Do Meetings Have Any Agenda?
It would take no expert on management to tell you that there's nothing more pissing off than a 'meeting'. To quote David Barry, “Meetings are a highly addictive, self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organisations engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate”. But the point, of course, is that despite a huge amount of management literature being spent on decrying the meeting, an American executive - according to research published in the Harvard Business Review - spends, on average, 300,000 hours on meetings every year. This is astounding since Americans spend around 87,000 hours a year, on average, sleeping. The question is: Why? Why are meetings, at all, addictive, when we know that they are far from productive? Why on earth do we spend more time in meetings instead of getting some shut-eye? The answer requires us to take a deep dive into the nature of production and management in the modern office.
The act of making something has, throughout most of history, required an application of physical faculties. The work of a manager has been overseeing the labourer, ensuring that his toils are coordinated and oriented towards the goal of making something.
However, in a service-based economy, that is simply not possible in a traditional sense. The act of production is now a complex web of mental application. The product, even if made inside a factory, is ultimately an elusive entity that is mentioned in an invoice or a quarterly report. The excel entry called the product is tightly wound within the structure of the mental contrivance called the 'brand'. The brand is what captivates the modern Janus-like 'customer' who again is an email address or a delivery point. The 'market', even if physical, is ultimately a collection of data points, that may be manipulated through 'marketing' to get bigger entries on that column called 'revenue'. Of course, the aim of all this is an 'annual report' where a bunch of numbers indicate that there is 'profit', which is transmitted to the pantheon of gods called 'the shareholders'.
In short, the whole idea of production and sale, the idea of a corporation, and its activity is merely a historical imitation of itself. There's no hum of a machine at work, no sound of the worker breaking for lunch after a gong, and no assembly line of men putting different parts together. What we have instead is the receipt of orders, the invoicing and billing, the handover of title through the handover of a bill of lading, the negotiation of a contract via a back-and-forth of emails, the power-point presentations, and so on. The very act of doing business by producing something and selling it for a profit has become a simulation, the corporate executive creates only an imitation of the real at his desk, typing away, caffeinated to the brim.
The simulation of production represses some very basic needs that a person demands from their work: identity, individuality, a sense of purpose, a feeling of being part of something greater than oneself. And this is not some fancy philosophical takedown, but an assessment based on a very comprehensive body of psychological literature. For instance, a study by K C Madhav and others published in 2017 in the journal of Preventive Medicine Reports on 3,201 American adults showed that people who spent more than six hours a day looking at a computer screen were highly likely to develop moderate to severe depression. Since the modern workplace requires at least eight hours of work behind a computer screen, we can only imagine how many are silently being pushed into despair by this dehumanising system. Furthermore, according to a survey of 2,000 working professionals in the UK, around 53.6% of workers admit to feeling lonely, and around 44.4% attribute this to having nothing in common with their colleagues. Clearly, the modern workplace is antithetical to the basic human requirement of socialisation, which as we know, is a crucial component of neuronal health.
The meeting, in such a scenario, and the addictive obsession with it is just a “return of the repressed” (to quote the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan). It is a desperate attempt at trying to introduce a feeling of reality and human connection which a simulation of production simply cannot provide. This point becomes even more apparent when we observe how the meeting becomes more and more vague in its mandate and execution. So many meetings are called ‘team-building exercises’, and they have no real discernible purpose, just a way for a manager to look at the people who send him all those emails and feel like he's looking at a factory floor. That apart, there are the ‘brainstorming sessions’, which are about as useful as non-alcoholic beers - with very little thinking happening over the glib and mindless chatter on a few talking points. Finally, there is the ‘feedback meeting’ which is, of course, hardly about genuine feedback.
In sum, the modern meeting is an attempt at dealing with the neurosis of the modern corporation, which most thoroughly fails to actually solve the problem due to the fundamentally artificial setting of simulated production. The question, of course, is how do we actually end this neurosis, how do we give the modern professional his identity and a sense of community and purpose? Is there a way to actually imbue the meeting with meaning? I think it is worth looking at the original medicament to all problems relating to the human condition: religion. And not just any religion, but the oldest one in the world: Hinduism.
One of the grandest meetings ever held in Hindu mythology was the ‘Upanishads’. They were called by the mythical King Janaka to bring sages and wise men together to engage in great dialogues on philosophy. These dialogues continued for years. King Janaka's daughter, Lady Sita, would sit through these meetings. She would sit and listen intently as the mighty sage Yajnavalkya explained that every man was Brahma - the god of creation - for every man created his own world that was born from his own mind. Yajnavalkya would state, however, that every man or woman could be Brahman - the infinite godhead in Hinduism - and could go beyond his own world by expanding his mind to embrace the worlds of others.
One day Lady Sita realised that as the sages talked, there was almost a magical force that ensured their throats were never parched and that they were always properly fed. She wandered into the royal kitchens to realise why this was so. Lady Sita saw her mother adeptly manage the kitchen to ensure a near-endless supply of food was always available. Lady Sita sat beside her mother, learning how to neatly slice vegetables. She expanded her mind. In other words, she journeyed from Brahma to Brahman because of a truly august meeting.
While the story of Lady Sita and the Upanishadic meetings may seem too profound to be applicable to a shallow world, it gives us a lot to think about in terms of management theory. Lady Sita and sage Yajnavalkya tell us that a meeting has to become a sacred space - where the neuroses of the modern worker in the simulacra of production are confronted rather than avoided. They tell us that for a meeting to succeed, it has to go beyond just a desperate desire for human connection, serving as a springboard for greater thought and mind-expanding action. In practice, this is easier to implement than one may think, all we need do is ask the worker to expand his mind and truly see. We need to tell him that the sales report under discussion is far more than what appears to a Brahma like him. We need to tell him that the sales report represents the work of so many things coming together to create a Brahman greater than any one worker. In short, we need only remind the worker that the modern corporation now appears only a simulation of itself because the nature of the reality it controls is simply too vast.
A meeting where the manager reminds the modern worker that his typing and emailing on one desk moves mountains in actuality would be the true medicament to the worker's suffering. It would expand his mind to see his co-worker as a compatriot in going beyond their own world of emails and invoices to see the customer, the supplier, and the manufacturer. This would make workers learn from these people, thereby adding true accountability to the corporate process. Most importantly, it would make the worker human again, giving him the tools to fight off real problems like depression and nihilism.
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