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What is the appropriate way to deal with “meeting overload?”

My colleague is placed with a problem with reporting manager.

The manager wants to spend too much time in "meetings" and preparing for those. And then post-meeting discussions.

The meetings lead no where. Basically, something that can be accomplished in 15 mins takes upto 4 hours and involves totally unrelated people. In the end, the team feels stressed and non-productive.

On time tracking, an average of 2-3 hours per day(!!) is spent in such calls.

What would the intent of such a manager be? And how best to reduce these meetings? What is the best way to approach this situation?

I have to add, that this project is based out of 3 geographical locations within the same time zone.

  • Does the management complain about the productivity?
    – superM
    Sep 22 '12 at 11:22
  • @superM, No. The management does not. But my colleague is passionate about work and is finding it difficult to deal with "wasted" days. Sep 22 '12 at 11:25
  • 1
    Can you call a meeting to discuss the meetings? ;P
    – yannis
    Sep 22 '12 at 12:00
  • Do these meetings have agendas? My guess is they don't have agendas with bullet points explaining how long each section should take.
    – enderland
    Sep 22 '12 at 13:44
  • 1
    Related: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/3485/869
    – yoozer8
    Sep 22 '12 at 14:21

As to handling meetings specifically, a lot of people will suggest insisting on an agenda, but I have no issue with a timeboxed, agendaless meeting. There do have to be some rules though, to all meetings:

  1. The rule of two feet. If anyone thinks their time is best spent elsewhere, leave. If you're needed, you'll be called back in.
  2. The meeting should at least have an expected outcome.
  3. The timebox is a maximum. If we exceed it, we need to walk away and make another meeting.
  4. The timebox is NOT a minimum. If the meeting is done in half the time, we don't stay and drag it out.
  5. If we wander off the topic of the meeting, it is ok for anyone to drag it back on-track. Don't wait for a chairman to do it.

But I think this is fixing a symptom of a deeper problem. You are right to ask what the manager's motivation might be. There are two reasons managers might call way too many meetings and they're very different motivations.

The first is to get information, to remain informed at all times. This, they believe, justifies their existence to their boss. But it's really missing the point.

Their boss doesn't need an immediate answer to any question. They need to avoid having to ask six people, not knowing who has the information they need. They need one point of contact in a team who they can go to and their answers will come back within the hour.

The second is to control, to be the decision maker in every case. This, they believe, justifies their existence to their staff. But, once again, it's missing the point.

Their staff would prefer to learn to make their own decisions.

These managers, if you explain this to them, will say "but ... if I'm not managing upwards and I'm not managing downwards, what is my purpose?"

My answer to that is that they should do the opposite of what they're doing now.

Instead of disseminating the stresses of those above them onto the team, they should absorb it. If your boss needs information and you know who has that information, you should go and disturb that individual for five minutes and get the data your boss needs. Or use project management tools to make sure that information is at hand, when your boss needs it. Don't call a meeting every day so that you have ALL the information in your head at the time you're asked.

Meanwhile, make it clear that people can come to you and use you as a sounding board, when they have a tricky decision to make. Support them when they make poor decisions; it's invariably better than not making a decision at all. If they're not afraid to come to you then they'll generally learn to analyse a situation, decide what they think should be done and the first you hear of a problem is someone saying "Do you think this is the right solution?"

This frees the staff up to do their jobs and you up to do other management things, like maybe having one-to-ones, figuring out what the major costs to productivity are (once your meetings aren't the number one cost), and fixing them.

If your friend can get this message through to his boss plainly then the problem should go away. Obviously, he can't just say "Boss, you're not a very good manager, here's what you should be doing ...". But he can single things like the meetings out and ask, "What problem are you trying to solve there? How can we solve the same problem in a less-costly way?"


I believe some managers like (long) meetings because that is the place in which they feel they can "show off" them being productive and helpful (by "managing" the meeting).

My advice would be - do some research. Prepare a short mental list of arguments regarding the efficiency of long meetings. Talk to the manager, share your feelings with him, and present him with your findings.

This great blog post by Jeff Atwood would be a good start for some concrete advice: Meetings - where work goes to die.

If it's not possible to directly talk to the manager about this, try to move meetings your way in the meeting itself. Is the meeting going to end without any action items? Say something. Feeling that a subject is being discussed for too long? Don't be afraid - push the meeting forward. I don't think this will be frowned upon, if it is done delicately.

I've encountered managers who liked long meetings in the past. Eventually, when pushed enough in the right direction, things do get better.

  • 1
    Yes, I suspect you are right. He wants to "manage" and this is the only way he can show it... How do you reason "productivity" with a guy who actually doesn't seem to care for it? Sep 22 '12 at 14:01
  • Make him understand that, in the end, better productivity means better results to show to his superiors.
    – Lior
    Sep 22 '12 at 14:11

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