Meetings that conclude without any concrete decisions are actually useful episodes of organisational bonding, according to a Swedish academic.
In an opinion piece at the website of Malmö University,  Professor Patrik Hall points out that a lot of meetings take place under a form of descriptive stealth, so they are not always acknowledged as such – and therefore gobble up staff time without them necessarily noticing. He says: “Take the [Swedish] border police, for example, who refer to their meetings abroad as ‘power weeks’. Sometimes pre-meetings are held: a meeting before the meeting. Or how about status, structural, and lunch meetings?”
A municipal or large organisation, he notes, tends to move “desperately slowly”. However, he assures, in those contexts, “the purpose of a meeting can be for participants to acquaint themselves with the organisation and understand who does what.”
Indeed, Hall argues, meetings often bring the organisation together and remind employees of the divisions in which they work – so their purpose is connection and identity, rather than decision making. He concedes: “Some people find this frustrating: ‘Why are we sitting here?’ Departmental meetings [are] an example [of what] many feel is pointless. [But] … the meeting is intended to remind employees that they belong to an organisation.”
As such, they provide “an opportunity to complain and be acknowledged by colleagues, which is a kind of therapy. Even though few decisions are made along the way.”
Addressing why workers are typically so dismissive of meetings, Hall says: “People often feel marginalised. They feel that they have no influence or position. In these cases, the perception is that meetings do not improve anything, but actually cause even more frustration.” With that in mind, Hall advises, organisers should refrain from booking facilities for one or two hours at a time, if they are unlikely to be required for such long sessions – because meetings will tend to drift on until the end of the booked time, even though participants may have wrapped up their business earlier.
Hall also points out that a level playing field is key to ensuring that meetings take place in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and engagement.
“When you have meetings with colleagues at the same level,” he says, “as a professional, you get to discuss different issues that interest you. Meetings with individuals at higher levels in the organisation instead arouse feelings of meaninglessness. There is always a subtle power struggle against the leadership of the organisation.”
So, when Hall says that decision-free meetings are okay as a form of organisational bonding or therapy, is he on to something?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Meetings wouldn’t be so ubiquitous in organisations if they weren’t serving a purpose over and above what we think they serve at a purely superficial level. The fact that so many people deride them as pointless has far more to do with a dominant perspective that somehow, if a particular point isn’t on an agenda, it doesn’t exist, or isn’t important. But if we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,  it’s clear that we have a basic need for belonging. We are social creatures. We like to be together. And in meetings, so much more does happen than what has been listed on the agenda.”
She notes: “There are opportunities to form alliances, cement relationships or even spark ideas: a chance, off-the-cuff comment may be picked up by someone in a position of influence and set the ball rolling for an initiative that becomes far more substantial in the future. So many things happen in conversation that it seems rather austere to think that, somehow, only that which is set out and evidenced on paper exists. To me, one of the most vital aspects of getting together is about forming those alliances. It’s about asserting your presence within power relationships. And that all happens outside the agenda’s range.”
Cooper adds: “I’ve actually worked in Sweden with Swedish people, and can testify that calmness, a lack of impatience and a need to reach consensus all typify the way they go about work. If you accept that just being together in the same room has value, and it’s not always about progressing an agenda or arriving at action points, there will be a calmness that will give a greater meaning to those meetings. So I think we need to revisit the whole idea that if something isn’t on an agenda, and doesn’t give rise to an action point, that it’s somehow less than constructive.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on running meetings