The Psychology Behind Meeting Overload | Harvard Business Review


Everyone hates meetings. Attending too many can be highly stressful and tiring, and both productivity and quality take a hit when employees tune out, become demotivated, and lose valuable heads-down work time. As such, it’s hardly a surprise that managers in one survey reported 83% of the meetings on their calendars were unproductive, or that US-based professionals rated meetings as the “number one office productivity killer.”

But despite what seems to be an overwhelming consensus, endless check-ins, debriefs, all-staffs, and Zoom calls continue to plague the corporate world. What will it take for us to break free from our collective addiction to meetings?

As a behavioral scientist focused on happiness and time management, and the co-founders of a startup building meeting software that’s grounded in decades of experience designing communication and collaboration tools, we understand the power of psychology to help us transform how we act (and interact). Below, we explore the common psychological pitfalls that lead us to hold and attend more meetings than we should, and offer research-backed strategies to help employees, managers, and entire organizations overcome them.

1. Meeting FOMO

One of the most common reasons we end up attending too many meetings is FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. As meeting participants, we worry that our colleagues will judge us — or worse yet, forget about us — if we don’t accept every invitation. Deeply ingrained norms around what it means to be an “ideal worker” lead us to equate presence with productivity, and these assumptions are bolstered when bosses use facetime as a proxy for commitment, or when they fail to represent absent employees’ opinions in meetings.

While it’s on managers to avoid these harmful behaviors, employees can work to overcome these fears by finding ways to demonstrate their value and engagement outside of meetings. For example, you may feel more empowered to decline a meeting invite if you make a point of providing your input before the meeting, or of following up with the host after the fact.

Interestingly, meeting FOMO isn’t limited to attendees — it can affect organizers as well, resulting in excessively inflated invite lists. If you’re leading a meeting, remember that leaving someone out isn’t an insult if the meeting isn’t relevant to them, and that it’s actually more respectful to acknowledge when a meeting would be a waste of their time. Consider asking people for their advice beforehand, and check in with key stakeholders afterwards to make sure they have the information they need without subjecting them to the entire conversation.

In addition, as the meeting leader, it’s also up to you to do your part to address participants’ FOMO concerns. Clearly communicate when an invitation is optional, and if some employees aren’t included, make it clear that you appreciate their advice, and have only kept them off the list because you think their time would be better spent on other priorities. Most importantly, make sure you’re not using meeting attendance as a proxy for commitment, whether consciously or subconsciously. Research has shown that the most productive employees attend fewer meetings and protect their calendars for deep work, so if you’ve been relying on meeting attendance to evaluate employee engagement, it’s time to come up with other metrics.

Finally, the best way to help your team overcome meeting FOMO is to model healthy engagement yourself. To encourage your team to decline unnecessary meetings, visibly decline meetings yourself. To encourage people to block off deep focus time, do so yourself — and make it public. One of our colleagues even put their deep work time in their email signature, so their entire team both knew when they would be unavailable, and understood that it was okay for them to do the same.

The full article is available on Harvard Business Review.