Addressing poor behaviors in team meetings is not only important to create a positive work environment, but also to unlock your team’s collective intelligence. Join James Carrier and Jane Stewart as they tackle management challenges. In this episode, they dive deep into the topic of poor behaviors in meetings, providing valuable insights on how managers can address this issue. Jane and James also share their own experiences with various behaviors in meetings. They emphasize the importance of a leader being capable of calling out poor behavior, even when the meetings are not perfect. With thought-provoking reflections and practical advice, this episode is a must-listen for anyone looking to improve team dynamics and make the most out of their meetings. Tune in now and learn how to navigate this common workplace challenge.
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Management Challenges: Poor Behaviors In Meetings
We are here again for another show. We’re going to be talking about meetings, but a little bit more broadly focusing still in this series, looking at some of the challenges that managers might face. Jane, in more detail, what are we going to be covering?
This is episode two of this new series that we are doing where James and I talk a little bit about management challenges, a situation that a manager might face, or something they want to do. We talk about our reflections on why it matters, how to approach it, and what we think about it. We are talking all about addressing poor behaviors in team meetings. We’re going to start by exploring the context. We’re going to create a particular situation, where we’ve seen this before, and our experiences. We’re going to share our thoughts on how a manager might work their way through this situation. As always, we’ll wrap up with some reflections and check out.
Nice stuff. I am looking forward to it. A little bit more detail about our context for this episode. Put yourself in this space. Imagine this is you. You’ve got in your team some repeated poor behavior in relation to meetings that you’ve not previously addressed. You’ve got a competent team, you’re delivering pretty well, and everything is good as a team broadly. However, there’s one person in the team who consistently has some problematic behaviors in the internal meetings. “I do things better.” He’s frustrating and irritating. These can vary. They could be silent and moody. They’re taking their ball home and not playing in a meeting.
They could talk over others, withdraw, and disengage. They could hog the conversation, turn up late, and take conversations totally off-piece somewhere else. They could shut down others quickly. They could do things like agree in a meeting and then disagree outside of a meeting. As soon as you start a meeting, they could want to close it right away. There are all these strange behaviors that are going on that are unhelpful in the meetings. Interestingly, on a one-to-one basis, they’re good. Nobody has got any challenges with them and their behaviors on a one-to-one basis are fine.
It’s in meetings that this stuff seems to happen and this has been going on fairly consistently for a couple of years. Basically, you’ve never addressed it. It’s something that you’ve not done. Recently, you’ve been to meetings elsewhere and the organization would’ve been great. You felt that they were good and you can see a better way to do things. Now you’ve decided, “It is the time. It is the moment.” You want to try and improve the experience meetings and this individual’s behaviors in the team. That’s the context. Jane, have you been there? Have you had somebody like this?
I have been there. I have been that person. I have managed that person. I have managed the person who manages that person. I’ve seen it loads and I generally see it quite often in situations where it hasn’t been that problematic in the sense that it’s happened. However, it’s not bothered anyone to start with. When the team is under a period of stress, when they all step up because we’re doing bigger pieces of work, or there’s more pressure or scrutiny on them, then it becomes more problematic and frustrating. It doesn’t mean it didn’t annoy them before. It means it didn’t impact the output or the outcome or hold other people back. When times teams start getting stretched and time is precious, then meetings become much more important to run well.
Particularly, teams need to be much more effective. Therefore, it becomes much more frustrating, in my experience, for other people when that shows up. It’s interesting because it has shown up for different reasons in different people, whether it’s me or someone else. Every time it’s shown up, the starting of the way I’ve approached it has been different but the end process has been the same in terms of how I’ve managed it. It’s an interesting thing. I know it doesn’t happen everywhere, but it happens quite a lot where good people get into either bad habits or use team meetings, not in the way that they are maybe best placed to be the recipient of certain ways of working.
That’s interesting and you’re going to lead on a little bit of this to some extent in this conversation. I’ve maybe had a bit less experience of it than you. I’ve certainly seen aspects of this and I’m very much happy to hold my hand up to have been this person at different points in time in different ways. Maybe I’ve seen it a little bit lesser or a lot in my experience where I’ve seen situations where somebody is difficult in a meeting context.
