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Why Meetings Are a Waste of Time, and How We Can Change That

You can find links to related articles at the end.

Work meetings take up time, and it's often wasted time. But there are also efficient meetings, that give a sense of purpose and a drive for change. I assume many of you are among those whose experience with meetings is that they're a waste of time. You leave every meeting frustrated, and have learned to stay quiet to make the meeting go faster.

Similarly, I assume some of you come to meetings with curiosity and interest, and leave satisfied. Feeling your voice has been heard, that you were listened to and that you matter.

What is the reason for this vast difference in experiences?

Let's differentiate between managers and employees.

Some Managers See Meetings as a Waste of Time, Others as a Blessing

I once heard the CEO of a successful high-tech company say they don't waste time on discussions, and if they have to have a meeting - they'll have it at the end of the day.

In my experience, there are two reasons for such an approach:

  1. Meetings aren't conducted efficiently, or don't bring results.
  2. The CEO sees no value in brainstorming and involving other managers and employees in decision-making.

On the other hand, there are managers who see the value in including other managers and employees in discussions, and they see efficient meetings as a blessing.

Some Employees See Meetings as a Blessing, Others as a Waste of Time

We all want to feel meaningful, managers and employees alike. We also don't like to feel our time is wasted or that we're disrespected.

So if employees feel meetings mean they're important, that they're listened to and that what's being said is meaningful - they'll value meetings.

The worst case scenario is when participants learn it's better for them to keep silent than to speak.

An Essential Condition for a Successful Meeting is Space to Make Mistakes

When looking for a breakthrough, we look for something new and different. Not what we were used to.

But when we hear a new idea, unlike what we know or are used to - it seems strange at best, idiotic at worst. And if the idea is idiotic, then the person who suggested it is an idiot.

Nobody wants to be thought an idiot, and so of we have a brilliant idea or solution to a problem, but it's different than the general consensus - we'd rather keep quiet than risk being seen as idiots.

Professor Amy Emondson discusses the issue in her TED talk Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace.

According to her, people are so busy worrying about how they're perceived, that they don't contribute to improvements.

Emondson says:

  • To avoid seeming ignorant - we don't ask questions.
  • To avoid seeming incompetent - we don't admit weaknesses or mistakes.
  • To avoid seeming nosy - we don't suggest ideas.
  • To avoid seeming negative - we don't question the status quo.

Under such circumstances, meeting participants keep quiet.

But, says Emondson, this isn't the case in all workplaces. There are places where managers and employees are willing to take personal risks and learn. To raise concerns, questions, ideas, and mistakes. She defines such workplaces as being "psychologically safe".

Prof. Emondson first began looking at the issue when she was a part of a team of nurses and doctors examining mistakes in administering medications. She found that good teams reported more mistakes. That they had an atmosphere that allowed for that. And more than that, allowed for an examination of the causes of the mistakes being made.

Naturally, where concerns, ideas, and questions are shared, and people are willing to risk making mistakes - meetings will be much more successful, and not a waste of time.

An Example

I once met Tuvia, the lab director in one of the largest companies in Israel. They had just finished an important experiment, with disappointing results.

Not all experiments have good results. We conduct experiments in order to examine different possibilities. So the possibility of bad results is inherent to the process.

The experiment had been conduct at Tuvia's lab. He expressed his disappointment that none of the participants at the concluding meeting had the courage to say the harsh truth. To say that the results were disappointing and to reach conclusions accordingly.

Tuvia told me that's the culture at their company. People (including managers and researchers with PhDs) would rather keep quiet than go against the status quo or what a more senior manager had said.

In such places, participants will often feel the meeting was a waste of time.

Meetings Are a Cornerstone of Successful Companies, Including Toyota

The Lean Production method was invented in Toyota, and spread worldwide under different names. At its base are four main principles: management's commitment, transparency, employee engagement, and employee development. Putting these principles into practice requires management to meet with employees in a variety of forums - that is, in "meetings". But despite the many meetings involved, this method is called Lean Production (or Lean Management), and has been adopted by many successful companies.

