Dr. Pearsall was the author of over 200 professional articles and eighteen international best-selling books.

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The Causes & Cures of MPS (Meeting Planner Stress)

No job is without its stressors, but meeting planners face a unique set of challenges and obstacles to maintaining their mental health while under the constant pressure to perform almost perfectly. Here's a look at how to mitigate some of the not-so-joyous parts of one of the association profession's most demanding jobs.

By Paul Pearsall, Ph. D.

"A meeting planner is someone who spends most of her or his life helping other people enjoy theirs." This was the job description given me by a member of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). She had spent more than 30 years of her life organizing and offering meetings around the world and had hired me several times to keynote for her various organizations. She agreed to be one of 28 meeting planners to participate in a 30-year clinical study of some of the most successful people in the world, and this subgroup in my research offers helpful lessons for anyone with the responsibility of bringing people together to meet, learn, connect, rest, and play.

In the mid 1970s, I was chief of the Problems of Daily Living Clinic at Sinai Hospital of Detroit, a facility that offered help to otherwise healthy people in coping with the usual stresses of daily living and working. Many of our patients were suffering from work-related stressors, and the myths of "life/work balance," not being a "Type A," and other self-help platitudes proved to be of little help. Tired ideas such as quality time, creating new vision statements, better communication, team building, awakening an inner giant, and applying the seven (now eight) habits of highly effective people were not resulting in the lives they and their families hoped for. Professional success often was accompanied by personal failure, and its price was neglected relationships and stress-related illness.

Our more than 25 years of complete psychological and medical testing included physical exams, bloodwork, cardio-stress testing, and videotaping, including a camera in the sun visor of the subjects' cars to assess stress levels as they drove. We audiotaped them at family dinners and at work, interviewed their colleagues and clients, and in the case of meeting planners, also interviewed those attending the subjects' meetings. We discovered that the highly successful people we were seeing had mistaken an intense life for a meaningful one, and what they accepted as "normal" had become a major threat to their own and their family's health.

The Two Successes
We learned that there are two kinds of success: healthy and toxic. Healthy success leaves us and our families feeling energized, healthy, content, fully in charge, and engaged in the life we choose to live. The term for this from the new field of positive psychology — which focuses on strengths and virtues rather than simply on remediation of faults and flaws — is "flourishing," leading a life that feels generally wonderfully worthwhile. It may not be the good life as prescribed by scientifically unburdened self-helpism, but to the healthily successful and their families, it feels like a good life.

The other kind of success is toxic. It results in chronic distraction and impatience, a low threshold for anger, chronic health problems, and what might be called "affection deficit disorder," shown by, and experienced by the families of, the toxically successful as being too busy to love and too tired to care. Positive psychology calls this "languishing," meaning not being mentally ill but not really mentally healthy either: largely devoid of and failing to regularly share extremely positive emotions. As one spouse of a meeting planner suffering from toxic success put it, "She comes home with all of her emotional capital spent. She says she doesn't bring her work problems home, but she's the problem."

Until I addressed the January, 2005 PCMA Annual Meeting, I had never separated out the subgroup of 28 people whose work was planning and offering business meetings. While this is too small a sample to be statistically significant — and biased in its selection because of my often working as a presenter for the planners we studied — this group does seem to offer unique perspectives on a profession that affects the lives of thousands of workers and their families.

Six Sources of MPS
There is no such thing as a meeting planner. At least in the group of 28 people we studied who called themselves meeting planners, not one of them did exclusively that. When I first began keynoting for corporations in the 1970s, most companies had one person serving solely in the role of a meeting or convention planner. All of the meeting planners we interviewed in the last several years served many roles, often including assisting the highest corporate officers or holding vice president or higher positions themselves. Most of them also had other significant organizational responsibilities as well, in areas such as education and training, human resources, and sales. Their business cards read more like menus than descriptions of a position. Stress resulted from trying to parcel out bits of their most precious commodity — their attention — in order to plan, organize, contract, budget, and supervise a business meeting.

Only meeting planners seem to know what a meeting planner does. Meeting planners fully understood the complex and time-consuming nature of their work, but few others in their organization seemed to really get it. The planners themselves knew that a meeting can take at least a year of prior planning and that a meeting of more than 1,000 people might require at least three years of lead time, but they seldom had it. They knew the importance of early planning but had difficulty getting anyone else's attention until the last minute. They knew the importance of establishing clear meeting objectives but struggled to get their superiors to focus on doing so. They needed to know the exact number of attendees in order to do their budgeting and planning but were stressed by constant changes in incentive programs or who would qualify or be invited to attend. They chose venues carefully and often after months of effort, but regularly encountered conflicts in individual preferences regarding various meeting sites. Their most time-consuming decisions were often overruled, and the pressures of negotiations with vendors and venues were needlessly complicated. They had to begin early to take advantage of discounts at venues but had trouble getting final decisions from those whose approval was required. And, after navigating all of these obstacles, they often were criticized for going over budget.

