Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 27;   July 4, 2012: When the Chair Is a Bully: III

When the Chair Is a Bully: III

by

When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector

Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector since 2010. In April, 2012, his office released a Petition Audit Report on the operations of the Town of Bernice in Delaware County, Oklahoma, about 70 miles Northeast of Tulsa. The report found a number of abuses of the state's Open Meetings Act, which were well summarized the following day by FOI Oklahoma in their blog. Many of the identified abuses involved executive sessions. Some examples: discussing contracts of independent contractors in executive session; rarely taking minutes of executive sessions; not listing the statutory authorization for executive sessions or listing the wrong one; not including the names or unique titles of employees to be discussed in executive sessions; not identifying the "specific purposes of the sessions"; and voting in an executive session.

Although these abuses are somewhat characteristic of abuses of public trust, they do have analogs in the organizational context. And those analogs are just as corrosive. Too bad most private sector organizations don't have an analog of a State Auditor's Office. And too bad most organizations don't have an analog of someone like Oklahoma's Gary Jones. Photo courtesy State of Oklahoma.

Continuing our exploration of the tactics of bully Chairs, we now turn to techniques that depend on the Chair's abuse of the form of the meeting itself. See "When the Chair Is a Bully: I," Point Lookout for June 20, 2012, for more.

Abusing the executive session
The executive session, either formal or informal, is perhaps the most extreme form of participation control. It is especially tempting when the executive session attendees are trusted allies of the Chair. When there are customs or bylaws that specify executive session attendees, the Chair's ability to abuse this form is limited to overuse. That is, the Chair allocates to executive sessions decisions regarding issues for which executive sessions aren't required. But when there is no definition of the reasons for convening executive sessions, any use at all potentially constitutes abuse.
Excluding members of a team that otherwise meets regularly as a whole should be a rare event. Frequent use might indicate intentional exclusion of disfavored attendees. Logging dates and times of all incidents is useful, but unfortunately it is possible only if the executive sessions themselves aren't secret.
Abusing the one-on-one
Some Chairs feel that the "entire meeting is against me." Some distrust nearly all attendees. Others feel powerless to oppose the influence of disfavored attendees. To these bully Chairs, the one-on-one provides control. They meet privately with each attendee, so as to eliminate open discussion altogether, and enhance their ability to control — or misrepresent — what the "attendees" can say to each other.
Since open discussion is an effective means of ensuring informed and sound decisions, Chairs who adopt the serial one-on-one tactic are placing their organizations at risk. Log the frequency of open meetings and note trends in that frequency.
Limiting what the meeting can discuss or decide
It's typical for Chairs to determine what is appropriate for discussion at meetings, or at what meetings particular topics can be discussed. This power is abused by Chairs who schedule topics for meetings that disfavored attendees cannot attend, or who sequence agendas so as to schedule certain topics for portions of meetings in which disfavored attendees will be absent. Some Chairs schedule topics so that disfavored attendees might be attending by means of a disadvantaged medium, such as telephone or video, when they usually attend in person. Some Chairs decide that some topics won't be discussed at all.
Log all Excluding members of a team
that otherwise meets regularly
as a whole should be
a rare event
decisions that appear to have been taken outside the meeting context, or when disfavored attendees are absent or disadvantaged. This information can be helpful in demonstrating a pattern of abuse.

Chairs are powerful. Bully Chairs abuse that power. Proof of abuse requires both an unambiguous demonstration of a pattern of abuse, and an open-minded supervisor who is willing to examine the proof. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Wacky Words of Wisdom: III  Next Issue

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More articles on Workplace Bullying:

The U.S. Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, ConnecticutConfronting the Workplace Bully: I
When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
Congessman Darryl Issa (R-CA)When the Chair Is a Bully: II
Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
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Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember in the moment.
Feeling shameShame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.

See also Workplace Bullying and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

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