Everything you wanted to know about meetings etiquette but were afraid to ask

How to make the best of those unavoidable group gatherings—and what to do when they’re not working for you

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My office suffers from the dreaded TOO MANY MEETINGS syndrome. I barely have time to get anything done—all I do is skip from one meeting to the next, and then I end up staying late to finish up my duties. These meetings are all “mandatory”— or it’s implied that absence would be frowned upon, even though I don’t think they’re all that helpful for anyone. How do I express to my superiors that never-ending meetings are not helping any of us get stuff done—and is it possible to do this without seeming like I’m not a team player? Can I request to have fewer meetings? 

Ahhh, who among us has not been there? Meetings are the bane of many a corporate worker’s existence, and not without basis. There is a lot of research out there about how the proliferation of meetings is a drain on productivity, morale, and more. A Harvard Business Review survey of 182 senior managers in a range of industries found that:

  • 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their own work.
  • 71 percent said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.
  • 64 percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking.
  • 62 percent said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.

The report even cites one woman “stabbing her leg with a pencil to stop from screaming during a particularly torturous staff meeting.” Yikes.

Many meetings make workers less happy, make it harder to get things done, hurt the company’s bottom line, and leave pencil scars. Everything you’re saying about too many meetings is spot-on, basically. Often, the higher your position at a company, the more time you find yourself called into meetings. One management consultant suggests that we need “a meeting revolution,” in which people don’t just accept meeting requests but instead say yes or no based on whether the meeting will actually help them get done what they need to do. Of course, you have to be in a position of power to try that.

As for the sheer number of meetings, how many is too many? At least one expert says your meeting load shouldn’t be more than 20% of your time. It sounds like in your office you’re at a much higher percentage than that. 

Which brings me to what to do about it. 

  • Step one: Track your stats and establish the percentage of time you spend in meetings versus getting actual work done. 
  • Step two: Evaluate which meetings work for you and which don’t—and why. A short meeting that has purpose and is run well can be great; a long and meandering agenda-less meeting will have you stabbing your leg with a pencil post-haste. Prepare real, specific feedback. 
  • Step three: Bring this data to your manager—who is surely suffering from meetings overload, too. Present the reality rather than just shouting “TOO MANY MEETINGS!” and ask for suggestions on what could change. “Hey, can we talk a bit about my workload and schedule? I notice that I’m in meetings for two-thirds of my day, and I’m not totally sure they’re all useful. Is there a way we might be able to revise my meeting schedule? Can you help me prioritize which meetings are mandatory and which aren’t?” Come armed with an array of those meeting stats I mentioned, for backup. 

This should come off as you being invested in your work and the company as a whole, the teamiest player there is. The great irony: Perhaps some of the meeting fat can be cut from your diet simply by… having another meeting.

Our manager likes to call a fairly regular breakfast meeting on Monday mornings at 8 a.m., even though our stated office hours are 9-6. Is this legal? I’ve got obligations in the morning (kid dropoff, etc.), and it’s really hard for me to make 8 a.m., but I fear I’ll face repercussions for not being there. 

Your concerns are real. If the stated work hours are 9-6, and that’s what you signed on for, calling a meeting at 8 a.m. is a little bit… well, maybe not “illegal” (I’m not sure I’d start with that argument, anyway) but certainly not entirely kosher. He’s adding another hour to the day (without, I assume, taking one away from the back end?), and I’m curious about whether this has been approved by the broader company or if he’s just going rogue. Further, depending on what sort of employee you are (i.e., if you’re entitled to overtime pay), you should be getting money for any extra hours on the job. Is there some reason the meeting can’t happen at 9 a.m.? 

The thing is, as you know, often those calling the meetings don’t have quite the same obligations as the people who are required to attend, and managers (particularly those who can afford to hire others to take care of things like childcare, or don’t have children at all, or have stay-at-home spouses) can be a bit myopic about how seemingly small decisions like these affect the entire organizational culture. A meeting that interferes with kid dropoff or family time shows that the person calling it isn’t prioritizing your life outside of work—probably because they don’t have to. But everyone needs to have, and protect, a life beyond their office doors.

As with my advice above, I’d ask the manager to sit down with you for a quick, casual meeting to explain that this timing is conflicting with your childcare situation—“Jane has to be at school right at 7:45, and I’m the sole caregiver, so I can’t be at the office in time for this meeting. Would it be possible to move it to 9 a.m. or another time during our stated hours so I can attend? Or is there another solution you see?” If the manager gives you grief about it, or repercussions ensue, it’s time to take it to HR.

But before you do that, you might also simply gauge the temperature of the office… you may not be the only person with this issue. In fact, I bet a lot of people, whether they have kids or not, are annoyed about this new 8-a.m.-on-a-Monday thing, which brings the Sunday Scaries to a whole new level, even if there are free bagels and coffee. If you’re not the only one bothered, join forces with others and make your collective voice heard.

What do you do with an overtalker in meetings? I start saying something, and this person always interrupts and takes over! The polite person in me quiets down, even though it’s not fair… I started the conversation! How do I handle this elegantly?

Different people have very different talking styles, and what can seem unforgivably rude to one person can be the totally chill norm for another. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen breaks conversationalists into two groups, which may be helpful to think about: “high-involvement” types—who will speak even though another person is already doing so, often out of enthusiasm—and “high-considerateness” speakers, who are less likely to speak until someone is finished. I am high-involvement, my fiancé is not, and I know it annoys him when I “overlap” his words, but it is not meant to be rude! (Well, usually it’s not.) If your coworker is “high-involvement” and you are “high-considerateness,” know that they’re not necessarily trying to get you to shut up. They’re just talking along with you—some people REALLY hate silence—and you don’t have to stop just because they pitch in. In fact, you should keep going! Say what you need to say, and they will too—throw it into this big, messy conversational pot, stir, and add more. 

If this overtalker is an underminer, or overtalking, maybe, to grab credit, or even changing the subject entirely, that’s more about dominance than support or individual conversational foibles. Tannen calls it “uncooperative overlap.” You should feel free to keep saying your piece—offer up a polite but brisk, “Oh, I wasn’t finished just yet,” or “Before we move on, I have a bit more to say about that,” and step back in. Just because someone else starts talking doesn’t mean you have to shut down. And just because you started a conversation doesn’t mean you automatically get to finish it. It takes more than one to talk. 

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