Economics 101: Why Do Productive People Hate Meetings So Much?

Almost everyone dislikes meetings, yet we still hold so many, especially in the Arabian Gulf, where many organisations seem to love them.

Why is this the case, and what can we do about it?

Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University, has recently co-written a book The Elephant in the Brain that helps explain the persistence of seemingly useless meetings, and many other puzzling phenomena. He argues that humans are political animals, meaning that while we often act selfishly, it also serves our interest to conceal our selfishness, not just from other people, but also from ourselves. His book focuses on getting us to confront our real motives in many social situations. How does this account for the prevalence of meetings in the modern workplace, both inside and outside the Gulf?

Before we explore this, it is worth considering how costly meetings are. In a recent TED talk on bad meetings, communications experts David Grady and Jason Fried noted that in the US, most employees attend 62 meetings a month. Executives average 23 hours per week in meetings, where almost eight were unnecessary and poorly run – almost 2 months per year. In financial terms, one Fortune 50 company estimated losses in excess of $75 million per year due to poor meetings. If the equivalent data were available for the Gulf, we would probably expect something similar if not worse. What explains our appetite for wasting so much time and money?

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