I’ve often seen that those individuals are or can be difficult in that one-to-one space as well. That’s a little something that I’d reflect on. More broadly, when it comes to, “Can we do things that improve the meeting experience across a broader team?” that’s a huge area that I’ve definitely spoken to a lot of different clients about, reflected on, and helped people change their meeting call. How we improve meetings more widely is something that is a huge area of development and an important space for a lot of teams.
One of the things that we talked in the last few episodes was about coaching cultures. When I’ve seen it in clients, it hasn’t been the reason we’ve been there, but I’ve been in team meetings because I’ve been invited in as a consultant. You notice things that managers sometimes don’t notice. You hear from the same people the whole way through the meeting or someone looks distracted but isn’t shut down or corrected or doesn’t seem to be worried about that being perceived as problematic.
I wanted to mention that. Like in the context you described and the scenario, it takes going somewhere else or someone else in the room to go, “It isn’t okay. This probably isn’t helping you and you might want to do something about it.” Sometimes, that in itself could be quite uncomfortable. Someone else is pointing it out.
Let’s build on that. You said it might not be helping you and it’s not doing well. What are some of the downsides to this? If you have this situation going on in your team, what’s the impact? Why do you care?
There’s the existential response to that which is deep down it should be. If you’re quite a self-aware manager, it’s probably an unpleasant feeling of not doing the best you can for everybody in that room. Every single time you sit in a meeting, it happens. Most managers that I speak to about this, particularly when I’m doing one-to-one coaching and working with supporting leaders, are embarrassed that they haven’t dealt with it already. They’re a little bit embarrassed if it gets called out that they either haven’t seen it or they have seen it and they have let it ride.
There’s a bigger thing about not feeling bad about yourself as a manager. In a very practical sense, there are fundamentally three reasons why. It’s the first thing I say to people. If you’ve got to do something now, no matter how long you’ve left it. One is you are shifting norms. By not acting, you are acting and other people in that team are perceiving that is acceptable behavior because they have not seen anything to do with it. You are shifting the norms of what’s okay in the team irrespective of what working practices you have in team meetings.
We all know the data about how much people hate bad meetings, ineffective meetings, time-wasting meetings, or meetings when they’re not clear where they’re meant to be there. Meetings are frustrating. It’s one of the major contributors to not having effective meetings as if everyone isn’t aligned on ways of working, agreed on it, and able to feel confident that’s how people are going to show up.
Every so often, someone has a bad day. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about consistently doing the same thing or similar. That’s the second reason. From my perspective, there is a sheer time-wasting element to it where you’re not getting the most out of the whole team. There is time that everyone is spending. If that person is disengaged, then there is a chance we are missing out on ideas and critique expectancy.
If that person is difficult then people are taking up emotional time and effort thinking about whether it’s their fault, what their involvement is, or getting frustrated. It is wasting precious resources that people are already frustrated about. Contributing to frustrating scenarios doesn’t help people. It’s less effective. As a manager, it’s a reminder that you’re probably not doing what you should be doing.
“It’s stressful. What a horrible situation to be in.” I’m teasing a bit.
I knew I was going to come in hard on this topic. In all transparency to the audience, I’m very conscious that I didn’t manage this well. It’s the most common thing I hear from early career managers that they’re not dealing with this stuff. You do get this. I would imagine as well in one-to-one situations where managers don’t feel like they’re managing the thing they should be. Irrespective of what it is, that tends to take a big burden on them.
As you’re speaking, I’m thinking about this. Team meetings are one of the places where we all come together as a social group within the workplace. You led off by talking about norms and this is where we shape the culture and individuals as managers can role model behaviors. They can focus their attention on different things. They actively reinforce or possibly reinforce. They can negatively reinforce.
They can shape what it is to be a member of this team to some extent. That can be an intimidating thing for people to do if they’re early in their role. There can be uncertainty around it, but it’s such a formative space for what that team is like. To some extent, it shapes much more widely than the meetings themselves in the expectations, behaviors, and ways of working in a team. It is a big space and I totally agree with all the points that you talked about.
Other things there are the stress, social demands, and burdens that poor meetings can place on people. People can loathe them. People can dread coming up on the calendar. They can feel anxious about them and permeate the rest of the week even if they’re not there. They can be worried about how they prepare for what it’s going to be like, whether will there be conflict or somebody be moody.
