and how meetings should be addressed as an organizational issue, or (as in my case), a personal one…

How do you feel about meetings? What does your organisation’s approach to meetings tell you about it?