MPS (meeting planner stress) is made worse by PMS (primarily meeting stupidity). Our videotaping revealed what seemed to be a temporary drop in IQ by those who attend meetings — and the degree of the drop correlated with the beauty and luxury of the meeting venue. Many who attend meetings in exotic or even just interesting locales adopt a vacation mentality that leads them to think and behave in ways they would not in their ordinary work situations. They regress to childish dependence on the meeting planner and her or his staff, often asking ridiculous questions and making demands that require extraordinary patience and superb acting ability on the part of the meeting planner to mask amazement. One attendee regularly asked the meeting planner questions such as, "Which stairs in this hotel go up?" and "Will it rain tomorrow?" and "Should I bring my swimsuit for the snorkel adventure?" and "Should I dress for tomorrow's meeting?" to which a tired meeting planner answered, "That's entirely up to you, but I do think you might be a little chilled if you're naked."

The constant self-control necessary for dealing with the meeting madness of some attendees results in additional stress and fatigue. (Not surprisingly, the other subgroup profession in our research that was closest in its profile to meeting planners was nursing.)

"The toxic one" phenomenon. No matter how experienced the meeting planner, all of those we studied told stories about the one problem attendee who pushes their stress button. This is usually a demanding person who is a chronic complainer, seldom expresses a modicum of appreciation (but offers plenty of criticism), considers a meeting planner to be his or her personal servant, spends most of the meeting establishing and fueling a meeting rumor mill, and serves as nagger, reviewer, and critic from registration to departure. One meeting planner referred to an executive's spouse as her "meeting problem child whose mere appearance causes my heart to race and blood pressure to go up."

Though they try to ensure that attendees eat and sleep well, meeting planners rarely do. Many attendees told us that they envied meeting planners' opportunity to travel to so many wonderful places and enjoy a life of going from one meeting to another eating great food and doing fun things. Of course, meeting planners know that none of this is true. Site visits to the best places are spent in long meetings in boring rooms with little or no opportunity for the planner to personally enjoy the site. Meeting planners usually watched their attendees eating scrumptious meals but were too busy running and troubleshooting to enjoy the meal themselves. Their hotel rooms were more storage closets than suites, and they seldom slept more than a few hours. They had become quick-change artists who could shower and dress in minutes, and while they often selected their venues for such amenities as health and spa facilities, they had little time to use them themselves. Poor nourishment combined with lack of exercise and sleep deprivation contributed to the MPS, which led to the hurried languishing that characterizes toxic success.

Meeting planners experience SIG (stress-induced growth). Despite the above stressors, the meeting planners we studied reported loving their work and wishing they had more time to just plan events, free of the distractions of their other work obligations. They had what I call The Beethoven Factor, the capacity to forge joy in the crucible of constant stress and to experience what we named from our research as stress-induced growth. (For information, see my book The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope [Hampton Roads, 2003].) Those who showed this factor were characterized by the traits listed below.

Reducing MPS
So how do they do it? How do meeting planners thrive through their MPS? Are there research-based secrets of invincibility to the stress that comes with helping others to productively and joyfully meet together? My research indicates that there a few points that might help soothe the fast mind and busy body of the meeting planner.

Know and accept your meeting planner temperament. Our studies indicate that some meeting planners are "hot reactors" and others are "cold reactors," and that trying to change your style creates even more stress. Hot reactors tend to overreact to almost everything, sweat the small stuff, and manage their stress by rehearsing worst-case scenarios and being creative worriers. It's pessimists who are most likely to be pleasantly surprised, and hot-style meeting planners manage their already high anxiety like this. Cold reactors tend to have less anxiety in the first place and proactively work to avoid it. For them, the standard instruments of self-help — such as meditation, visualization, and practicing the relaxation response through deep breathing and mental focus on a nonstressful image — might come in handy.

Don't get in touch with your feeling or vent your anger. Of course, in the face of conventional pop psychology, this sounds like blasphemy. Self-help pop psychology is based on self-fulfillment and "emotional hydraulics" theories, but positive psychology research shows that both of these ideas are wrong. It's helping others flourish that enhances our health, and that's what meeting planners do. And anger isn't like steam. It will eventually dissipate. When your toxic attendee insults you, take a breath and let it go. Choose peace over being right.

Remember why you do what you do. Business meetings serve as a major avenue for learning, connecting, rewarding, and celebrating the work that we do. Meeting planners are the deans of this unique corporate curriculum, and their stress can be reduced by taking more moments to stop, take a deep breath, and just watch as attendees learn something new, connect in the ways they so dearly need but too seldom do, and enjoy the wonderful opportunity you have created for them.

Author Link: Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of nursing at the University of Hawaii who also is the author of numerous books and a frequent keynoter for associations and corporations. He can be reached at info@paulpearsall.com.