The curse of the badly run meeting

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In January 1944 the Office of Strategic Services, an American wartime intelligence agency, issued a short document. The “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” offered advice on how ordinary citizens in occupied Europe could disrupt the German war machine.

To cause physical damage, the guide tells the “citizen-saboteur” to use everyday items like salt, nails, pebbles and candles as weapons. This bit of the guide is a window into historical derring-do: dried-up sponges that can expand to plug sewer systems, jammed locks on unguarded buildings, various references to emery dust.

But the guide also outlines a less direct sort of sabotage, which is alarmingly familiar to anyone who works in an office today. This form of obstruction involves behaviour that confuses, demoralises and delays. Manager-saboteurs should ensure that three people have to approve things when one would do. Employees should spread disturbing rumours. Everyone should “give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned”. At some point a wartime effort to hurt the Nazis appears to have been mistaken for a serious guide on how to run the modern workplace.

No bit of the manual is more recognisable than its advice on how to turn meetings into weapons of mass distraction. Hold them when there is more important work to be done, it urges. Talk as often as possible and at immense length. Reopen questions that have already been decided. Bring up irrelevant issues whenever you can.

It’s hard not to read all this and ponder if your own organisation is being targeted by an enemy. And once that thought enters your mind, you also start to wonder whether all sorts of behaviour reflect instructions in a revised edition.

  • Call hybrid meetings whenever possible to maximise inefficiency. If you are in the room together, initiate side conversations to sow confusion among remote attendees. 
  • If you are on Zoom, unmute yourself slowly or not at all. Pretend not to be able to hear anything even when you can. Look baffled. Put on eight different pairs of headphones. Shrug theatrically. Entire geological eras can pass in this way. 
  • Alternatively, dial into the meeting on your phone, unmute yourself and put the phone in your pocket. Go for a long walk. If this is done right, a single person can force tens of others to abandon a meeting. 
  • Always turn up to meetings a few minutes late. This is especially important if you hold a senior role. Nothing will happen until you get there except for some awkward interchanges about weekend plans. If discussions have started, ask for a quick recap. If you have co-conspirators, stagger your arrival times so that you are constantly going back to the beginning. 
  • Don’t have an agenda. Just turn up and look expectant. If there is pre-reading, don’t do it. Never agree on action items or take minutes. 
  • If there is an agenda, take advantage of “the law of triviality”, a rule of thumb coined in 1957 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This refers to an imaginary committee whose members are asked to decide on proposals for a nuclear power plant and a new bike shed. Lacking expertise in nuclear power, the committee nods the plant through. Where everyone is an authority, like the bike shed, endless debate ensues. Whatever your version of the bike shed is—coffee machines, Oxford commas—bring it up early. 
  • If you are giving a presentation after someone else, take an absolute age to find it. Faff around in the wrong folder. Act as if you can’t see the slide-show button until someone else points it out. 
  • Say things like “there are no bad ideas”, so that everyone offers up their own bad ideas. At the end ask “does anyone have anything else?” and wait for as long as it takes for someone to fill the silence. Hopefully, it will be about the coffee machine and everything will kick off again. Conclude by saying that you think it has been a very useful meeting but don’t specify in what way.  

If you are behaving like this inadvertently, listen to the latest episode of Boss Class, our management podcast, to find out how to run a meeting better. If you are trying to cause disruption, your cover is blown.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
How to manage teams in a world designed for individuals (Nov 6th)
How to get the lying out of hiring (Oct 30th)
Would you rather be a manager or a leader? (Oct 23rd)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

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