On any given day, U.S. employees attend 11 million meetings—and waste up to half their time in them.
Nine out of 10 will daydream. Nearly three-quarters will work on other tasks. As many as 39% may be in danger of dozing off. About half will walk away agreeing that meetings are their biggest time waster at the office.
Lack of employee engagement is a problem that is plaguing businesses and education leaders alike—and it’s not just during meetings. Fewer than a third of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs, leaving leaders struggling to figure out how to turn the tide. Many simply give up, allowing their organizations to stagnate.
But when it comes to meetings, there’s no such thing as treading water, says Kathy Ohm, director for ACSA’s Meetings Master program, a workshop that teaches education leaders how to run powerful, effective meetings.
“Either you’re on an upward spiral, or you’re on a downward spiral,” she said. “You don’t get a status quo. We only achieve homeostasis when we’re dead.”
The Science of Engagement
The most important thing to understand about work meetings is that they never happen in a bubble. Every
The reason has to do with how people’s hearts and brains work. Laboratory studies have confirmed the heart emits an electromagnetic field that can be detected by other people—and exert a measurable influence on them—from up to 5 feet away.
“Our thoughts and emotions affect the heart’s magnetic field, which energetically affects those in our environment whether or not we are conscious of it,” says the HeartMath Institute, which studies the role of the heart in human performance.
This means in a meeting, everyone’s emotions are impacting everyone else’s. It also means that after a meeting, each attendee’s resulting emotional state will have an impact on everyone they encounter.
This heart energy we walk around with also influences other people’s neurochemistry. When people feel a sense of belonging and connection, it raises the levels of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain. When people feel rejected or pressured, they get flooded with stress hormones. The types of hormones being triggered can directly impact the quality of both the conversation and the decision-making that occur during a meeting—as well as those that take place afterward.
“Human beings need to feel they belong and connect with each other in safety to create together a higher level of shared intelligence,” Ohm said. She describes meetings as energy fields in which individual intelligence can either get shut down (triggering stress hormones) or activated to create “a field of energy that enables higher shared intelligence to show up.”
As a result, leaders need to be aware of not only what emotional baggage they’re bringing to the meeting, but of how other people’s emotional states affect both the group dynamic and the organization as a whole.
It’s also interesting to note that in a positive emotional state, the heart’s magnetic field becomes more organized—a fact you can use to your advantage. By positively engaging employees’ emotions, education leaders use them to drive deeper meeting participation while rallying the group around a shared goal.
Practical Tips for Meeting Engagement
Science aside, there are several simple strategies education leaders can employ to help boost engagement in meetings.
- Stand up. Research has found that meeting attendees who stand show higher levels of engagement—and become more creative during brainstorming—compared to those who sit. Short, standup meetings can prevent attendees from tuning out. “Removing the chairs will put them in the zone,” says Fast Company.
- Use a round table. “Meetings are more successful when people face each other,” Ohm said. A round table allows everyone to face each other, unlike an oblong table, which affords a different level of connection. “That’s the heart energy part.”
- Welcome attendees. At the beginning of each meeting, plan time for a short welcome or appreciation exercise that assures everyone that they have status in the meeting. “When people know they belong, that they’re valued in the meeting for who they are, it raises their safety and willingness to be engaged,” Ohm said. “People beginning with that are more willing and able to engage in a higher conversation.”
- Encourage dialogue. Approaching a meeting as a conversation invites everyone to participate—and “participation correlates to engagement,” said author and business consultant Paul Axtell. “To have no voice is to be excluded.” Good conversation, he adds, is a back-and-forth experience that’s not dominated by a few but is inclusive and inviting to all attendees. It also allows you to draw out each person’s perspective; anytime a view is left unexpressed, “you lose the value that could be added to the conversation.”
- End early. Brain research indicates that employees have a limited amount of cognitive resources. Once they’re depleted, the ability to make sound decisions plummets. “Business meetings require people to commit, focus and make decisions, with little or no attention paid to the depletion of the finite cognitive resources of the participants—particularly if the meetings are long,” says Psychology Today. An early wrap, however, helps people leave the meeting in a positive frame of mind.