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Improve meeting productivity with insights from neuroscience

an image of a brain with colors in different sections
The Robin Team
Published on

Meetings are scheduled to get things done, but that’s not always what happens. One way to improve meeting productivity is by understanding how our brains are wired.

Are you putting people to sleep?

Long meetings are one sure way to make people tune out. Review some of the recent meetings you’ve had. Were there a lot of yawns? Were eyes glazed over?People might not actually be sleeping, but if their brain switches into slumber mode, their cognitive function drastically dips. In fact, a study found that 91% of participants admitted to daydreaming during meetings, and 39% said they have even dozed off.

Over 23% of people who are sleep deprived note they have difficulty concentrating and 40% of workers get 5 hours of sleep (or less) on average. No matter how hard they try, if you hold that meeting for too long, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

How to keep the brainpower in the room instead of people taking a snooze.

  • Trim your agenda to what really needs done
  • If discussion of one item runs too long, table it. Let people know you’ll set another time to continue with it.
  • Ask questions that help people get to their point sooner.
  • Have caffeine on hand (but don’t use it as a crutch).
  • When sidetracks happen, catch them quickly. Make note of the topic and decide later if it justifies another meeting.

Now that you’re armed with tactics to keep your meetings moving, think about how you’ll put them into practice. If you run the meeting ruthlessly, people will focus less on the work at hand and more on how they feel toward you.Let people know when the meeting starts that you might cut some discussions short or redirect others. If you tell them your goal is to get things done efficiently in the meeting, they’ll be on board. (They want to finish the meeting and get back to work as much as you do.)

The art of moving meetings along

The workplace is a social environment, and our brains are social organs. When people gather for a meeting, the environment in the room impacts how they participate. As much as we think we’re in control of our thoughts, we have little control of when (or how) our brains fire chemical responses to interactions with others.Leading meetings is an art. Ideally, meetings are efficient, productive and the people in the room are dedicated to the task at hand. Your job is to make that scenario happen.How people in your meeting feel impacts how productive your meeting will be. Take charge of discussion like a military general leading troops into battle and people might respond as if you were a threat. A UCLA study shows that when people feel rejection at work, it triggers a response in the brain equivalent to feeling physical pain.

Fight or flight: Why your meetings may be menacing

When you lead a meeting, pay attention to how people respond to each other as well as how they respond to you. How they perceive those interactions will impact productivity in your meeting. Rather than having people shut down, you want them to feel engaged and participate.When the human brain registers a threat – even a social one – it shifts into survival mode. Cognitive function deteriorates.

Soon, problem-solving, communication and decision-making become all but impossible.Threat in a social sense comes in many forms. When we experience humiliation, unfair treatment, loss of status, uncertainty and hurt feelings we become less mentally sharp. These things will trigger your meeting participants to disengage.When we perceive a social threat, our brains have fewer resources for the areas where conscious thought takes place - the prefrontal cortex. Instead, it concentrates resources in areas of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response - the amygdala.

Steer clear of social threats in meetings

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to put this information to use, but you will need some strategies to put it into practice. To avoid that threat response, set up some ground rules for your meetings. As long as people remain respectful of others as they discuss ideas, they don’t have to agree on every point. A bigger challenge is how you keep your meeting moving and on task.Running a meeting takes some finesse.

To keep productivity high, you may have to cut people off or steer them back to being on-topic. When you begin the meeting, let people know this will be a goal of the meeting. When you have to cut someone short, make note of what they say by writing it down. This simple act validates their point and can prevent that threat response from firing.

Treat your team to social rewards

You’ve manage to avoid people fleeing from the room or retreating into a corner. Once you understand how the brain reacts to social rewards, you can take your neuroscience knowledge to the next level. When our brains register rewards our neural circuitry goes into high-engagement mode. We think more creatively, plan better, memorize more, communicate clearer and solve problems faster. Hand out social rewards when the time is right and people are sure to plug in.

How do you trigger the reward system in people’s brains?

Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute has the answer in the SCARF model of five social needs.

Want to trigger rewards? Keep these in mind:

  • Status – The social need for significance, respect, esteem and a place in the hierarchy.
  • Certainty – The yearning to know what will happen next.
  • Autonomy – The desire to feel like we have choices, as well as some level of control over our environment.
  • Relatedness – The need to feel that we’re part of the group.
  • Fairness – The need for fair exchanges and consistency in standards.

A powerful way to make sure people in your meeting are engaged is to have a strategy in mind. Plan to neutralize social threats and offer rewards. Trigger the “reward” system of the brain by finding ways to fulfill one -- or better yet, several -- of these five social needs.

Give it a whirl. Use neuroscience improve meeting productivity

(Don’t worry, you don’t have to become an M.D.)Having a plan for your meeting means more than getting out an agenda in advance. Think about your attendees. Schedule a room with the right capacity and resources for your meeting. Avoid having five people around a table that seats twenty.Strategize who’s in the room to increase opportunities for people respond well to each other.

When you send out the meeting invite, drop in some notes about how you’d like to see the meeting go. During the meeting, you can reference these goals. Take a look at these added tips to boost the productivity of your meetings even more.You brought people together to take advantage of their brain power. Take a few tips from neuroscience and use those powers for good. You’ll improve your meeting productivity and might make people’s days better in the process. It’s a win-win.

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