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  • John Clapham

Do you suffer from FOAM? (Fear Of Another Meeting)

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Picture Credit: Cottonbro Studio

I think I’ve stumbled upon a new cognitive bias - Fear Of Another Meeting, or FOAM.

In the face of FOAM we are rendered helpless, our minds become frozen, we accept and attend meetings without consideration, we extend our day, jeopardise our well being and neglect more significant work. The space we have remaining becomes so rare and precious we feel intense pressure to use it effectively, to the extent that we often do the opposite, and spend time decompressing or (not) deciding what to do.

A contributing factor may well be FOMO, but the subtlety here is the way FOAM seems to reduce our sense agency, narrowing our options to one obligation - attendance.

We simultaneously recognise we have no more space for meetings, whilst feeling the urge to accept. There is a nagging sense we could use our time more wisely. A common symptom is a constant crazy game of calendar Tetris because everything is important, tempting and urgent.

As a coping mechanism sometimes we attend without being present, a curious deal to strike with ourselves, meaning neither the meeting or the background task get the attention they require.

All of which is odd, because we have considerable, if not total autonomy over meetings. Some work, sometimes the most important work, like quality thinking, gets done outside of meetings and, dare I say, outside the normal place of work.

If you ask me (and you didn't, which is the curious thing about blogs) meetings are pretty inert, like cars or musical instruments. It’s not until people use them they turn into something we might judge to be good or bad, magical or mundane.

It seems everyone is susceptible, dealing with high meeting demand, and time management in general, is a consistent theme across my coaching conversations with leaders.

What do you do about it?

So before you are inextricably drawn to the ‘accept’ button, how do you reduce FOAM? Like all biases awareness is a crucial step (reading this far is a good start) followed by development of useful techniques to manage and work with the effects. What works for you is likely to be unique and personal, experimentation is the key.

Know What’s Important

Decisions about meetings (and many other topics) are easier with a strong sense of direction. Knowing what is important to you and your role is what keeps focus and enables progress towards goals.

This focus depends on a strong understanding of what you bring to the role and your vision. We face an abundance of opinions about what we should and shouldn’t do, often measured against what people have seen in previous places rather than what's needed in the current situation. Without direction and a degree of role clarity this kind of role sending can lead to taking on too many tasks and inevitably, meetings.

Steadfast focus on what's important can be used to filter and to productively challenge what you are being told is a priority. It enables a step back from reactive mode, prioritising what matters most first, in turn his should facilitate easier and swifter decision making,

Knowing what's important also applies to working at a sustainable pace, managing time and energy are crucial to performance, so if space between meetings, thinking time and evenings off matter to you get them on the schedule. From a systemic view, working sustainably and crucially highlighting work you won’t be doing surfaces hidden work, enabling discussion and improvement.

A meeting can be valuable, but that doesn’t mean your presence is, so the next step is to ask…

Why am I Going?

It’s easy to look at a meeting and see its value, particularly when associated with some high profile initiative, but rather than asking “Is this meeting valuable?” ask “How am I valuable to this meeting?” or “how am I contributing?”

This is a fail fast test because if the meeting purpose, inputs and outcomes aren’t clear, it will quickly become a philosophical question and the next sensible step is to decline kindly or get in touch with the organiser to better understand what’s expected. If you do understand your anticipated contribution, it becomes possible to consider alternative approaches, such as delivering it more effectively or finding substitutes.

A pattern I notice with busy leaders is a tendency to think of value in terms of their own takeaways and outcomes. There may be more subtle ways to bring value, sometimes simply through presence, supporting, observing, building. While this doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of meetings it does help to recognise that there are many varied ways to add value.

Finally, moving to a reflective level it is informative to consider feelings, especially scanning for guilt, obligation and anxiety, none of which are conducive to sound decision making. You might also ask your spider-sense what it notices. Watch especially for any reaction which starts with “I can’t…”. These emotions are normal, but they point to a different, longer term approach. For example if you need to go ‘to keep the meeting on track’ because "I can't trust them" or you think someone won’t represent team well, chances are there is a developmental need, and it may be your responsibility to facilitate it. Trying to control and be present at every meeting is a common leadership trait and highly likely to lead to overwhelm and FOAM.

Knowing that the meeting is important and what is expected of you helps decide whether to attend with commitment or…

Decline kindly

We all know how to say yes to a meeting, in fact the whole risk of FOAM is that against our better judgement we accept too often.

Saying No is easy too, but a flat No isn’t constructive, and doesn’t offer an opportunity to learn and improve matters (the system if you prefer). Consider what information the following responses offer an organiser:

A flat decline: “No”

A nice decline: “Sorry I have a clash” A kind decline: “I am prioritising the Lugosi project meeting"

A really kind decline: “This is project is not one of my priorities, if you do need my input let’s talk and arrange an alternative”

The art of this is to explain your view and priorities, whilst recognising the meeting organiser may have different information and a different view of what’s important. A good decline leaves the door open, and actually allows you to be gracefully wrong. If the meeting organiser says “You’ve declined but I need you in the meeting because your budget depends on project Poe and your sign off” you’ve learned something useful.

This approach is similar to intent based leadership, declining using a format like “My understanding is A so I intend to B”, invites discussion when the understanding is mismatched.

Closing Thoughts

Obviously FOAM is far from academically rigorous and highly unlikely to be an actual cognitive bias. It does however share some traits. Biases are sometimes described as thinking short cuts, and these may be useful or otherwise depending on the situation. Instinctively accepting large numbers of meetings when we need to collaborate, gain situational awareness or raise our profile is a wise thing to do. Accepting meetings to the detriment of longer term performance or our well being is not.

Bias also tends to amplify what makes us comfortable or reinforces our world view, while suppressing inputs to the contrary. In the deluge of FOAM we are reinforcing the view that the right thing is to pack our schedule with meetings, and suppress the nagging feeling that there are smarter ways to work and more valuable places to put our attention.

This post then is a cautionary tale and reminder to design your week with due care for your work, self and colleagues.

I first posted the opening theory section of this post on LinkedIn in September 2023


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