The deceptive nature of meetings

Today in the United States we celebrate a national holiday. Labor Day, always on the first Monday in September, celebrates the labor movement here. Its intent is to commemorate the rise and influence of organized labor which has been successful in firmly establishing the 40 hour work week, fair pay for overtime, safety in the workplace, and other gains for working people.

Labor Day elevates the role played by the men and women who do the work, who get things done. Indeed getting things done should be the focus of us all. But therein lies a trap.

Leaders are talkers. Their powers of influence and inspiration ride on their ability to turn a phrase. The focus can then become on words when it should be on work.

The most frustrating encounters of my coaching and consulting experience has been with agencies and boards whose work, and I use that term loosely here, revolved around meetings. Here’s why.

1. Meetings can give the illusion of progress… when nothing more has been done but talk. As important as can be discussion and the suggestion of new ideas, unless and until words turn to work, the end result will be worse than ever because of the deceiving nature of words.

2. Meetings tend to spawn more meetings. One agency I worked for had a planning meeting (it was a tourism office of a regional government). When the meeting ended all participants retreated to their respective offices to write reports about the just-held meeting, then they scheduled another meeting to discuss the reports they wrote about the first meeting. After several meetings, several plans had been scheduled for implementation but it took too many meetings and too many of them were to discuss or rehash other meetings.

3. Meetings cost more than you think. Take the total annual wages including benefits and perks paid to each person who participates in a meeting (Unless you are the big boss you probably don’t know the exact amount but a good guess will do for the purposes of this exercise). Then divide that annual total by the total number of hours that each person works. This will yield an hourly rate paid for each person. Then multiply the hours spent preparing for a meeting, participating in the meeting, writing reports, summaries, or emails about the meeting, and any non-implemental follow-up for that meeting times the rate paid for the participant. Do that for each and every person in the meeting and add up the amounts. How much does that meeting cost? A lot more than you think. Talk, as you will see, is not cheap.Now, since you as leader are production focused, just ask yourself if there might be a cheaper way to get the business done.

4. Meetings tend to focus on authority while minimizing responsibility. They are the place for power to demonstrate itself. Where people sit, what they say, how they react and to what they react all tend to evolve into maneuvers for position and advantage. As a leader, be certain that the total focus is on action, on people taking responsibility for decisions and reporting on the success or failure of their actions. Never, ever allow people to bluster and bully. Make certain the focus is on responsibility even though the nature of meetings is the opposite.

Let me conclude with the sage advice of one of the most memorable leaders in history, King Solomon. He wrote that “In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty.” (Proverbs 14:23)

Don’t fall into the talking trap. Labor day as a holiday may point attention to the labor movement. For us, every work day is a labor day because our focus is on getting things done.

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