How to run meetings that hurt less

The human brain constantly scans for threats and rewards. Use these five neuroscience-based tactics to run meetings that are less painful and more productive
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How much of your work life do you spend in conference rooms? Making meetings more effective – and quite frankly, less painful – is a top priority for most IT leaders. One answer to improving meeting productivity: Neuroscience. As we begin to understand more about how the brain works, we can see more clues about what we’re doing wrong in meetings. 

“While you are sitting in a meeting your brain is constantly scanning for threats and rewards. When the threat response occurs in your brain, the innovative, collaborative, parts of your brain shut down,” says Dick Axelrod, who with his wife Emily Axelrod co-founded leadership and organizational consultancy The Axelrod Group and co-wrote Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done. “When the reward response occurs in your brain the innovative, collaborative, parts of your brain light up.”

Considering how our brains are wired to reward certain behaviors – and to shut down in the face of certain stimuli – can help IT leaders increase the levels of communication, collaboration, and creativity that occur during meetings. 

[ Are you simultaneously piling too many projects on your team? Read our related article, The overcommitted organization. ]

Check out these five neuroscience-inspired actions CIOs can take to promote more productive and less painful meetings.

Make the agenda clear

When the human brain registers a threat, it activates the fight or flight response in the primitive emotional center of our brain, the amygdala. When the purpose of a meeting is unclear, that creates such a sense of anxiety, shifting the resources of the brain to survival mode and making problem-solving, communication, and decision-making difficult. Being transparent about the purpose and goals of a meeting increases the likelihood that attendees will arrive engaged and ready to participate rather than being shut down. 

“Knowing what you are going to talk about, why, and for long reduces participant anxiety during a meeting by providing a road map for the experience,” says Dick Axelrod. “This frees up energy to focus on the issues at hand instead of worrying about what is going to happen next.” Some agenda items may themselves, like a budget discussion, may contain a perceived threat, but the value of clarity overall outweighs the risk that like a transparent meeting plan could induce anxiety.

[ See our related story, Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

Foster a respectful atmosphere

Social threats like humiliation or unfair treatment can have just as damaging an effect on the engagement levels and mental acuity of participants in a meeting. While it’s important to have a degree of give-and-take and healthy disagreement within meetings, it’s even more critical to ensure that employees are considerate of one another in the process. “Respectful conversations where meeting participants seek to understand differing viewpoints creates psychological safety, which companies like Google have found to be the key component determining group effectiveness,” says Emily Axelrod. 

“Simple acts like paraphrasing the previous comment before speaking go a long way towards creating a psychologically safe environment, which in turn moves people to the reward state,” she says. There are often times in meetings where someone’s input must be cut short in consideration of time constraints or sticking to the agenda. Making a point of writing down what they’ve shared to return to at another time can validate the individual and prevent the social threat response.

Build in breaks

It’s no coincidence that the solution to a tough problem often comes to us when we’re in the shower or exercising – or after we have literally “slept on it.” 

“Even though you are not directly working on the problem, your brain is running in the background,” explains Dick Axelrod. Building in some idle time to let that cognitive magic happen can be beneficial. “While we are not recommending shower breaks, we do recommend building in breaks to get away from a problem so that you can return refreshed,” Axelrod says. IT leaders can start a two-hour meeting before lunch and finish it after, for example, or break up an all-day meeting into two half-day sessions with the first half starting in the afternoon and the second portion continuing the following morning.

Offer stimulants 

Buildling challenges into meetings can literally light up attendees’ brains and improve their cognitive performance within the meeting.

No, we're not talking about coffee. The human brain thrives on a challenge. When someone solves a problem on their own, learns a new skill, or creates a new process, their brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters that can create good feelings associated with the accomplishment. Buildling challenges into meetings can literally light up attendees’ brains and improve their cognitive performance within the meeting. 

“The trick is to create challenges that stretch the group beyond its current comfort zone,” says Emily Axelrod, noting that challenges that are too easy will not engage participants and those that are beyond the skill level of the group will cause them to check out. “If your meeting does not create a challenge that engages meeting participants, energy dissipates as interest wanes.” 

For some, the challenge of creating a new process is stimulating while for others the challenge of learning something new is more engaging, so the Axelrods suggest building multiple challenges into your meeting to engage the different brains in the room.

Give participants some power

For many people, a sense of control and active involvement moves their brain toward the reward state. Setting up meetings in a way that allows for some autonomy on the part of attendees can be valuable. “In a meeting, this means being able to have a say about decisions made and the direction the group is going,” says Dick Axelrod. “Supporting and encouraging people who take initiative during the meeting reinforces the reward state which opens people up to increased cooperation and new ideas.”

[ Read also: 6 steps to running the perfect 30-minute meeting. ] 

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.