Are Leadership Meeting Habits Destroying Engagement?

By Stuart R. Levine

Published in Forbes

What if certain unwitting habits of your top leadership are limiting or reducing your employees’ engagement? Senior leadership must be vigilant to make sure this is not the case. Yet, there is ample evidence that this is happening in many organizations, especially in the way that meetings are conducted. Yes, inattention to meeting management may be depressing engagement.

Best practices for meetings are regularly published, including by us. These best practices include: always having a clear purpose to meet; having a sound agenda that supports the purpose; having only the right people attend and not a person more; starting and ending on time and having just the right amount of time allocated; keeping conversations efficient and direct with open and free expression of ideas; and at the conclusion, action items are taken on by responsible parties. And perhaps the meeting can be substituted or eliminated if it is not necessary.

Yet best practices are often not followed and the issue of meetings detracting from employee engagement persists. Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence bear this out. Gallup reports that senior executives are not exempt from meeting problems, and, worse yet, they actually appear to be part of the problem. Senior executives spend on average, over two days per week in meetings, and they say that two-thirds of them did not use their time well. Leaders should not model this type of behavior for their subordinates. Gallup also tells that time lost in ineffective meetings costs U.S. businesses over $35 billion a year. Moreover, an MIT Sloan School study recounts that the most goal-oriented employees, i.e., those who are most engaged, saw their job satisfaction decrease as their time spend in meetings increased.

The experience of engineers at a division of Microsoft illustrates the MIT study. Management of this division saw warning signs when internal survey results showed lower than desired satisfaction. Through state-of-the-art meta-data analysis and additional employee check-ins, management tracked the problem to time wasted by its engineers in large 10 to 20 person “coordination” meetings. Leadership organized these meetings with the best of intentions but after investigation, they discovered that these meetings diminished satisfaction and productivity in several ways. They ate up valuable time that the engineers wanted to spend on their project goals or in small meetings focused on innovation and creativity; the time for these was crowded out by management’s “coordination”. Furthermore, Microsoft sought to avoid losing valuable talent, as diminishing satisfaction eventually translates into turnover. Another MIT finding of interest showed that employees who are less engaged and less goal-oriented liked meetings much better, perhaps to lend structure to an unstructured, non-self-directed day. In short, ineffective meetings frustrate the most productive employees and allow the least productive to feel busy.

In a healthy culture, meetings are another tool to foster employee engagement, and they can take many forms. For example, senior leadership briefings and seminars are important tools to disseminate strategic information to employees at large. These special events contribute to team building, but should be used sparingly, and employ concise, clear, targeted messaging. At the other end of the spectrum, private conversations between a supervisor and an employee provide them both with feedback on the goals the employee has accomplished and those still to be done. They provide the supervisor with a chance to mentor and coach, and when done well and regularly, at least weekly, they dramatically increase engagement. Innovation and creativity can arise from small group brainstorming sessions, which can inspire the participants to make their ideas a reality, as Microsoft engineers experienced.

Leadership actions have an outsized effect on culture, especially since employees emulate the behaviors modeled by the boss. Accordingly, the CEO and C-suite must be in sync with the CHRO and human resource managers to assure that leadership’s effect on culture is tracked, understood, and managed. HR is central to the effort, and HR managers must use fact and data to drive action. “Trusting the gut” of senior people, which is often quite wrong, is not an option, particularly when many information-based tools are available. Employee survey results, which increasingly use apps and software, can give insight almost in real time. Adding to the mix, analytics using company data, such as calendar events and email traffic, can provide unique insights. Such information can be used to develop and guide strategic decisions. Microsoft used such data to help diagnose its engineers’ meetings problem.

Leadership habits and behaviors in relation to meetings, the time when your employees come together, is of vital importance to culture. Therefore, these must be carefully examined to understand how they impact engagement, either positively or negatively. An outside advisor can assist in this process. Someone from outside the organization can assure confidentiality and inspire confidence in assembling information from leadership. They can provide expert advice on analyses and offer actionable recommendations from the data. They are an independent resource to coach executives toward more productive practices. They can offer training to executives and subordinates alike so that effective meetings become the norm and the time saved is devoted to productive uses. 

Leadership’s approach to meetings is a good launching point for an even more in-depth analysis of culture. The tools and programs used for this effort have a broad adaptability and application for additional impact. Senior leadership’s attention to developing and sustaining a culture that engages and inspires your talent is vital, as culture drives productivity and sustainable financial performance.