All that stuff can seep into the rest of the work as well, which is harder. As managers, if we’ve got these situations going on, we can struggle a bit ourselves. Why aren’t we addressing them? What’s holding us back as managers may be from facing these things or addressing these poor behaviors from individuals in our meetings?
Depending on the manager, there can be lots of things. There can be the very practical thing of time, space, and the quality of the relationship you have with the person. There’s loads of other stuff.
Jane, what do you most commonly hear, see, and have experienced?
Knowing I haven’t called it out before and I hear that a lot from other managers, I let it ride. Now it’s got worse and it’s a massive problem because people are mentioning it in other one-to-ones, “Have you noticed Sarah is not present in the meeting? She does seem a bit distracted.” They’ll do it a different way. Is that personal right?
There’s a position where you feel like, “I should have picked this up sooner and now I haven’t. I’ve implicitly implied it’s okay and I don’t know how to bring this conversation up now. I’m scared of having it.” That comes from a place of not being confident about how to navigate that conversation and where the responsibility of upholding those social norms and what’s acceptable is.
I also think quite often it’s because they haven’t done all the prep work. You and I talk a lot about establishing ways of working in every group dynamic. Even if it’s only a two-minute conversation at the beginning of a meeting. Who’s the chair? What does that mean? Who’s responsible for facilitating the conversation? Whose roles? What do we expect of you? What do you want from us? Quite often, that hasn’t been done and therefore, they haven’t got anything to hold that person to.
Calling out behaviors is a tricky thing because people have always got reasons and sometimes very valid excuses but the earlier you have that conversation, the easier it’s to navigate that. There’s confidence in addressing it. There’s a confidence that you’ve got standards to hold against. There’s guilt or some sense of embarrassment that they haven’t called it out before. Therefore, they’re not able to exactly figure out how they’re going to suddenly call it out differently this time.
Calling out behaviors is a tricky thing because people have always got reasons and excuses.
When you were speaking at the beginning, I was thinking about that G-word there, that guilt. We don’t like to look at the stuff that we don’t do well, aren’t we? I want to put my head in a bag when about all the things that I’ve done dreadfully. It’s not a nice place to be. It’s easy to park that stuff and not pay attention to it.
Another thing that can happen with some of this stuff is the idea of a boiled frog. It starts off as a little thing and then it goes and goes. You don’t notice what’s changing in the water around you. Before too long, it is a nasty space to be in. It’s not very nice but without the perspective of what things are really like and what alternatives can be, it can be hard to notice some of these things or issues that we should prioritize and look to improve in our teams.
That’s very much something that can happen. If we think about what gets better, if we can address some of these things, it is the corollary or the inverse of problems that it causes. In my experience and hopefully, yours as well, when we’ve worked with managers to improve team meetings or behaviors in them, what we tend to see is that we get a better culture within the meetings. Also, better ways of working within the teams and the spillover of culture into the other parts of the team as well. The improvement of relationships within the team, better flows of information and communication within the team, and more productivity, more positivity, and better experience for us as managers.
Better communication is something that stands out for me. Better contributions, ideas, and benefits from coming together to work on things, and then collaborating in meetings, be that team meeting or other collaboration-based meetings as well. It feels like this is something if we get it right, it can pay real dividends or bring real benefits for wider teams. Is that your experience as well?
It’s interesting. There are a couple of things in there. Quite often, where I’ve seen this crop up is because the manager hasn’t done anything. Eventually, someone got frustrated in the meeting and there’s been a confrontation of some form. The problem you are then faced with as a manager if you haven’t dealt with it further is you’ve now got two people who have acted in a way that isn’t in the norms of the social meeting or the social bond that you’ve all agreed. Maybe they’ve shouted or they’ve got frustrated and been in some ways hurtful to that person. Suddenly, you’re in a place where you’re having to take sides even though you know that the person who’s frustrated is a long time coming.
Knowing, seeing that, and avoiding those, another member of the group who is not you has to shoulder the responsibility of enforcing the norms. That’s not fair. That’s going to make the guilt worse. That’s the one thing to tell everyone. If you don’t do something, it’s going to end up in a lot of places. The other thing I was going to say is the people who run meetings well live in my memory. They are hugely aspirational in organizations.
