The More Meetings, The Less Trust

Posted on 16 June 2020

Holding too many meetings destroys people’s faith in their manager and their colleagues

In the list of activities that waste time and cause worthless frustration at work, meetings rank very near the top. Not only do many meetings fail to result in any clear decision, leaving you wondering why people came together in the first place, others have no discernible purpose at all. Worst of all, holding too many meetings passes a strong message: the boss doesn’t trust the team to function without his or her constant interference; and colleagues don’t trust one another not to undermine them in some way.

Some people spend most of their working days in meetings of one kind or another. The only time available to do their own work is either very early in the morning, before the first meeting is scheduled, or late in the evening when they should be relaxing at home. There are briefing meetings, liaison meetings, working parties, project groups and a host of other meeting types; and while all offer endless opportunities to drone on about something of little importance to anyone else, the worst aspect of so many useless gatherings is their tendency to create situations where your work can be vetoed or undermined — whether that’s by the boss (who has enough opportunities to do this already) or various colleagues.

What’s behind such a continual waste of time and energy?

The answer, I believe, is simple: pervasive distrust.

Executives don’t trust their subordinates to be competent enough to take charge of important projects, so they either require them to involve others in their decisions, in the belief this will guard against expensive errors, or want every step cleared with them in a public way.

Powerful colleagues don’t trust one another not to stab them in the back, so they insist on being “kept informed” before decisions are made — usually by demanding a meeting, then sending a subordinate who can stop unwanted progress and report back on suspicious activities. Departments don’t trust other departments at all. They want a power of veto on anything and everything.

Infected by the generally paranoid atmosphere, colleagues don’t trust others not to say something bad about them behind their backs, so they want to be there to defend themselves. (It’s a waste of time. People will always bad-mouth you, if they want to. They simply find another occasion when you aren’t there.)

The bean-counters don’t trust anyone (except themselves) with money, so they require decisions on expenditure to be made in committee, where others are always watching — usually jealously.

Most people assume it’s always been that way. No one wants to take the risk of doing things differently. They fear others will pile the blame on them if anything goes wrong. So they go along with it.

Mistrust blocks productivity

The organization or manager who holds too many meetings slows work to a crawl; not just because no one has enough time to get anything done (they’re all in meetings), but because all the checking and ‘clearing your lines’ means the number of others with power to delay or prevent action is multiplied out of all proportion.

Nearly everyone can think of some reason to prevent other people changing things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s as simple as not wanting to be bothered to cope with the change (which they suspect won’t benefit them anyway); or as complex as suspecting some hidden agenda of their own will be derailed in the process.

I’m not suggesting people screw one another’s plans up just to be nasty. If you sit down with someone, face to face, you’ll probably be able to find out if what you are about to do affects them in any way. If not, there’s no need to go further. If it does, you can thrash out any issues there and then. In a meeting, people are on public show. Not only are they more likely to make a fuss to demonstrate the importance of their objection, but other may jump in and add ‘problems’ they hadn’t even thought about (and may not exist anyway).

Meetings prove trust is low

How do you feel when you have to keep asking permission from different people to do anything? It makes most people feel like naughty children who can’t be trusted to use their commonsense and have to be told they can go ahead by other, ‘wiser’ folk. Suppose you have to prepare elaborate presentations to persuade some group not to block you? Isn’t that a bit like having to stand in the spotlight while others criticize what you have or haven’t done?

In neither case will you have a sense that you are being trusted to get on with what you are paid for. You would be right to think this too. Whatever ‘responsibility’ you have on paper is illusory if you must get permission to proceed in anything but the most trivial cases.

Besides, meetings automatically proliferate the number of nay-sayers. If everyone at a meeting says, “Fine. Go ahead,” to every proposal made, the meeting is quickly proved to be pointless. To prove it was worth holding — and that your attendance was critical — you more or less have to come up with ‘problems’ and concerns about everything. The department or person that doesn’t continually show that it absolutely has to be consulted about every little thing is quickly ‘forgotten’ when the meeting attendance is decided. No vetoes, no complaints, no consultation either.

That’s why, in a meeting of fifteen representatives, you can more or less guarantee any proposal will garner at least fifteen objections — often many more.

To prove you trust people, cut out most of the meetings

What does it feel like to be trusted? You’re allowed to make decisions without constantly checking with others; to get on with your job and use your commonsense about whom you need to speak with to ensure success. You’re expected to ask for help when you need it, and not otherwise; and not to call others together until you have something really important to say. Add these up and you have a water-tight case for removing upwards of 75% of the meetings that disfigure people’s calendars. Think how much time and money that would save.

That’s all there is to it. Don’t call excess meetings, don’t waste others’ time in coming, don’t undermine people’s feeling of being trusted by demanding continual feedback on progress — and don’t have a meeting to discuss not meeting either!

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Denise Oyston says:

    Great post as usual. It brings back many memories of a previous life.

    I have found that rapid fire meetings are a great alternative. Start at a wacky time like 3.07 ( exactly) have four things to cover and finish the meeting at 3.29!!

    It is more high energy. The brain likes it because it moves at a quicker pace.
    Mentally the subconscious mind gets used to understanding that this will be quick and therefore it needs to come up with the answers. Pronto!

    Of course we must always remember that many meetings serve that connection function we all crave at quite a deep level. So stopping them altogether I would suggest would nbe counterproductive at the emotional level.

    Must dash got a 17 minute meeting to attend…

    Thanks Denise

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for the great comment, Denise.

    I understand some people’s need for social contact and connection. It varies, of course. Extreme extroverts want it a lot. Introverts like me can get by on very little.

    Your solution seems a good one both to that and the kind of meeting that simply drones on. Fun too!

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Marios Alexandrou says:

    Your post assumes that all people involved are motivated and skilled to do their work. But young employees or older ones in a completely new role often need meetings to keep them moving. Frequent meetings ensure they haven’t gone down the wrong path and can also provide much needed reassurance. Of course these sorts of meetings can also be a waste of time if not properly organized.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marios.

    I’m afraid what you speak of hasn’t been my experience. I have almost never found that meetings (as opposed to coaching by the boss or a senior colleague) are useful in “keeping people moving,” whether they are young, older or anywhere in between. Meetings nearly always slow things up and expose the person with the problem to the embarrassment of scrutiny from other employees.

    But perhaps you mean meetings on a one-to-one basis (what I term coaching), whereas I am talking about group or team meetings. Then I might agree with you.

    Keep reading, my friend.

3 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Meetings & Trust | Aligning Technology, Strategy, People & Projects says:

    [...] Coyote had a great post over on Slow Leadership today titled “The More Meetings, The Less Trust“. The introductory paragraph sums it up nicely (emphasis mine): In the list of activities [...]

  2. Not An MBA » Note to Self… Meetings says:

    [...] deep inside, I knew there was a reason why I loathed most meetings. Now I know why.  The more meetings, the less trust. This entry was posted on June 20, 2020 at 7:40 pm and filed [...]

  3. Whisper | Blawg Review #169 says:

    [...] this month’s Carnival of Trust, see also The More Meetings, The Less Trust, which is recommended this week as “Absolutely essential [...]

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