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:
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- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope"
tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks
that push our buttons.
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How can you cope with survival?
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
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- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.