There’s one person in particular that I worked with who was brilliant. Meetings were enjoyable and focused, and they moved quickly, but it created space. We were clear on what the role was. They didn’t rush us out of the room. They were famed through the organization. He was always getting asked to chair other people’s meetings which is a sure sign. It’s like, “We should have him on the group and then he can chair it.”
Also, people wanted to be in those meetings because they had the right balance of focusing on learning, success, and movement. There was an expectation of good accountability for what people were doing outside the meetings and team meetings. It was a good balance. It also called up behaviors in a kind anchored in what would’ve been previously agreed way. People got called out all the time. Pretty much every meeting, someone was getting called out for something.
In a gen reminder, none of us are perfect. We all do have distractions and things that capture us sometimes. The way I would describe it is a solid hand on the tiller of a boat. It didn’t feel jerky when someone is driving a car. I’ve moved from boats to cars because it’s more relatable. When someone is learning to drive, they’re a little bit jerky and you’re a little bit uncertain. It felt like he was steering all the time. I tried to learn a lot from that because I remember the experience of wanting to work on projects because I liked his meetings. There is a big personal career benefit from it.
None of us are perfect. We all do have distractions and things that capture us sometimes.
That’s helpful. Thank you for sharing that. As we’re about to start to talk about some of the things that we can do to address and change this situation, the point about sharing is a great one to bear in mind. You’ve had a little bit more experience with some of this than I have. Before we get into that, if we think about some of the questions that we might ask ourselves in this situation, how can we do some of that prep work ourselves as managers if we’re facing this? I’ve got a couple of thoughts on some of the things that we might be able to do. In many of these circumstances where managers looking to make things better, it’s worth stepping back and asking what good looks like.
We know that it’s easy to anchor in on perfection and think that getting too perfect is where we want to get to. Having a little bit of clarity on what good enough looks like in this situation. How much change do we need to make? What is good enough in this situation is helpful that can take a little bit of pressure off of us?
A couple of other questions that link into that one are, what happens if you don’t do anything? What does good look like? Also, if you didn’t do anything, where is the trajectory taking you? Where would you go if you did nothing? How does it affect other people if you did that? Would that be worth reflecting on? Sometimes, helping us understand the impact of inaction can be a helpful thing.
The last thing on my list of things that would be good to ask yourself if you’re in this situation is, how aware do you think this individual is of their behaviors and the impacts that they’re having? That’ll help you get a little bit of a sense of framing, to some extent, a little bit of the root causes of some of this. Those are some of the things I’d be opening up conversations with managers in this situation about to get them to reflect and think a little bit about where they are. Is there anything else you’d get people to think about?
What behaviors do you see elsewhere in this person that is helpful even if they’re not showing up in the same way? What you talked about is what good looks like but also what is the shared understanding in this room of what good looks like and what the meeting is for and how confident am I that everyone understands that first?
One of the things I’ve seen in particular is when we have moved delivery contexts in a team. Where we have moved from a prep stage of events for example to a delivery stage, meetings change for the better. There is a very different fast-paced. They almost take on a huddle, stroke, standup approach but they’re a full team meeting for longer. It’s because we are moving out of an innovation stage into a delivery stage.
What I’ve seen sometimes is people bring those habits back into a different purposed meeting. I’ve seen that as well with people who work in functions that have that dual effect. For example, client managers and account managers might have one attitude or behavior with clients. They might be much more effusive, praiseworthy, and less critical for example. We’ve talked predominantly about bad problematic behaviors but I have had people also who don’t criticize anyone in meetings at all and don’t ever critique any of the content that they’re being shared with.
I find that certainly at small senior levels problematic but they’ve slipped into that because potentially, they’re in sales and that is quite often far more the way they’re going to approach things. Understanding their wider context, their experiences whether it’s habitual like they’ve picked up bad habits. Whether it’s a lack of knowing what good looks like for themselves, it helps you understand what is understood by everyone else in that room and have an honest reflection. “When was it most recently that your team had a conversation about what a good team meeting looks like?” is always a good question.
