How workplace meetings not only make us more anxious, they also make us more stupid

You will not be surprised to hear that when I ask leaders “What percentage of your working day do you spend in meetings?”, the average they say is around 70%, with a range of 50% to 90%. So if you want to improve pretty much anything in an organisation, if you improve the quality of debate and decision-making in meetings, then you can achieve significant and rapid improvement.

Sadly, many meetings in many organisations are poorly designed and poorly led. This is because the following questions have not been properly answered. Is there a clear question to debate and answer? Are the right people in the room? Who’s chairing the meeting? Do we have all the critical information we need? Who is playing Devil’s Advocate and have we debated all the possible solutions? Have we listened to the quiet voices? Who’s the Observer and what can we learn from their feedback?

The reasons for these questions not being asked and answered have nothing to do with  governance, minutes and agendas, but to do with politics, sociology and psychology. In my essay for the FCA’s Transforming Culture in Financial Services, I have shared insights from MoralDNA which demonstrate how feudal power exercised by “misleaders” creates fear and  anxiety. In order to speak truth to power, you need to feel psychological safety.

The other reason, according to David Robson in his forthcoming book The Intelligence Trap, is that to allow “collective intelligence” to emerge, everyone needs to ensure that powerful and dominant voices are constrained; whilst quieter, more reflective and sometimes the most expert voices, are heard. Read Montague at Virginia Tech has also published a research paper and has found that status anxiety really does make us stupid. “You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well.”

So my advice is simple. If you want to improve things quickly, don’t boil the ocean with an expensive and lengthy “transformation” program. Just boil a kettle and have intelligent, informed and fearless debate on the decisions that matter in every meeting- over a nice cup of tea or coffee!