Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 4;   January 22, 2014: Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas

Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas


Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.

Raspberries. Fruit is an excellent option for snacks during meeting breaks. Whole fruit is a good choice, because preparation time is low, and it holds up well on exposure to air without refrigeration. Berries and small fruits enable meeting participants to adjust their portions to their personal needs. Other sugary snacks, such as cookies and pastries, might also provide the lift needed to address the issues of ego depletion and decision fatigue, but fruits provide a more gradual assist with less chance of a crash after the lift. Photo courtesy of the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Designing meeting agendas can be tricky business. Considerations include logical flow, partial attendance by those with conflicting commitments, time zone differences, and the politics of the pecking order, among other factors. Recent advances in psychology [Baumeister 2011] are suggesting additional constraints — ego depletion and decision fatigue.

Ego depletion is the idea that we have limited energy available for regulating our own behavior, until we rest and recover. Numerous experiments have produced results consistent with this hypothesis. Closely related is the idea of decision fatigue. People seem to have limited energy available for the kinds of complex trade-offs associated with difficult decisions.

These two phenomena affect meetings in different ways, though they are closely related and often overlapping.

Ego depletion manifests itself when we tire of exerting self-control, as when we stifle expressions of anger or frustration, or when we try to conform to social expectations despite how we really feel. It degrades our ability to control ourselves.

Ego depletion is a risk whenever meeting agendas have the more heated debates at the end of the meeting. (I call such agendas "inverted.") During the meeting, slights, affronts, misunderstandings, and insults are possible. In some meetings, they're likely. Anyone who tries to deal with these incidents by controlling their urges to wring someone else's scrawny little neck, for example, is at elevated risk of ego depletion. By the time we arrive at the last items of an inverted agenda, some people might not have energy enough for self-control. Nasty interactions are more likely. To limit this risk, place at the top of the agenda any debates likely to become heated.

Some meeting chairs actually want some participants to lose control. These chairs might exploit ego depletion to achieve their own devious ends. Beware.

Decision fatigue sets in when we've wrestled with difficult decisions for even a short time, or when we've spent significant time on less-than-critical decisions. Consider the agenda for a meeting in which we rank a series of product defects. Because decision fatigue tends to make us controversy-averse, and because higher severity assignments for defects tend to provoke controversy, defects discussed early in the agenda tend to be classified as more severe.

In meetings In meetings in which we're
allocating enterprise resources,
decision quality degrades
as time goes on
in which we're allocating enterprise resources, decision quality also degrades as time goes on. Because increasing resource allocations beyond current resource levels tends to create more controversy, and because decision fatigue makes us controversy-averse, current levels tend to prevail when decision fatigue takes hold. That's one reason why departments seeking significant resource increases tend to do better if they appear near the top of the agenda. Meeting chairs who know about this phenomenon might exploit it. Beware.

Breaks and food can mitigate these effects. Schedule breaks not by the clock, but according to the strenuousness of the effort. Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!


[Baumeister 2011]
See, for example, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Back

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