That’s a lovely question. There are some helpful things in there to get that thinking going about facing some of this. If we think about doing it, we’ve explored why this comes about, what some of the problems are, and what some of the benefits of fixing it are. Some ways you might start the journey of I’m facing this by reflecting on things yourself.
If you’re at the stage where you’re like, “I’m going to take some action and look to improve this,” you’re going to step in to make some changes to try and improve the situation. In my view, I was thinking about this when you posed this question earlier. I feel there are a couple of options. There are a couple of different ways you can do it.
For me, I was breaking it down into two little bits in my mind and I’m sure there are more. I thought there are two ways to adjust this that I’d consider. One would be developing the individual. Exploring things, having conversations, doing whatever the approach is, but helping them grow, develop or change their behavior. Something like that. It would be one path to a good outcome here.
I thought another path to a good outcome would be to develop the meetings and look to shape what a meeting is in the team. Does it seem fair to you that both of those would be valid approaches? You wouldn’t necessarily need to do one and not the other. You could do both obviously and they overlap a little bit. Does that seem a helpful way to think about some of this?
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where both of those things haven’t reaped some benefits. As you say, you don’t have to do both. I have always seen opportunities in both to help a team. Even if you don’t have a relationship yet with that person, you feel able to address them or maybe they’re in your team meeting but they’re seconded or reporting to someone else or it’s not your space.
There are still things you can feel like you can do. Similarly, if the team meeting is good enough for now and it’s a singular problem, you can address it with the individual. I like that framing because it gives people options but also shares responsibility. As we help managers, everybody performs their best. We also can help create structures, processes, and approaches in team meetings that help people to align their behavior with what is better for the team.
If we’re thinking a little bit about this, they do interconnect. If you help somebody improve their behaviors, it’ll help team meetings. If you improve your team meetings more broadly, it’ll help a disruptive or difficult individual learn through others what good behavior is or put boundaries within meetings, guide rails, and structures that make it hard for them to behave in a disruptive way. These things are pretty connected.
If we were to start with thinking about developing the meetings themselves, I had a couple of things that I scribbled down his thoughts on this and we touched on some of them earlier. If we’re going to look to improve team meetings more broadly, one of the things that are helpful to do is to do a little bit of this contracting. You touched on this earlier. It’s having this agreement of what a good team meeting is.
You asked a question that can people ask themselves at the start of this process, which was, “When was the last time we spoke about team meetings? When was the last time we had a conversation about what a team meeting is for us?” Having conversations like that and exploring the expected behaviors in a team meeting is brilliant. You can say to people for meeting contracting, what behaviors would you ask of others to help you have this good meeting? Have that as a conversation. You could ask people what behaviors they think they should offer to a group that would lead to good team meetings. That’s helpful.
You can start to bring in things like appreciative inquiry and frame questions in a positive way. It’s exploring what makes a great team meeting. When was the last time you were in a great team meeting and why? How do great team meetings make you feel? Those types of questions can help people do this or we’ll get them to think about other meetings they’ve been to that have been great and then say, “What made it great? What were the behaviors? What were the outcomes?”
The last thing that for me stands out here and that I want to touch on a little bit is something that at different times I’ve called terms of reference. It’s not a great phrase but what is a term of reference for a meeting? There, it’s things like, “What is the role of a chair? What is good chairing like? What do you expect for a chair? What do you expect from participants? What are good participant behaviors? What are the agreements that participants will stick to? What are the behaviors that are expected?”
Even within terms of reference, you can have conversations like, “How should we give feedback to each other if we’re not behaving in line with what we’ve agreed as good ways of working in this team meeting?” There’s some great stuff in there as well as things like trying to rotate the chairs in meetings. If you give people the chance to play all the different roles in team meetings, they start to appreciate what it’s like when other people are behaving unhelpfully.
If somebody never chairs and they’re only a participant, they’ll have one experience of a meeting. If they are chair for a while, maybe they’ll perceive the role that participants play in a different way and change their own roles as a participant. Those are some of the bits that could be helpful for thinking about developing the meaning piece. Have you got anything to build on that?
That’s all helpful. One of the things I was reflecting on is that I’m seeing more and more day-long team meetings because people are working remotely. They’re treating team meetings as a whole day for various different purposes. There might be an innovation, thinking, and problem-solving section. There might be a checking-in and sharing progress section, things like that.
