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 nonchairs, 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
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Games for Meetings: IV
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right,
or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some
thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- Discussion Distractions: I
- Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions
that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently
seen in meetings.
- I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views,
and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the
fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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