Back in 2012, I reviewed a book that was definitely not about social movements as part of the first Mobilizing Ideas summer reading series, arguing that it could be about social movements—and that researchers and practitioners should be working its ideas into their social movement work. Seven years later, I’m going to do it again.
This time it’s Steven G. Rogelberg’s The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (2019, Oxford University Press). Rogelberg is Professor of Organizational Science, Management, and Psychology at UNC Charlotte where he has been publishing research on meetings for the last 15 years. This book offers a brief, easy-to-read summary of findings from the growing field of meeting science.
Rogelberg aims the book at…“any individual responsible for calling and leading meetings at work” (p. x) but, he thinks the findings can be applied much more broadly. As he notes:
I can’t imagine a meeting type or situation that would not benefit from learning about what works and what doesn’t. Try applying what you learn here to a full-day retreat. Or to organizational training. Or to client meetings. Or to your community meeting, religious meeting, or PTA meeting. (p. xi)
We could easily add “social movement organization meeting” to that list as well. Lots of movement activity happens in meetings—and plenty of scholarship reflects that. Books on social movements have provided fascinating descriptions of meetings in US Civil Rights Movement organizations, the United Farm Workers, the National Organization for Women, Occupy encampments, and movement groups just trying to form—to name just a few. In a study of the Sierra Club, my colleagues and I found that its leaders developed the least in meetings—but that was how they spent most of their leadership time. And while drawing insights from the endless meetings of past movements is valuable, perhaps meeting science can help current movement leaders bring their meetings to a more rapid, but still productive, close.
Rogelberg summarizes a wide array of meeting science findings that will be of interest to movement scholars and could be applied by movement organizers. Some are straightforward confirmations of things you’ve probably intuited. The research on audio-only conference call meetings, for example, suggests they are a total waste of time because most participants don’t really participate. They have the call on in the background while they do other stuff (Sound familiar? Be honest: some of you are reading this while on a conference call!). Rogelberg offers some advice on how to (maybe) make these kinds of meetings better, but the best strategy may be to find some other way to meet.
Other findings unpack the pathologies of common practices. Many meetings have agendas, but the existence of an agenda does not necessarily make for a better meeting. Agendas are often formulaic, with standard components recycled from meeting to meeting. They serve, perhaps, as repositories of relevant topics (some of which never get discussed), but rarely function as they should: as an event plan, where interactions flow smoothly from one to the next in a meaningful, logical order and toward a notable conclusion. Rogelberg lays out a series of evidence-based recommendations for how to use an agenda to avoid the disturbingly common parade-of-boring-reports meeting and instead facilitate valuable discussion and actionable outcomes.
My favorite set of findings and recommendations are about meeting timing. How long are meetings? Usually: one hour. It doesn’t matter who is meeting or what they are meeting about; most meetings are scheduled for sixty minutes, starting on the hour. What happens if you tweak that timing? Say, start at 9:08am and go for 48 minutes. What happens? Tardiness drops and more high-quality discussion ensues. Why? The odd start time makes the actual time more salient to participants, and the slightly-less-than-ideal duration adds just a bit of stress to meeting participants who are trying to get through everything—and a little stress is good for productivity.
Rogelberg doesn’t delve much into the reasons why most meetings are as bad as they are. There are certainly organizational incentives, institutional pressures, and cultural norms that shape a lot of what is currently done—which the book only hints at. It does, however, reveal one explanation focused on individuals: meeting leaders are often grossly overconfident. In a version of the “Lake Wobegon effect,” meeting leaders think they are better at meeting leading than they actually are. The most valuable advice Rogelberg offers may be that all meeting leaders spend more time reflecting on and evaluating the meetings they lead—and actively work to improve the next ones.
Fortunately, Rogelberg offers a variety of tools to help meeting leaders improve. The tail end of the book has a series of checklists, templates, and sample surveys that can be adapted for use in a variety of settings. I suspect movement organizers planning their next leadership team meeting—or movement scholars planning their next department faculty meeting—will find some of these tools quite helpful.
What you won’t find at the end of the book is an extensive reference list. Rogelberg (or, I suspect, his editors) have opted for limited citations, probably in the hopes of making the book more practitioner-friendly. In doing so, the book does less than I would like for movement scholars who are new to meeting science—which is unfortunate because contributing to meeting science scholarship is something movement scholars should be doing. With all the meetings that happen in social movements, movement scholars are well positioned to develop an understanding of meeting dynamics by building new, movement-grounded theories and collecting new movement meeting data using both long-established and new techniques. For a more complete scholarly introduction, the Cambridge Handbook of Meeting Science (edited by Joseph A. Allen, Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, and [you guessed it] Steven G. Rogelberg) looks to be a good entrance point—but that 800-page tome is probably better for the office than the beach.
References aside, The Surprising Science of Meetings is still a solid introduction to a growing field of interesting research suitable (and valuable) for social movement scholars and organizers. The writing is engaging, the examples are catchy, and the volume is slim, making it a nice, easy addition to your backpack, carry-on bag, or beach tote. And if you’re planning happy hour for later in the day, consider starting it at 5:03.