One of the things I wanted to call out was when you have a longer meeting, you can have differing behavior expectations so you have to be able to articulate them. I used to work on a team that was fully remote and we used to have whole days together. There were sections of the day where you could come and go from the room and go to the bathroom because it was part of a longer process.
When you have a longer meeting, you can have differing behavior expectations, so you have to be able to articulate them.
Maybe the whole team was doing updates and we all had the documents. In that period, while someone is delivering, as long as you could do it, discretely, you could leave the room if you’d pre-agreed there were certain topics that were delivered for the team that day. You might go out and take a phone call very quickly, you might go to the bathroom, or you might pay a parent, have your phone on, and you’d take a call.
There were the sessions that were like, “We need everyone in deep work together on this. If you guys can do whatever you need in this break to come back, for this period be immersed in this conversation we’re going to have.” That was helpful. Also, if that team were good when they had people coming into that meeting, it wasn’t like, “Do you want to stay for the rest of the agenda?” which is a complicated thing. It’s a false positive.
People think they’re being welcoming by saying that and it’s lovely but it might not be appropriate for the meeting. Putting them at the end of the day instead and saying, “Do you want to go for a drink afterward?” is a much better way of doing that because it disrupts what’s going on. Maybe you are only going to do big thinking off that and they can stay. That’s great but that’s important. For me, the bit about how you feedback when behaviors aren’t in line is quite detailed.
Is it different from the way the manager does it for everyone else? Is the manager taking a lead on it? Is it done in the room if it’s small but turns that side? What is okay? Largely, that has to be about how comfortable and confident the team is. That relates to what is set as normal in the team. One of the things I find helpful when I’m in meetings is an acknowledgment that people are imperfect and sometimes, they do. If you’re going into a team, we will call you out on that.
This is my favorite tip. I worked in one team once for a little while and the rule was, “If you are distracted or not engaged, you have to leave.” There is no judgment if you leave that room because of whatever. You take yourself away, you do what needs to do, and you do not disrupt by being disengaged or looking at your phone or whatever.
You leave because you’re not contributing and you’re not taking on the information. That’s not helpful. You can come back at any point but the idea is to normalize people leaving for a couple of minutes, taking a moment, getting fresh air, going and filling a coffee, coming back, and feeling re-routed. That’s been helpful because people have very different time attention spans and it was interesting.
I thought it’d be disruptive and it wasn’t. It was the opposite because it was a highly engaged group of people. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Fishbowl facilitation where someone steps in and steps out. It’s a little bit like that. I was shocked. I was like, “That sounds like the most disruptive thing you could do.” The normalization of people coming and going doesn’t disrupt the conversation at all. It’s on you to earn behavior. I like that.
The introduction of some of these different ways, norms, and meetings is helpful. You spoke a little bit earlier about the importance of a facilitated approach to some of this misleading, which is helpful. Helping people develop chairing skills as well as the structures and some of those things is helpful. You can shape the norms and the agenda points, but you can also bring in that facilitated design to sessions.
You can say, “For a meeting, how can we try and make sure that a meeting gives everybody a chance to contribute? How do we make sure that we create a share of voice for people that’s good? How do we, as a chair, invite the right people in and make sure that they know that their contributions are welcome and make sure that we’ve got that explicitly done so that it’s okay to quiet some of the louder voices if they might be?”
I’m speaking too much to bring in some of the quieter voices. We can do that through different types of activities through a little bit of individual working in some meetings and giving people space to reflect which can be helpful for the different types of people there are. The last little bit for me from some of the meetings is trying to make sure we get the right people in the room.
Quite often, there’s a bit of FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, in those meetings. Generally, a lot of meetings are not right for everybody, are not helpful, or are not interesting. If you get people who aren’t interested and it’s not a good use of their time, then they probably shouldn’t be there because they’re not being those active participants that you spoke about.
That’s interesting. We started to talk very a little bit about aspects that relate to individuals. We talk about individual differences, preferences, and things like that. People are different. This is the conversation we’ve had. It is about how we improve some of the meetings themselves. If we flip back and think about helping to develop a person, how might you go about focusing on that person if you think that you’re doing all the good stuff from a meeting perspective already?
