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Home > News > September 2006 > 29 September 2006

76% of employees find meetings stressful, say survey

If you think business meetings are designed to help colleagues share information and agree collective next steps, think again. Modern workplace gatherings are a hotbed of office politics, power struggles and psychological warfare says new research released today by Office Angels, the secretarial and office support recruitment consultancy.

Despite polling higher than e-mails, conference calls and video link-ups as the favoured method of communicating with co-workers, 76% of the 1,400 employees questioned described meetings as 'stressful', with more than half (52%) suffering from 'performance anxiety' prior to gatherings. One in five (27%) admit to losing sleep the night before a major meeting.

From when you arrive to where you sit, the modern meeting is a minefield of behavioural nuances and status signals, the research suggests. Almost three quarters of workers (72%) agree that the last person to enter a meeting room is invariably the boss, with waits of up to twenty minutes before his or her arrival a common phenomenon (experienced by 52% of respondents).

"Being the last to enter a meeting room is deliberate power play," says behavioural expert Judi James. "A good analogy is a judge amplifying his status by being the last to arrive in court. The same principle applies to the workplace, with the final person in the room explicitly saying 'I'm in control'. The implicit message is that this person's time is more valuable than yours, so make sure you turn up promptly yourself, so you don't upset your boss by not only looking unprofessional but also 'trumping' his power play."

Eighty-two percent of respondents have experienced 'friction' in meetings, with almost one in five (19%) contributing to a 'heated exchange'. Yet difficult scenarios such as this can be avoided simply by being aware of interpersonal meeting psychology, says Judi.

"If you know there's someone in the room likely to cause you problems never, ever sit opposite them." she advises. "In the wild, animals 'square up' to each other prior to a clash, while prolonged eye contact is a sign of aggression. People give off similar signals when confronted with an antagonistic colleague, and sitting face to face merely exacerbates the signs. Far better to sit diagonally opposite each other, where signals are less likely to be seen and to provoke rapid escalation from debate to conflict."

Similarly, the research found 65% of workers choose to sit next to their closet ally in potentially stressful meetings, but this too is a mistake says Judi. "More productive in this case is to sit opposite one another, so you can interact in full view of the other attendees. Positive verbal interplay is like playing a game of 'reassurance tennis', signalling confidence and collective agreement to colleagues," says Judi.

Other meeting faux pas nominated by workers include:

  • Not testing technology prior to big presentations (87%)
  • Answering a question before giving the boss chance to speak (56%)
  • Failing to take notes or mindlessly doodling (43%)
  • Junior workers failing to keep tea and coffee cups topped up (26%)

Commenting on the findings David Clubb, acting managing director of Office Angels says: "The UK workplace is more democratic than it's ever been, but in some situations traditional etiquette plays an important role, particularly in meetings where your performance is at its most public, and therefore under the most scrutiny."

He continues: "Get the balance right between deferring to senior people when the situation calls for it, but also having the confidence to express your own opinions and ideas when the time is right. You need to tread the line between nerve-wracked silence and irritating over-confidence. Find this middle ground and you'll avoid the meeting minefield."

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