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.
- The Fallacy of the False Cause
- Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what
we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because
we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
- Can You Hear Me Now?
- Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can
quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the
message that you actually did hear.
- First Aid for Wounded Conversations
- Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to
forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
- Dealing with Deniable Intimidation
- Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive
or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 12: Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
- Shared information bias is widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But over time, it can erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality and the group's perceptions of reality. Available here and by RSS on December 12.
- And on December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.