You cannot be running the perfect meeting and it’s still okay to expect good behavior. If you want to crack them up a different way, you can approach the meeting thing. I want to be clear. As a manager of team meetings, you have a right to call out behavior even if the meeting isn’t perfect. There are lots of ways to support and develop that person but I want to talk a little bit about how you might call out behavior to help that person understand. Let’s assume that there is a lower level of awareness to start with of that person because they might realize they’ve got bad habits but not realize how problematic they are. I want to talk through how I do approach it.
Let’s say someone is on their phone and totally disengaged with anything that doesn’t directly involve them. I see that quite a lot. It doesn’t tend to show up in other places because they don’t tend to be in meetings where they’re not involved in other places. If someone is doing that, I will generally take quite a long approach to it. It’s a long game of helping people do it. It needs to be immediate.
The idea is the first time that I see it after I’ve decided to call it out, even if maybe I haven’t called it out before, I will draw their attention to it after the meeting in an impromptu way and I will assume good intent. For the first 3 or 4 step times I call it out, I always assume good intent. “Are you all right? You seem distracted on your phone quite a lot. I’m checking in because it’s not the thing I expect from you.”
That may be a half-truth because I’ve seen it before but it’s still true in the sense, I don’t expect that behavior and I don’t want that behavior. I’m assuming good intent and there’s something taking their attention. Most importantly, I’m putting an anchor down. This behavior is not what I want to see in a meeting and it has been noticed. Depending on the way the person responds, the person might say, “I have real problems concentrating in meetings.” “Can we talk about what we can do to help you do that?” You then move on to the development stage.
They might also say they commonly do., “I hadn’t realized that anyone noticed and I didn’t realize it was that much of a problem.” “I just wanted to check-in. Hopefully, you’ll feel more able to be engaged and there won’t be so much of a problem in the future.” The second time it happens, you call it out again in the same way and you say, “I couldn’t help but notice you were on your phone again. Is there something that we can do to support you to be better engaged in meetings because it’s not okay to have different expectations of everyone else than you? I’d love to have a chat about it.” Those are both very impromptu at the moment.
The third time it happens, you’re like, “You are clearly struggling to engage in meetings or you’re clearly struggling to manage your voice or whatever it is. I’d like to spend ten minutes or so talking about this at a time that’s convenient.” You are moving it to a more formal appointment. They can’t turn up knowing what it’s about. They’ve come prepped either with the defense, which is more slightly, or with a plan, which is even nicer. You’re able to move into that development stage and it’s still under the basis of good intent at that stage.
It’s only when they refuse to engage in the development of themselves to improve that or to make adjustments that you can move from, “I’m assuming you want to be better and you’re failing to. You are not putting the effort in.” That divorce of intent from what’s happening is a helpful way if you haven’t picked it up before to minimize this emotional friction point of that conversation. I wanted to mention that because that’s a helpful way into development. It’s very hard to get straight into development when people are still defensive.
That graduated stepped approach, taking people along on that journey before moving it towards that more formal conversation is helpful. That’s useful advice for people. If in a situation like this, you progressed about and somebody maybe said that they did want to develop and be a little bit better, is there anything that you’d follow up on if you felt that they did have a buy-in but were struggling or their intentions were good but they kept slipping off of focus?
I’m going to talk about what worked for me and it was imperfect. One is understanding how self-aware someone is in opening that conversation of, “What is it you find difficult? Why does it keep happening? Are there triggers? How do you feel when it happens?” Helping fill out that information between the two of you is helpful.
That’s like coaching-ish questions and reflective questions.
If you haven’t noticed, this episode is loads of coaching questions about helping someone to open up their mind to why it might be happening and leaving space between chats about it to do it. Using a feedback model can be helpful in helping them think about what help they want. One of the things that I think is important when you’re using coaching models is being clear with people about what you’re expecting in terms of return as a manager. We’re going to have this conversation. I’m not worried about what’s gone before but I would love to see progress in eradicating this behavior.
