The Ripple Effect — Your Premeeting Chatter Matters

The science of meetings is fascinating. How do we best communicate with one another when we find ourselves sitting across from each other in a conference room? How do we solve problems, build confidence in one another, share? It’s an interesting area of our lives to explore — particularly because the workday is composed of a series of meetings where (I hope) we’re trying to have meaningful impact.

Anyone who designs, deploys or supports technology for the workplace should take the time to really understand what’s happening when we “meet” in the workplace.

Here’s a homework assignment — next time you’re early to a meeting, take a look around the space. Breakdown what’s happening. If there are other people in the room — there is almost certainly the ubiquitous pre-meeting talk already underway. While most of us don’t consider this an important part of a meeting — it turns out it absolutely is.

You see, people are very good at working together in groups — and when left to their own devices — people will exhibit behaviors that are valuable and productive as a team. I find it interesting that the premeeting phase isn’t influenced by technology. What are they doing? Side-barring in small groups about the agenda? Chatting with other early arrivals about goings-on around the office? Reminding one another of important tasks? Emailing quietly? I’ve seen all these take place. It’s an interesting phase of the meeting because users aren’t yet distracted by firing up the technology in the room (that takes place later and is probably worth a blog post itself).

Does this premeeting chatter even matter? It turns out that it absolutely does. Scientists have studied what happens in the pre-meeting stage and how it impacts the meeting itself for more than a couple decades.

For a interesting couple of reads, I’d start here:

It turns out, pre-meeting chatter has a “ripple effect” that will ultimately influence the meeting outcomes. This is important — what happens in the premeeting conversations ripples into the meeting itself and can make a real difference. It will set tone, the emotive state of the individuals in the room and will even impact productivity.

For those of you who don’t have the time to read the research directly, here are a couple examples of how pre-meeting chatter impacts the productivity of the meeting:

Emotional Contagions

It’s pretty clear that the emotive state of individuals, particularly in group settings, impacts productivity of the team. One theory of how the pre-meeting phase ripples into productivity of the meeting is the “emotional contagion” that is passed from the individuals who are talking prior to meeting start. If they are overly pessimistic, it impact others in the room — resulting in a potentially more cautious, less productive, team that, frankly meets without an outcome. What’s really interesting is that the content of the discussion may not matter as much as the emotional state of the speakers (talking pessimistically about the weather may be a bad idea if you want to have an upbeat, fast paced meeting!).

Personality Dynamics and Team Building

When individuals participate in particular types of pre-meeting discussion they can establish their personality position with respect to the team. Without getting too much into the underlying psychology, individuals will provide cues about their extrovert/introvert nature, openness, etc. These cues are picked up by other meeting attendees prior to meeting start. Turns out that can be a great thing, as it establishes a teaming structure for the meeting — what roles individuals will take on. One current theory holds that teams that engage in vigorous pre-meeting chatter will have shorter (and presumably more productive) meetings. I cannot wait to test this theory against Kepler’s database of meetings.

Perceptions Matter

Sometimes, the impact of pre-meeting chat is only subjective. This study discovered that teams that engage in pre-meeting discussions tend to believe they were more productive and higher achieving. Objectively, that may not be true. But — and this is important — if employee engagement and satisfaction matter, then it’s OK that teams feel they were more productive — that’s a good outcome in and of itself.

So — how does this impact what we do in the workplace?

I can think of a few obvious ways to encourage the right kind of pre-meeting talk. If you’re designing a space (color, lighting, furniture), deploying technology (displays, cameras, mircophones) or responsible for a team — think about how your meetings should unfold in light of this. I know that when we are thinking about technology in the meeting space — I always find it helpful to consider the human-element in the space. I have a few ideas related to the gamifying the meeting startup with our evolving meeting platform.

How can we, the AV community, architects, team-leads, encourage interaction before the meeting that makes us more productive and happy?

I’ll leave that to you.

This column was reprinted with permission and originally appeared here.