In my work experience, the most satisfying meetings have been the ones with substance and purpose, led by a wise moderator. While I do not take such meetings for granted, I would not call them rare exceptions to a grim human rule.
Supposedly “research shows” otherwise. According to Susan Cain, “there’s research out of the Kellogg School recently that showed that in your typical meeting, you have three people doing 70 percent of the talking.”
Now, I have been to meetings where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but this figure makes little sense. What is a “typical” meeting? How could one possibly arrive at a specific percentage, given the variety of meeting sizes, atmospheres, structures, purposes, and contexts?
Cain’s statement has been quoted on Fortune.com and the Campus Technology website, neither of which provides a research source. Fortunately the Quiet Ambassadors brochure does: “Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management.” That is the entire citation. There’s no reference to a particular work.
I looked up Thompson’s statements on this subject. In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), on p. 128, she claims that in a four-person group, two people do 62 percent of the talking; in a six-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking, and in an eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking. (She gives the same figures in a Fortune.com article and approximates them on the Kellogg School of Management website.) She implies that as the group size increases, the main talkers make up a smaller percentage of it.
This is a far cry from saying that in a “typical meeting,” three people do 70 percent of the talking. But even her statement seems dubious. Where do her figures come from? In the endnotes to Creative Conspiracy, she cites M. E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small-Group Behavior, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 170. The title suggests that the research, conducted over 35 years ago, pertains specifically to small groups, not meetings overall. In fact, these small groups may have lacked a moderator; I will look into this when I get a chance.
I support structuring meetings so that those who wish to speak, can. But why make a weak case for this? Why throw around misleading figures and statements?
This is not an isolated instance. Again and again, I see figures used out of context. Cain has asserted repeatedly that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” This was based on a small and vague study (of 91 teachers of unspecified subjects and grade levels). Others have claimed (see the article’s bar chart) that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraverted personalities, a statement needing severe qualification. These figures suggest a dire situation where the extraverts run the show and the introverts (although supposedly making up 50 percent of the general population)* get overlooked and ignored. Statement after statement, figure after figure misrepresents the research, which itself has limited implications.
One can promote thoughtful discourse in the workplace without resorting to flashy figures. The moderator–in many cases, the manager–can set the tone by ensuring, first of all, that the meeting is about something. Then she can lead the discussion, drawing out contrasting ideas and helping to reconcile and synthesize them. Over time, she can relax her role, as others will take part in leading. But when she needs to step in, she can do so.
This takes not just skill but a keen understanding of the relation between topic and form, and an alertness to those present (and absent). Some discussions will be swift, others lengthy; some require only two contrasting views, whereas others benefit from subtleties and variations.
The quality of a discussion has little to do with the number or proportion of people talking; a discussion with just two conversants might cover what people want to say, while a discussion with twenty voices might end up going nowhere. If the tenor of the discussion is thoughtful, and if the moderator and others guide it well, the meeting will not come to ruin, nor will souls be shouted down. But above all, there should be something worth talking about, and the participants should take it up with intelligence, ear, and candor.
*The percentage of introverts depends largely on how you define and test introversion, how you distribute the data, and where you draw the line.
Image credit: Doug Savage, “Loud Talker.”
Note: I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.