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 onin 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.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- The Tweaking CC
- When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking
CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by
exposing embarrassing information.
- Peace's Pieces
- Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken
by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
- Favors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
- Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you
say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: I
- Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention
skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
- How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
- Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt
can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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