This Could Have Been an Email: Leading Purposeful Meetings in an Overbooked Workplace


Business meetings are an inevitability. Whether held virtually or in person, there are times when it is absolutely necessary for a group to sit down together for a discussion. But are you leading purposeful meetings?

Yet, there are many times when executives and lower-level employees alike find themselves asking, “Couldn’t this have been an email?”

A survey conducted by the University of North Carolina puts the bleak numbers in perspective:

  • 62% of senior managers said that meetings keep them completing their work and that 70% of the meetings they attend are a waste of time
  • 71% of senior managers said that meetings are inefficient and unproductive
  • 64% of senior managers said that meetings limit deep thinking and problem solving

Meeting burnout is pervasive, especially in this brave new world of technology. It’s not uncommon for businesses to require public Google Calendars so that higherups can see open blocks of time and book meetings on other people’s calendars at their discretion. 

Meeting Recovery Syndrome: A Terrible Consequence of an Overpacked Schedule

A booked meeting calendar, which was once seen as a sign of success, is causing employee burnout and hurting retention rates. Meeting Recovery Syndrome, or MRS, is a phenomenon that’s reared its ugly head in recent years, defined as “time spent cooling off and regaining focus after a useless meeting.” 

It stems from our brain’s natural processing abilities and the number of mental resources we have to offer in a day. These were originally outlined in Dr. Steven Hobfoll’s “conservation of resources theory,” which explains that psychological stress occurs when our natural, mental resources– like focus, alertness, and productivity– are drained, we must have recovery time afterward to regain our facilities. 

Meetings are a huge drain on our mental resources, and when you consider the amount of hours executives and employees spend in meetings per week, it’s easy to see why MRS is limiting our ability to get meaningful work done. 

Joseph A. Allen, a researcher in the field of occupational health at the University of Utah, has studied the dangers of MRS, stating “Not enough time to transition in a non-MRS situation to get anything done, and in an MRS situation, not quite enough time to recover for the next meeting. Then, add the compounding of back-to-back bad meetings and we may have an epidemic on our hands.”

Being purposeful and forward-thinking about meetings is a necessary skill, and one that can help you prevent 

As a leader yourself, it’s crucial to avoid falling into the trap of meeting purgatory.

Ask Yourself Why You’re Having the Meeting

Before you block out time from your employee’s day, ask yourself the true purpose behind the meeting. 

Too often, executives and business leaders want their attendees to guide the purpose of the meeting, especially if the topic is simply updating you on recent sales numbers or looking at recent strategies the team has used. 

It’s completely unnecessary to pull an entire team away from their work for this discussion, and will, more often than not, lead to some members of the team talking just to fill the silence or because they feel that it’s expected of them. 

Have Norms in Place and Enforce Them

One crucial component of your workplace culture should be norms for purposeful meetings. With norms, it’s easier to see when a meeting is going off the rails and holds each participant, including the executive, accountable to an agreed-upon set of standards. 

Common meeting norms include:

  • Starting and ending on time
  • Keeping all discussions focused on the topic at hand
  • Refraining from side conversations and multitasking
  • Limit old information and focus on new developments
  • Every attendee leaves with a plan of action
  • Balance participation in the discussion by both contributing to the discussion and practicing active listening

Set and Stick to the Agenda

Frequent topic switching dilutes the conversation, leaving many meeting attendees with something to say, but not enough time to say it before the more boisterous talkers of the group have moved on to the next subject of discussion. It’s also a major time suck, often pushing meetings far past their initial end time as more ideas are bouncing around the room. 

Before you gather everyone together, send out an agenda that outlines the specific topics you plan to address during the meeting. 

Not only does this give everyone time to prepare data and information, but it also helps ensure that meetings don’t run over the time limit or drain too much of our mental resources.

Send Out the Minutes

Once a meeting is over, it’s critical to send out an outline of what decisions were made so that employees and executives have tangible evidence of their progress. You should also summarize with an action plan, laying out who and what each participant should do now to continue progress towards the outcome or goal that the meeting addressed. 

Executive Coaching Can Help Lead More Purposeful Meetings

If you rose through the ranks in a business culture that demanded pointless meetings, you may feel that this is “just the way things are done.” Recognizing that you need help in becoming a more purposeful meeting leader is the first step to improving productivity and limiting employee stress. 

Executive coaching can help you move towards a future of meetings that accelerate growth, rather than drain resources. No matter where you are as a business leader, we provide the structure and skills necessary for greatness. 

Catalyst Group ECR is devoted to partnering with clients to create a creative process that maximizes professional and personal potential.

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