Why Meetings Are The Worst Possible Way To Get Things Done

Have you ever had to talk out a decision in a big meeting? Did the meeting take forever and accomplish nothing? Here's why.

The Study That Shut People Up

At least one study has demonstrated the fact that talking can take away a group's ability to make a good decision — not to mention a swift decision. It involved pairs of people having to reach a decision, sometimes through brief written messages, and sometimes through verbal and written communication.


The pairs of people were shown two sequences of images. One of those sequences had a target image that the pairs were supposed to notice, but both sequences went by quickly. Much of the time the people were unsure which sequence had contained the target image. After being shown the two sequences, each member of the pair made a guess as to which sequence contained the target image. If the pairs agreed, they went on to the next couple of sequences. If the pairs disagreed, they had to follow one of two procedures.

One group of pairs had to exchange written communications only, while the other group got to talk with each other and write to each other. The written communications were simple, but helpful. The two members of the pair indicated which sequence they believed they had seen the target in, and how confident they were in that belief. They could rate themselves numerically, or use words like, "absolutely sure," or "randomly guessing." In the end, one member of the pair was arbitrarily picked, by the researchers, to make the final choice for the team.

Although neither side did disgracefully badly, there was an interesting wrinkle in the test. The written-communication-only pairs came up, in the end, with better results. The pairs who were able to communicate freely lagged behind. Why would a process that was designed for the clear exchange of ideas let people down?


Big Talkers

The people who were allowed to talk did not improve their accuracy, but they radically improved their own opinion of their accuracy. As the researchers put it, "making a decision as part of a group leads to increases in confidence that are not mirrored in accuracy." People talk themselves into believing that they're right. More talk doesn't convince them otherwise, so they're lacking vital data that the silent pairs had — an honest estimation of both partners' level of surety. Talking actually obscured their whole situation.


In another study, done on a group of people who were meant to be selecting student representatives, researchers found that discussions almost never resulted in the most qualified choice. The groups selected whichever candidate had had the most votes at the beginning of the discussion. Although, in theory, the meeting was a chance to exchange ideas and make arguments, the researchers reported that "group members' pre- and post-discussion recall of candidate attributes indicated that discussion tended to perpetuate, not to correct, members' distorted pictures of the candidates." The more people heard other points of view, the more people were absolutely sure that those points of view were wrong and their views were right. They talked, and they talked, and no changes — and certainly no improvements — were made.


It seems, then, that sometimes the best thing we can do is keep discussion brief, and allow people time to think about their own position, without having to defend it. When the pairs in the first study were restricted to brief written communication, people didn't feel the need to keep pumping themselves up, pretending a level of confidence that they didn't have. They were also clearly more open to thinking about the confidence they had in their choice, and compare it to the confidence their partner had. When people could talk, participants in each study ended up doing what everyone who has ever attended a meeting has done. They talked until they were exhausted, and ended up going with the choice they jumped at before they had done any of that talking.

People who often read my stories about cognitive biases know that I try to exploit those biases for evil. This time around it looks like the world has beat me to it. This little human quirk already being used for evil, as in meetings everywhere people go to the mat for an idea that they have slight faith in, and talk themselves away from the right decision. You out-eviled me, reality!


Next time.

[Via Pooling of Unshared Information in Group Decision Making, Learning to Make Collective Decisions]


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