Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Psychology of Meetings

What does psychology teach us about the components of an effective or positive meeting?

Daniel Kahneman described psychological dynamics in meetings, such that those who contribute first or most vocally tend to bias the discussion excessively. 

Quieter members of a group may have important contributions, but they are never heard.   

A majority view can tend to prevail.   Dissenting positions are often suppressed by peer pressure.

People can be afraid to express themselves, due to fear of consequences. 

Many speakers or presenters in meetings are lecturing about information that is already well-known to most or all of the members, therefore this type of lecture is arguably a very inefficient use of everyone's time. 

Suppression of dissent or counterargument is the most powerful and morally troubling bias in persuasion and group dynamics. 

Overt bias in group dynamics and suppression of dissent can occur in overt ways, such as with an authoritarian meeting style.  But there can be subtler mechanisms, such as when a presenter is charming, articulate, humourous, rhetorically skilled, and equipped with attractive visuals.  Good food probably helps as well.  We all enjoy such presentations, but it is important not to let our enjoyment cause us to shut down our critical thinking.  Otherwise, a presentation can be more like a marketing campaign, a revival meeting, or a political rally. 

One tactic to reduce this effect can be to ask members to offer their opinions or questions, anonymously if necessary, before the meeting begins, so that opinions are not suppressed by the social dynamics in the group itself.  It can be helpful if the leader of a group is the last person to speak, rather than the first. 

A related bias in many presentations is the "focusing illusion."  Here, a single idea, plan, or thesis is presented, perhaps with good rhetorical style, nice visuals, and strong supportive evidence.  This leads to a strong persuasive effect.  But if there is only one single idea, plan, or thesis, without presentation and fair discussion of alternatives, the audience will be unduly persuaded towards the single plan they hear about.   In some extreme cases, what may seem like a reasoned, balanced,  presentation may instead be more similar to a sales pitch or a political rally.  To prevent the focusing illusion, it is important to allow time in presentations for debate, counterargument, and alternative ideas.   Audience members should be strongly encouraged to think for themselves, to question, and to debate. Many audience members might be reluctant to do this, even if it is allowed, because they may feel it is rude or disrespectful to the presenter.

Another big problem in meetings has to do with the efficient use of time.  Sometimes an hour is spent on a subject which could have taken just a few minutes of focused attention.   In other areas of our lives, such as when we are listening to music, or watching a TV program, or reading a newspaper, we would rapidly divert our attention to something else if the activity was not useful or enjoyable.  But in most meetings you are stuck there, with no capacity to change the activity.

I find that the "cost" of meetings is often not acknowledged.  By cost, I do not mean the direct financial cost, which could often be zero (though not always, if there is rented space, catered food, or  lost income).    I mean the cost in terms of the other activities that could have been done instead.  For example, if the meeting is attended by 24 psychotherapists, the total cost of a one hour meeting is 24 "person-hours" of psychotherapy time.  The value of "24 person-hours" of psychotherapist time is equal to the treatment of 4 depressed patients with a course of CBT for 6 sessions each.   We should acknowledge the costs, and keep these 4 untreated depressed patients in mind as we sit through the meeting.

Another cost of a meeting is of psychological well-being of the attendees.  Many professional activities are psychologically neutral.  Others could be beneficial, because they lead to better group cohesion or social connection.  But others still could be demoralizing, depleting, or frustrating, if they have a negative dynamic.  They could add to the stress of the day, since other work  would have to be done later.  If the meeting is psychologically depleting then it would be harder to keep up with other work.

But of course, some meetings are effective, enjoyable, educational, and socially beneficial for individuals and groups.  They could help people and groups work more enjoyably and efficiently, could help solve problems in the work environment, and could help with creative planning for the future.  We need to find ways to have more of these!

While I am not normally a fan of using questionnaires extensively with  my patients, I have a simple suggestion for meeting management, based on some of the recent trends in psychotherapy research:  obtain and measure feedback data from attendees.  The absence of feedback can often give the impression that everyone feels ok with the process, and therefore there is no need to change.  Such data would need to be qualified, since the data gathering process itself involves a bias.  Reviewers of any service may be more likely to rate it more favourably, otherwise they might not have used the service in the first place.  For example, if you gather outcome data from customers at a fast food restaurant, you may get very positive reviews.  Such data should not be used as evidence that we should have more fast food restaurants in a community!  But with this proviso in mind, here is a suggested questionnaire for meeting attendees, to be submitted anonymously after each session, or after each segment of a meeting.    Each question could be rated on a scale with 0="not at all" and 5="very much":

1) I learned valuable new information in this meeting, which is likely to improve my work practices.
2) The presenter took too much time. *
3) Everyone's point of view was welcomed and respected.
4) Disagreement, counterarguments, and dissent were encouraged.
5) I got a fair chance to express my point of view.
6) The time spent at the meeting was worth the time, compared to my other tasks and duties which I missed due to attending the meeting. 
7) The meeting was a good chance to connect with my coworkers.
8) The presenter was articulate, engaging, and organized.
9) I enjoyed this meeting.
10) I was bored during this meeting. *
11) The process of this meeting was fair and respectful.
12) The meeting made use of time efficiently.
13) I would like more such meetings in the future.
14) There were instances of disrespectful or objectionable content in the meeting. *
15) The presenter, and fellow attendees, could be heard clearly.
16) The presenter and/or visuals could be seen clearly by all.
17) The presentation contained a lot of unnecessary jargon or needless complex terminology.*
18) The meeting began and ended on time, and stuck to the schedule as announced in advance.
19) The cost of the meeting (in terms of money and time) was acknowledged.
20) Personal information was requested of me which felt uncomfortable to share in a work setting.*

The starred items should be reverse-scored.  That is, for starred items, if you initially rate something as a "5" then it should be scored as "0."  The score could be summed, with a maximum score of 100 (a "perfect meeting" !)  and a minimum of 0 (the "worst possible").

I estimate an average score for most meetings in a relatively healthy organization would be about 60-70. 

Aside from only looking at the group average scores, it may be very important to look at the range of scores from all individuals, to ensure that outlier data is not just "dissolved" into the group average. 

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