There, it happened again. Maureen was certain, now, that she wasn't really part of this team. Every time she offered her perspective on anything, they would listen politely and then continue on as if she had said nothing. Everything she said landed with a plop, so she decided to just sit quietly and endure.
Plopping is a dangerous practice. When we plop the contributions of others, we risk alienating them, and we risk losing access to whatever they do have of value.
A reasonable model of most group discussion is a series of sequential contributions, possibly overlapping in time or concept. When we make a contribution, we feel validated when it's acknowledged in some way, positively or negatively. Approving comments, extensions, expressions of disagreement, differences of opinion, counterexamples, and even disparaging remarks carry various degrees of validation. Even negative acknowledgments let us know that people did listen.
Plopping is a
dangerous practice —
we alienate the
people we plopSometimes a contribution is ignored completely — it plops. No following contributions refer to it; the group is utterly silent with respect to it. When this happens, we can feel rejected and frustrated because we have a seat at the table, but nothing more.
When our contributions plop, we tend to make a meaning about the plop that threatens our self-esteem. Although plopping a colleague's comment can be a deliberate act of rudeness, it can also be a result of failing to understand, or inattention, or confusion, or even distraction. Plopping has so many causes that it's difficult to conclude that insult was the motivation.
What can you do about plopping?
- Connect your comments to the comments of others
- Start your comment with "I agree with what Jen says, and I'd extend it a bit…" If we all did this, there would be no plopping at all, and the discussion would be more coherent.
- Be aware of biases
- Perhaps you've formed an opinion about someone on the basis of past performance, gender, past ill feelings, or other factors unrelated to the discussion content. Since biases can predispose us to plopping, awareness of our biases helps us avoid it.
- Don't try to unplop your own comments
- When one of our comments plops, some of us try to force the conversation back to it, to unplop it. This rarely works. The more you do this, the more irritated the group becomes.
- Offer related contributions
- Unrelated contributions are plop bait. Unless your comment is clearly relevant to the discussion, some people tend to see it as an attempt to score by redirecting the discussion. The more competitive people in the group might even intentionally plop your contribution. Sometimes, they'll even cut off those who try to build on it.
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With gratitude to the pizza crew at Consultants' Camp 2003 and especially to Pat Sciacca and Nynke Fokma.
Although plopping is usually disrespectful, it can be a useful tool when dealing with blowhards.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.