An unexpected benefit of the coronavirus epidemic will undoubtedly be taking stock of what is important and what is not important in a functioning society. We’ll find that some currently banned activities are not missed. One bane is the holding of meetings. Let’s hope that their current suspension might remain permanent.
In June 1994 I published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Meeting Mania.” I wrote, “The phenomena has come about in large measure because of the emergence of a rapidly multiplying class of workers who oversee the work of others. ‘Sorry, he/she is in meeting now’ has become the ubiquitous explanation to assert status and justify unavailability.”
I proposed a temporary moratorium on meetings of more than three people to demonstrate their uselessness. Now that proposition is being tested.
In subsequent years meeting mania has become even more pervasive, a pandemic. The reason is the explosive infusion of managers, administrators, consultants, and planners into the governing levels of most institutions. These elites wear dark suits, do not punch time-clocks, and perceive attendance at meetings to be actual work.
The atmosphere at meetings is often harried. Attendees hurry in, I-phones and laptops in hand, apologizing for being late from…their last meeting. They employ their own language with terms like stakeholder, existential, robust, out-of-the-box, and evidence-based. Votes are not taken. Decisions, if there are any, are reached by consensus. An air of faux Seattle politeness pervades the atmosphere at meetings I was obliged to attend (because my boss ordered me to). When I asked probing questions, I was mistakenly accused of being from New York. At meetings’ end, the only obligations of the chair are to express appreciation for the “good discussion,” and announce the date and time of…the next meeting.
Retreats are a variant of regular meetings. They are held in the hopes that wiser insights will emerge as a result of participants spending longer periods of time with each other. It does not work!
Task forces are employed by political leaders to defer making controversial decisions. The scenario is depressingly familiar. At first those tapped for service are flattered to be invited. It is only later that they ask: “What will happen as a result of our deliberations?” A cardinal rule of task forces is that the reports of previous task forces (there are always previous task forces) are kept under lock and key.
Meeting mania is omnipresent wherever managers congregate. I care how the upper levels of government employees spend their time and my money. As a “citizen lobbyist”’ (unpaid) for over 50 years, I all-too-often hear bureaucrats say: “we’re having a meeting next week to talk about it,” or the dreaded phrase, “we’re still working on it.”
I cringe on hearing complaints from the elites about being busy. It is the foster-parents of disabled kids, the caretakers of the elderly, and the invisible “underclass” of those who serve, clean up after, and transport the rest of us who are truly busy. Busy with work that is real. If these public servants are working so hard, why are our most pressing problems like income inequality, climate change, homelessness, and untreated mental illness still with us?
Will meeting mania persist when the coronavirus cloud finally lifts? Probably the meeting mavens will face tough questions in the private sector by bean counters. In the public sector though, the managerial elites will not go on a meeting diet easily. They see themselves as “”masters of the universe,” in the iconic language of Tom Wolfe in his 1987 book, Bonfire of the Vanities. It is they, not the workers who punch time clocks, who will find a way to maintain themselves and form more task forces.
Abe Bergman, MD is professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Washington and a citizen-activist in Seattle.