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Pathways-ED: Warning: Meetings may harm your health

Stuart Middleton
1 March 2012


It’s official – going to meetings can harm you.

Researchers at Virginia Tech in the US have confirmed through a research study that the performance of people in IQ tests after having attended meetings is clearly lower than if they do not attend. The effect is greater on women than on men.

Read Montague, the leader of the research team, is reported as saying that “You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain-dead but our findings suggest that you may act brain-dead as well.”

This seems to me to be harsh finding and the reasons, if there is truth in the findings, might be the result of both the matter of the meetings and the way they are conducted. Too often we all sit in meetings at which the matters under discussion could have been addressed by a phone call, or an email, or even a newsletter. When I said to a colleague recently that “it is as if the phone and email have not yet been invented…..” they replied with a sigh, “… and all the pigeons have bird ‘flu!”

Meetings that are animated notice boards are not really meetings at all. Meetings are not a very efficient way of giving information. Distribution is disrupted by the attendance at meetings, the key messages or meanings of the matter can be distorted not once but many times as emphases change in the re-telling, parts are embellished or left out. The only certain means of communication is written and with the luxury of the varied means of distribution we have these days, getting material out to everybody is relatively easy.

Then there are the Laptop Lapses when a presentation is in order. “Who knows how to log in to the computer?” I once was in the middle of a presentation when the laptop, provided by the organisation, went ta ta’s to update some programme or other and then without permission closed down and restarted. The technical people were off having coffee and no-one knew the logins. It was something of a shambles saved only by a long string of anecdotes some of which had passing relevance to the topic.

Anecdotes are usually a sign of desperation in a meeting. You can sense them coming on. The topic is struggling and then it happens, the great plunge into the darkness of the anecdote. A good thing to come out of this might be that the person has participated but usually there is a sense of “So what?” when the little tale concludes.

It can also cause discussion drift – the agenda is put to one side and another issue takes over which leads to another issue which …..and so on. Only stern chairing of the meeting can stop this occurring.

In education we sometimes indulge in meetings that address issues as relevant as the alignment of the teacups while not addressing the very small number of issues that are a real reason for meeting. Who participates in education? What are retention rates doing at each level? What are the outcomes of education? How do we lift all of these? There will be myriad matters that require meetings about topics that contribute to those defining questions and discussions so I am not saying that meetings are not important. What makes them important is their contribution to those fundamental issues.

In a modern environment there are alternatives to face-to-face meetings. There is merit in using chat rooms, blogs and suchlike to hold asynchronous meetings in which participants over say 24 hours contribute to discussion of an issue perhaps as a preparatory clearing of the decks for a really focussed shorter meeting of key people. And this raises another issue. Sometimes it is important for “a” group to meet about something but it ends up with the wrong group addressing it – a group is not necessarily this group!

So here is where there might be a case for a modular meeting. A core group of say three people manage the business of a particular area but their meetings are modular and include others depending on the capacity of different people to contribute to the discussion or a particular topic for varying lengths of time. This should produce a meeting that is well planned, well managed and timed.

But, on the other hand, I forget who said it but there is some wisdom in the statement that if you live in a country run by committee, be on the committee!


Published inEducation

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