The Tyranny of Meetings

A Business MeetingYesterday, I was about as uncomfortable as I’ve ever been outside of a place of torture, sorry, a dentist. My bladder was near bursting, my hands were twisting a small notebook with the intent of tearing it two, my blood pressure was elevated to the point that I wondered if the scene was actually turning red or if was it just me. A trickle of sweat proceeded down my back: a chill counterpoint to my otherwise agitated state.

The source of my pronounced irritation was a meeting. I had been in this particular one for nearly two hours and had no possibility of escape. I had run out of my usual self-amusements: I was tired of doodling wooden frame houses in the margins of my notebook, and writing verses in tribute to my state of profound ennui. Every last cell in my body was screaming for me to get out of the room, and leave the interminable talking behind me.

As I sat there, growing more restless by the millisecond, it dawned on me that I was probably not alone. I certainly wasn’t the only one among my colleagues who wanted out: a shifty glance, a rueful smile, a pair of folded hands with the knuckles tight to the point that they were turning white, all suggested that the vast majority did not want to be there. I also thought about how many other conferences of a similar type were going on up and down the country: how many other people in the length and breadth of Britain were flexing their toes within their shoes to satisfy the primal urge to get up and run?

Meetings are a fact of modern working life. Many are indeed useful: I’ve found meeting with someone on a one-to-one basis is a good way of establishing a working relationship. Open seminars, in which genuine dialogue occurs, are similarly illuminating. I’d go so far as to say that meetings of equals can also be helpful, provided they are not imposed from on high. But these kinds of meetings are the exception, rather than the rule: in my experience the vast majority appear to be organised by management of a particular enterprise or team, so that they can talk to themselves about themselves. The labels for these congresses vary, they can be called “Operations Reviews” or “Team Building”, but they usually have three main purposes:

Grandstanding: usually this is done by management, whereby they try to convince the team that they’ve done something wonderful or to provide reassurance that all is well. Sometimes the grandstanding is done by individual team members in order to create the impression that they are doing something useful: a good rule of thumb is that the more self-promotion that’s done in this venue, the less likely the work is valuable.

Blame: in my experience, any company or endeavour that says it doesn’t have a blame culture is lying. Very few genuinely accept that they have human beings in their employ and that human beings are likely to make mistakes. Imperfections and irregularities which prevent the achievement of absolutely pristine work requires blame of individual employees. It is the blood sacrifice which lubricates an organisation’s illusions.

Procedure changes: these, in my opinion, are the worst of all. These kind of meetings are ostensibly called to see how processes can improve, yet the employees whose working lives are affected by the proposed changes are not supposed to speak their mind. Rather, these are reminiscent of an election in North Korea, you can vote any way you want, so long as you vote for the Dear Leader.

Yesterday’s shindig was of the last type. After hearing an annoying amount of rhetoric about re-organisation, and reviewing status reports which provided numbers but not facts, all accompanied by statements that things were going well, I remembered the wise words of Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek:

…sometimes, at least, the truly subversive thing is not to disregard the explicit letter of the Law on behalf of the underlying fantasies, but to stick to this letter against the fantasy that sustains it.

The explicit Law in this case states that dialogue is genuinely welcome. In reality, it is not: I had experienced this in previous meetings whereby my suggestions for improvements in technology were received with barely disguised hostility. The problem was that genuine change would require an acceptance that the employees might know something, and the management might not know everything: this goes against the management fantasy of perfect knowledge and control which is required by the organisation. I, as an employee, am expected to live with the illusion and not only surrender to it, but to believe in it as well. I am certain that the vast majority of my difficulties with the business world have come from the fact that I may be able to acquiesce to this mirage on the surface, but my underlying disbelief makes its presence felt. I cannot check my intellect or conscience at the door, and this generally makes my relationship with any kind of authority a hostile one.

Yesterday, in spite of my better judgement, I stuck to the letter of the Law and spoke up several times. I got the impression from the quickfire intervention of my superiors that my contribution was not welcome. Having done my duty to the team and Zizek, I was left almost literally stewing in my own juices. However, I am proud to say that I did give an honest unalloyed answer when an opportunity either to grandstand or to blame came about. Recently, I set up a new website for my department, and had not yet received any feedback from my colleagues. I was asked if I had; I did not blame anyone, nor did I say all was well, I merely stated that I had received no comment whatsoever. The meeting ended, then I left, taking a walk in the damp Spring air to clear my mind.

Despite the impression one may get, I am pleased to say that my work is not at all unpleasant (especially when I’m doing it somewhere other than the office), and it is very likely that in a little over a year, I will be taking up an academic position of some description. I am under no illusions, I am sure that meetings happen there too. I am sure also that every corner of our modern economy has some tyranny of meetings which imposes itself, trying to create the mirage of legitimacy for decisions which otherwise would not earn them. Life is filled with dictators and petty bureaucrats, bullies and careerists, politics and envy. However, what gives me hope is that people are not resigned to it. I refuse to accept this as an optimal way of working: I believe that no collaboration can truly succeed without utilising the talents and most importantly, the goodwill of all of its participants. Based on my colleagues’ rueful grins and shifting in their seats, I don’t think they agree with how things are run either. So long as the instinct to rebel remains, the voice which whispers that a hand grenade being rolled into the middle of the room would be a mercy refuses to keep silent, and people are unable to surrender their intellect to the illusion of meetings, then these pointless confabulations will be a continual failure in achieving any particular aims and making anyone believe in their stated goals. Failure does have a way of catching up with people eventually; it will be exciting to see how fate unfolds.

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