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Believe it or not, some people like meetings

Many of those surveyed say they're a good use of time. It all depends on how they're run.

March 06, 2006|Marianne Szegedy-Maszak | Special to The Times

There are many things to like about work -- the collegiality, the productivity, the paycheck -- but few people would include meetings in the list. Monotonous, time-consuming, often pointless, meetings can be to workdays what speed bumps are to main thoroughfares: annoying, well-intentioned impediments to progress.

Now researchers have examined how an endless series of meetings can affect employees' sense of well-being and job satisfaction. In a report published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that more people acknowledge meetings as a positive part of their days at work than they would ever publicly admit.

The results were something of a surprise. "If you walk down the halls of any organization and ask about meetings, people invariably express frustration," says Steven G. Rogelberg, an organizational and industrial psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who led the research. "They say that they have many other things they could be doing, or that the meeting is taking them away from real work."

So Rogelberg had understandably assumed that the more meetings they attended in a day, the more dissatisfied an employee would be -- especially with business consultants and management experts saying that meetings consume more of the workday than ever before.

According to a 1998 MCI white paper, "Meetings in America," there are approximately 11 million meetings in the United States each day. During those meetings, 91% of the professionals said that they daydreamed and 39% even admitted to sneaking a nap. Most professionals attend about 62 meetings a month, and according to the book, "Better Business Meetings," more than 50% of that meeting time is wasted.

But, Rogelberg says, "The experiences and reactions to meetings are not universal."

In the research, published in January in the Journal of Applied Psychology, two surveys were conducted, the first involving 676 full-time employees from the United States and the United Kingdom, and the second including 304 employees from these countries and also Australia.

The participants were predominantly women who worked in private businesses, nonprofit organizations and government organizations. The researchers found that the employees spent nearly six hours in meetings every week and that involved, on average, four meetings. For some, the meetings were irritating interruptions; others found that the meetings were valuable, even enjoyable.

Overall, when the job specifically required group work, then employees generally found that meetings were useful. Employees who were part of a customer service team, for example, were more likely to have positive attitudes toward these necessary evils.

"When people are less task focused," says Rogelberg, "they allow the objectives of the day to emerge more naturally, so an interruption from a meeting is not so disruptive."

That doesn't mean, however, that these are not people you want to have in the meetings.

Often, says Herb Kahn, a former executive vice president of CompuServe, meetings that are rigorously organized and focused don't leave room for the creative people to express their ideas. In the end, says Kahn, "You have to have a balance between the left-brain people who organize things, and the right-brain people who need more time to develop a thought."

And, the researchers found, when the meetings were efficiently run, there was little unhappiness.

The other important variable in self-satisfaction and meetings had to do with the personality style of the participants. For the less ambitious, or less focused on "accomplishment striving," in the words of the researchers, meetings tended not to be viewed as onerous.

Accomplishment striving is a scale that was developed to understand motivation. When an employee sets goals to get a lot of work accomplished, puts a lot of effort into their work tasks, and is personally invested in completing a lot of work, they rate high in the accomplishment striving scale.

For them, the more that meetings interrupted the flow of their work and the goals that they set for the day, the more frustrated and unhappy they felt about their jobs in general. Rogelberg explains that there is an important detail here: "They are not complaining about the meetings; they're just being negatively impacted by them on a daily basis, especially if the meetings are ineffective, which unfortunately many are."

For real meeting satisfaction, says Rogelberg, organizations need to figure out how to change what causes the most dissatisfaction among employees.

The problem, he says, "is that the folks who are running the meetings tend to have higher meeting satisfaction than the rest of them."

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