MUDA - Toyota's Eight Waste Points

Toyota recognized eight hidden waste foci:

  1. Overproduction.
  2. Idle time.
  3. Redundant transporting of material and product.
  4. Over or mistaken processing.
  5. Over stocking.
  6. Redundant movement.
  7. Faults.
  8. Not using employees' creativity.

Note how work meetings aren't part of the list. But "not using employees' creativity" certainly is. Meetings are an opportunity to do just that.

They can be an opportunity to grow and become more efficient, or they can be a waste of time and cause frustration.

They question is how you run them.

The Key to a Successful Meeting - Define Goals in Advance and Stay Focused

First, you must define the meeting's goals.

Second, you must run it in a focused manner, so participants don't feel they've wasted their time.

Examples for goals:

  • Discussion in order to reach a decision. In my experience - meetings meant to reach decisions should have no more than nine participants. In special cases, when you want many perspectives, you can include more people.
  • Engaging managers and employees in achieving goals. The emphasis here is on sharing your thinking on how to achieve goals. This will lead to employees becoming engaged and invested.
  • Monitoring KPIs and presenting plans for closing gaps.
  • Employee and management development and training.
  • Briefing employees and managers on important issues.

Follow Up and Monitoring Goals

If a meeting has defined goals, then you must monitor their progress and check that the required actions are taken.

If progress isn't monitored - you send a message that the goal isn't important. And if the goal isn't important, it's the same as not having a goal at all - and then the meeting isn't important, and is a waste of time.

Measuring and Work Plans

In order to achieve a goal, you must set measurable indexes. For some of you that goes without saying, for others it seems impossible.

But without measurable indexes there can be no progress, or completely random progress.

The next step is creating a plan to achieve the goal.


A crucial part of any work plan is performing the set tasks.

One of the major hurdles to effective meetings is a lack of accountability regarding task performance. If you've come this far - you have a goal, you monitor and measure progress, you have a work plan - but that plan isn't carried out, then meeting again and again while showing no progress will be a waste of time.

When a meeting manager gives a task to a participant, they must make sure that participant becomes accountable for that task.

This can't stop at a shoulder shrug or platitudes.

Not performing tasks and postponing them from meeting to meeting is a common ill.

And because it's so common, you must pay attention to it.

Many writers and thinkers (like Yuval Noah Harari, Fred Kofman, and Peter Drucker) emphasize a similar message: talk is cheap, unlike actions. Decisions which aren't translated into actions are meaningless. That is way you need accountability.

Peter Drucker (as quoted by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim) also raised the issue of resources. You must allocate the necessary resources for tasks to be completed. Likewise, in order to monitor and measure progress, you need to have appropriate mechanisms in place.

How to Get People to Commit to Tasks

Fred Kofman has said (in the eighth module of the Hoffman-Kofman leadership program) that people often agree to take on a task, but then don't perform it.

Kaufman has seen this phenomenon as a VP at LinkedIn and Google. But the face that this is a common ill is of little comfort. It highlights a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Kofman defines the necessary steps to do so:

  • An accountability talk starts with a description of the request and why it's necessary.
  • The request is then expressed in a clear and explicit manner: what is the task, the required steps, the deadline.
  • The third step is a handshake. This is an opportunity for the other party to accept or decline, or to negotiate a different plan.

Summary and Recommendations

Meetings are an important tool in improvement and efficiency processes, and promote employee engagement.

They can also be a waste of time, a hindrance, and create in the participants a feeling that their time isn't valued. A feeling that management doesn't appreciate them.

For meetings not to be a waste of time, you should follow some key rules:

  • Meetings should have a clear purpose and goals.
  • Make sure discussions stay on track and in topic.
  • Open mind. Accept new ideas, even if they seem strange, with an open mind.
  • The discussion should end with concrete decisions.
  • Participants must be accountable for the tasks they took on.
  • Follow up. Monitor the progress of the agreed upon actions.

I recommend you look at meetings as an important and effective tool for progress. If that isn't the case, look at what you, as managers, aren't doing well and can improve.

Related Articles

1. The Cost of Work-From-Home and Zoom Meetings

2. How Often Should Teams Meet to Discuss Analysis and Improvement Schemes

3. How to Cope with Managers or Employees Who Don't Fulfill Their Duties

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