Charting the Social Order of Meetings

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 1 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Ib Ravn, Aarhus University (Graduate School of Education)

One may view meetings as occasions for the construction of social order (Berger and Luckman, 1966). Over decades and centuries (cf. van Vree, 1999), business, political and other meetings have sedimented norms, roles and institutions that render them highly ordered and ritualized. Yet, despite being so ordered and regulated by agendas, speakers’ lists, conventional turn taking, etc., meetings continue to frustrate meeting participants and fascinate observers by their multiple, apparent dysfunctions (e.g., Rogelberg et al., 2014; Geimer et al., 2015).

Empirical studies of meetings (Ravn, 2007; 2011) allow for the identification of three common types of meeting order or style, as well as a fourth, rarer and emerging type that may be contrasted with them. They may be called the managerial, parliamentary, collective-egalitarian and facilitative types. In extant meetings, these Weberian ideal types mix.

• The managerial type of meeting order is well known from meetings in corporations and other formal places of work. Managers chair their meetings by controlling the flow of conversation, inviting people to speak, stopping them again and drawing conclusions as they see fit.

• The parliamentary style derives from the formal democratic procedures of parliaments and other political assemblies. Robert’s Rules of Order exemplifies this meeting style, with its emphasis on speaking order, the rights of participants to be heard and formal turn taking regulated by a speakers’ list. The right to be heard has been integrated into most business and organizational meetings, and many modern meetings mix the parliamentary and managerial meeting styles.

• The collective-egalitarian meeting style derives from voluntary, grassroots and ideal-based communities and associations, especially of the 1960’s kind. In Northern Europe—and Scandinavia, in particular—this meeting order has percolated into the educational and social welfare sectors and has influenced meeting norms in many public as well as private organizations. Conventional management is frowned upon as un-democratic, and meetings are often leaderless or led by someone uncomfortable with leadership. The flow of conversation is supposed to be free, untrammeled by authority and procedure.

The precise mixture of these meeting styles in specific meetings is a challenging empirical question, the answer to which may help understand the dysfunctions of meetings. Given the low level of popular reflection about meetings, these styles and their norms are typically not known to chairpersons or participants. Hence, they are not easily accessible through interviews, which often only yield an undigested kind of meeting knowledge that I have called a “folk theory of meetings” (Ravn, 2013).

• The fourth, facilitative type of meeting order is not uncommon, but not well-described in the literature (but see Doyle & Straus, 1976, Ch. 6; Ravn, 2014). It relies on a meeting facilitator (formerly known as the chairperson) who resolutely guides the meeting towards a goal acceptable to all or most participants. The facilitator steers the conversation gently, but firmly in directions s/he perceives to be useful, while helping the participants be focused and brief, giving everyone a chance to speak in small groups, hearing input in measured amounts, articulating conclusions and shared understandings, ensuring everyone is on board, and generally running a brisk and efficient meeting intended to produce meaning for all participants and value for the meeting’s external stakeholders.

Discovering the mixture and sub-varieties of meeting styles such as these would constitute an empirical agenda for meeting researchers that may connect with the more normative concerns of meeting practitioners, who may draw inspiration from the facilitative meeting style. This style points to an avenue for thinking about and acting in meetings, such that they increasingly manifest themselves as the well-reasoned product of intentional and successful organizational action that they deserve to be.

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.
Doyle, M., & Straus, D. (1976). How to make meetings work. New York: Wyden.
Geimer, J. L., Leach, D. J., DeSimone, J. A., Rogelberg, S. G., & Warr, P. B. (2015). Meetings at work: Perceived effectiveness and recommended improvements. Journal of Business Research, 68(9): 2015–2026.
Ravn, I. (2007). Meetings in organizations: Do they contribute to stakeholder value and personal meaning? Paper, Academy of Management, Philadelphia, USA, August, 5-8.
Ravn, I. (2011). Facilitering: Ledelse af møder der skaber værdi og mening. Hans Reitzel. (“Facilitation: Leading meetings that create value and meaning.” In Danish.)
Ravn, I. (2013). A folk theory of meetings – and beyond. European Business Review, 25(2), 163-173.
Ravn, I. (2014). Training managers to facilitate their meetings: An intervention study. International Journal of Management Practice, 7(1), 70-87.
Rogelberg, S. G., Scott, C. W., Agypt, B., Williams, J., Kello, J. E., McCausland, T., & Olien, J. L. (2014). Lateness to meetings: Examination of an unexplored temporal phenomenon. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 23(3), 323-341.
van Vree, W. (1999). Meetings, manners and civilization: The development of modern meeting behavior. London, UK: Leicester University Press.

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