Are Your Staff Meetings a Culture Problem?

Meeting too often, or meeting virtually, may not be the issue. How and why you meet can reveal how decisions are made, and controlled.

If you’re a leader, you’re probably spending too much time in meetings. The pandemic era may have taught associations a few things about how to keep meeting time to a minimum—we’re more alert to Zoom fatigue and concerns about wellness and productivity. But the frustrations around meetings aren’t necessarily a function of the post-Covid office or technology. They ultimately come down to the kind of culture you create. 

That’s one takeaway from a recent McKinsey & Company article, “What Makes an Effective Meeting?” There’s some familiar advice in the piece: Look at your standing meetings to see which can be reduced or eliminated; don’t bring in more people than necessary into a meeting; have a clear purpose for the meeting and an idea of its outcomes; look in the camera lens on the Zoom call. But the piece’s more far-reaching message is that the too-many-meetings problem can be a function of how an organization thinks about decisions. 

“Examine whether your company’s culture is to encourage meetings rather than individual decision making,” the article said. “If you’re a leader, think twice before reflexively accepting any meeting invitation as it appears in your inbox. The goal should be to treat leadership capacity as a finite resource.”

CEOs say they struggle to get high levels of engagement and involvement from their remote employees.

True. But the issue isn’t just that leaders are invited to too many meetings. (According to one report cited in the article, satisfied leaders say they’re spending about 40 percent of their time in them.) It’s that meetings run the risk of disempowering people. Collaboration is always a good thing, but it’s worth asking whether the meetings being assembled are ways to limit the decisiveness and responsibilities of those around you. 

A similar dynamic might be at play in some recent trends in hybrid work. According to a recent CEO survey by Chief Executive magazine, top leaders are increasingly eager to get back to the physical office. According to the survey, the percent of organizations moving back to on-site work jumped from 31 to 46 percent between 2022 and 2023. CEOs’ cited reason for the shift is cultural. Hybrid arrangements are more demanding in terms of communication and management, the report said, and CEOs claim it’s leading to an erosion in workplace morale. “Perhaps a bigger contributor to the return to the office has been a weaker culture,” the report said. “As CEOs say they struggle to get the same level of engagement and involvement from their remote employees.”

Perhaps so. But disengagement from the workplace was a challenge before the pandemic, and it’ll remain one even if on-site work returns to pre-pandemic levels. Disengagement is sparked by many things: Poorly designed job roles, burnout, unacknowledged biases, weak professional development, and so on. Not to mention a sense that people are not empowered to be effective decision-makers, while the CEO decides everybody’s coming back without a clear message as to why.

None of which is to say that CEOs should defer decisions, or preserve hybrid arrangements if they’re working. But in both cases, the process should be strategic: What is the environment that frees or limits your staff’s ability to discuss and decide? And what work arrangement best facilitates it?

How has your association retooled or rethought its approach to internal meetings? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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