Meetings are painful enough when everyone tries to reach the same objective, or almost the same objective. And they're tolerable even when some participants disagree about the objective, or how to get to the objective, provided the disagreement is an honest disagreement and everyone wants a constructive outcome. But what happens when there's a stone-thrower in the crowd? By "stone-thrower" I mean someone who doesn't care much about the objective everyone else cares about, or who has an entirely different objective in mind, and who works to prevent the meeting from making progress towards the objective everyone else is trying to reach.
If you've met a stone-thrower in a meeting that you chair, this article and the next are for you. But even if you aren't chairing the meeting that a stone-thrower is disrupting, you can help. Begin by understanding what your chair is trying to do to manage the disruptor. In the next issue, I'll provide more insights for non-chairs, but for now let's examine the chair's options.
There is one possibility we must set aside for another time. If the chair has been abusing the power of office, or has otherwise been acting dishonorably, it's possible that those who object to the chair's behavior have chosen obstruction as a remedy. Whether or not this is wise, and whether there might be alternatives, and how the chair can respond, are questions for another time. In this essay, I'm assuming that the chair has been acting honorably, and that the stone throwing has no legitimate purpose.
An example will clarify the issue. A favorite tactic of stone-throwers is what I call "Existential OCD of the Meetings Kind." Existential OCD (EOCD) is an actual human affliction [McGrath 2018]. It's a theme of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that manifests as an excessive preoccupation with philosophical questions like "What's the meaning of Life?" or "Why are we here?" Existential OCD of the Meetings Kind (EOMK) is analogous to EOCD. EOMK is a preoccupation with questions like "Is this meeting really necessary?" Or "Can't the people most directly affected by these issues just handle them one-on-one, in email, or on line?"
A significant Stone-throwers at meetings
use tactics that are virtually
cost-free to them, while forcing
their targets to expend
precious resources in responsedistinction between EOCD and EOMK is that EOMK is most often a pose. Rarely is questioning the necessity or utility of the meeting 100% sincere; most likely, it's at least partially a stone-throwing tactic. The proximate goals of the stone-thrower are obstruction and deflection, so as to prevent the group from achieving its objectives, or, at least, to slow its progress. For examples of stone throwing at the professional level, tune in to televised hearings of controversial questions as they're investigated in committees of your national legislature. Observe the tactics of representatives who hold a minority view. If those who hold the majority view abuse the power of the majority, the minority has little choice but to resort to obstruction — to throw stones.
Longer-range goals — motives, actually — of stone-throwers vary. They can include:
- Embarrassing the chair
- Demonstrating the incompetence of the chair
- Preventing the meeting from reaching an agenda item that discomfits or exposes as incompetent the stone-thrower or a patron or ally of the stone-thrower
- Preventing the meeting from reaching an agenda item that will lead to workload for the stone thrower, or a patron or ally of the stone-thrower
How can the meeting chair respond effectively to EOMK? Engagement by the chair at the level of the stone-thrower's literal questions is inadvisable, because the question is most likely insincere. The stone-thrower who employs the EOMK pose doesn't intend to make the organization more efficient by reducing the burden of unnecessary meetings. If that were the goal, the questioner would have sought a resolution by employing a less aggressive and less confrontational approach. For example, someone sincerely concerned with meeting effectiveness might seek a private conversation with the meeting chair, and then might suggest exploring ideas for paring down agendas by addressing some items through channels other than meetings.
Meeting chairs who recognize the stone-throwers' true intentions can avoid useless, irrelevant, wasteful discussions in meetings by responding succinctly to the stone-thrower's question with what I call a Two-Part Sealed Response. The first part is the responsive content, which answers the stone-thrower's question in a compact form. The second part is the "seal," which explicitly and irrevocably closes the topic. For example:
Morgan (a stone-thrower): Is this meeting really necessary?
Alton (the meeting chair): I'll answer you briefly for right now, Morgan, and if you want to pursue this, please contact me after the meeting. My brief answer is "Yes, it's necessary, because we need to ensure that we've addressed all sides of these important issues." Now, everyone, we'll continue with Agenda Item #1, so please refer in the document to page 6.
If Morgan interrupts, Alton stands firm, saying, "Morgan, I've responded to your question, and now we're moving on. Contact me after the meeting. Document page 6 everyone."
Usually, the Two-Part Sealed Response is effective. Usually. But if the stone-thrower persists or escalates, things can get ugly fast. And that's where we'll pick this up next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Appreciate Differences
- In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions
take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate
— expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
- Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda
- In the modern organization, it's common to have meetings in which some people have never met —
and some never will. For these meetings, which are often telemeetings, an agenda isn't enough. You need
- Agenda Despots: I
- Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting chairs,
meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control,
they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
- Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
- Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being
in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
- Allocating Airtime: I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended
to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
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- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.