Tribal Instinct: Why We Have Meetings and Why We Won’t Stop Them

Why we have meetings and will never stop them

When was the last time you attended a meeting where decisions were made, business was accomplished and it wrapped up early with everyone smiling? Chances are it’s been a while.

Most people seem to know that meetings can waste a lot of time and effort for everyone involved. Most of us would like to have fewer, shorter meetings — but nonetheless, meeting after meeting seems to just keep happening! Why is that? There is a good reason why we have meetings. It comes down to the way that we are wired. We are social creatures. We like to get together and have social events, and that’s what a meeting is. A meeting is a social function that (should) enable us to achieve a particular outcome.

It’s the campfire experience brought into the 21st century – people come together because they want to be part of a group, share ideas and tell campfire stories. Take a look at all cultures from across the world and through the ages. Look at the Indigenous Australians, the Inuit and the Greeks. They came together on a regular basis. The group experience is an essential part of our make-up. Throughout history, we have gathered together to share ideas, stories and plans. Despite our modern technological culture, we are no different to our ancestors. We come together in groups as we have done since the dawn of time.

As part of this coming together we get the chance to eyeball each other. It’s a chance for us to turn our BS detectors on and work out whether someone’s lying, whether they actually know what they’re talking about or if they are trying to take us for a ride. It’s our chance to look someone in the eye and say, “Yep, I believe you,” or “No, I don’t trust you.”

The Tribal Nature Of The Meeting

If you look at the way meetings are put together, you’ll see that it mimics the way tribes get together. The members of the tribe come together, they share a meal; they have a little friendly conversation, and then discuss the business of the tribe. Once that’s done, they go off for another round of food, drink and conversation. Then they disperse.

Sounds familiar? It should be – it’s what happens in the corporate world. We come together for a team meeting/project meeting once a month. It starts with the usual friendly banter – “What did you do on the weekend?” “How are the kids?” and maybe a little bit of office gossip. Often people bring food to share -there’ll certainly be drinks. Then the casual conversation stops and we get to business proper. Once we’re done with business, we get back to the chat, the gossip, the conversation, and then we go our separate ways.

That’s the format of the typical meeting, and it is what drives us to keep coming together. However, it’s also the reason why meetings seem so unproductive to so many people. It’s the reason why the real productive output of a meeting always seems so low compared to the amount of time spent at the meeting and the amount of conversation that took place.

Keeping Meetings Productive

The question now becomes: How do you control this natural, ancient format so that meetings stay productive? Obviously, meetings satisfy a fundamental, deep-seated need. Being the social animals we are, we need to come together and share information and connect with the people we work with so closely. However, is there a solution without expending so much time and energy?

Well, it comes down to having an agenda, keeping to the point, and understanding that people need to be regularly brought back on track.

Here are a few tips for keeping your meetings productive:

  1. The first thing we need to do is understand that we’re communal creatures. We have a need to get together and talk and be in our “herd”, so to speak. That’s perfectly okay, and it is healthy. What’s not okay is for this to take precedence over real work and the real agenda of a meeting. A few minutes of friendly chatter at the start of your meeting is great – but don’t let it spill over into the entire meeting. Stay alert, and gently but firmly steer the conversation back each time it strays. Don’t let those that consider themselves as the ‘wise elders’ to go on forever.
  2. Don’t meet just for the sake of having a meeting. This is an old point, but it is worth remembering. The thinking that goes into having meetings is often: “We’re due for a monthly meeting; therefore, we need to have it.” Meeting after meeting happens this way, with no clear reason for why it is happening. It is happening simply because the meeting was due. This leads to reporting for reporting’s sake. Many reports are written and delivered because they have to be written and delivered. Ask yourself is there any real benefit to sharing the information with everyone? If not, scrap it! Lose the habit of having a meeting just because it was expected or scheduled.
  3. Limit the length of meetings. Most meetings last for the duration of their diary appointment – that is, if they’re scheduled for an hour, they’ll go for an hour; if they’re scheduled for two hours they go for two hours. Keep meetings short, and if the discussion has come to a satisfactory conclusion early, close the meeting early. You can also schedule meetings for odd times, such as 17 minutes or 23 minutes. The odd time will stand out in people’s minds. It will become a discussion point, and will keep people alert. The novelty of an oddly timed meeting helps keep things moving along.
  4. The fourth thing that you can do is as Tim Ferriss says in The 4-Hour Workweek, simply cancel the meeting!  If there’s no good reason to have a meeting, or if there are simply more important things to occupy everyone involved, just cancel the meeting. The world won’t fall over; customers won’t run a mile, and projects won’t stop just because a meeting was cancelled. Cancel meetings when they’re not actually needed, and you’ll find that productivity increases.

If you understand why we come together, you will know how to increase the productivity of meetings. By keeping these things in mind, you can continue to have the satisfaction of getting together and fulfilling that basic human need while simultaneously staying productive and efficient.

Posted in leadership, Uncategorized

Tagged ,

Written by

  • richgoidel

    Good points Darren. It’s always good to remember that we’re people first, business people second.

    As a meeting facilitator, I of course have a few more thoughts to add. :-) For now, just this one: Tim Ferriss’ rule of Canceling a Standing Meeting when you don’t need it is similar to my Rule #1 for any meeting: Find ways to NOT have the meeting in the first place.

    Some stats say 54% of meetings result in no action! In that light, it’s best to consider that, though there are many “social” reasons to get together, there are likely better, less costly ways to achieve your goals. All it takes is getting clear on what you hope to accomplish and asking if there’s a way to get there without a meeting—the answer’s probably “yes!”

    Thanks again for the insightful post.

    • Darren Fleming

      HI Rich,

      Good points – find a reason to not have the meeting.

      I worked as a public servant for 5 years, They had meetings for everything. and NOTHING ever happened. It was crazy! Big waste of time. But because they had meetings they felt as though something was being achieved.

0422 670 659

call now!

Speaking Tips

Get the Secrets of Highly Effective Speakers FREE

Get This!