I also think understanding their preferences might help you as a manager. If it turns out it’s always in response to certain people in the meeting, all of those things can be helpful to you as a manager because you’ll know the context. The biggest thing for me is offering options and a non-time-limited response. I used to find it incredibly frustrating when people didn’t speak up in meetings. I used to be quite targeted, not when I was a manager so I’d be in the meeting. Other people wouldn’t engage and I would take it upon myself to try and engage them, which was problematic for the person managing the meeting.
It’s not helpful because it becomes quite friction-based. I sat down and the person that was managing me at that time was like, “What do you want me to do? What do you think might help?” I said, “Honestly, can you kick me under the table every time I start?” I kid you not. He sat next to me in every meeting for the next three months. I would get a nudge and it became not even a nudge. It became a cross on a pace paper that he was in front of.
At the moment, I don’t notice it and then suddenly, I’m halfway through doing it and I want to stop and it’s too late. For me, that was massive. Having a pal in there, it was like, “I saw you stop from doing it. I’m so pleased. It was amazing.” A real collaborative approach to it was helpful. The other thing was realistic expectations. Was I perfect? No. Did I never do it again? Absolutely did. Did I do it so much less than my behavior was markedly noticeable to other people? Yeah.
The difference was I had it in my head that I had to stop it every single time and every single time I didn’t stop, it was a complete and utter abject failure. What he made me realize was there were loads of meetings that I went to. I didn’t do that actually. It was that I felt like in a team meeting, I took it too far. We all have a right to criticize, be open, and all of that. He was like, “They’re not ready for that.”
You can also see it makes them uncomfortable and you’re not responding to that. That buddying up system is giving me the autonomy to talk about what I wanted and what would help, and then helping me celebrate little ways privately. The other thing I will say is about halfway through the process, I told the rest of the team. I said, “I’m trying to be better at this and I know it’s not perfect.” As soon as I did that, all the weight lifted because suddenly, everybody was like, “Jane.” Meetings would be like, “Let’s take a minute and maybe we’ll pick that up afterward.”
I love a little piece in there about what good enough is. We talk about what is good but what is good enough. If we hold ourselves accountable to that 100% pass rate in life, we’ll never succeed. It’s about working out what’s good enough at that moment. As long as we’re progressing moving in a certain way, that can be helpful. That’s lovely and thank you for sharing some of that individual experience here. We touched earlier on the fact that people have different preferences, people have some of their individual differences, some types of activities and meetings work better for some people than others, and all that stuff.
If we hold ourselves accountable to that 100% pass rate in life, we’ll never succeed. It’s about working out what’s good enough at that moment.
I don’t know if we’ve got time to delve into it hugely but we need to touch on, explore, and signpost more on individual differences and neurodiversity. We work with clients who, in some instances, have team members who have ADHD, some who are on the autism spectrum, and all these different types of diverse profiles that appear within our teams. Have you got any initial thoughts or starter thoughts on neurodiversity?
I’m going to mention two things because I was in a meeting where I was correctly criticized for not being aware enough at a balance. It was a helpful critique. I want to mention this. Whether it’s a preference or neurodiversity, it might be different for different people, but there are definitely different activities, different lengths of meetings, and different things that will work for different people.
If there are things that work better for you individually and you’re aware of them, please take responsibility to share that with people who are convening the meetings because most people who convene meetings want to be better, particularly your team manager should. If you, as a manager, are aware that someone is neurodiverse, talking to them about what works and what doesn’t work in the meetings is powerful.
A balanced approach to meetings is helpful generally. In the meeting that I was talking about, I had done lots of engaging activities in groups but through the written word. They were collaborating on phrases, sentences, and stuff like that. For someone who’s dyslexic, that’s massively problematic. For someone who has certain types of ADHD or certain profiles of ADHD, that is massively problematic because they’re having to concentrate on one thing, sat in one place, and it’s not involving moving for a whole day. For someone who’s on certain types of autism spectrums, that would also be massively problematic because they’re being forced to engage and collaborate with groups of people constantly without having space and time to reflect.
Generally, trying to get balance means that even if someone is not working in the ways that suit them, particularly in a group where you’ve got mixed diversities or people who are struggling with certain types of activities and individual differences. If you can keep it short, balanced, and mixed as an approach, you will learn about what works for your team. Remember, we’re talking about team meetings, so you’re going to get to know these people and you’re going to see what works and what doesn’t.
One of my favorite things that have worked well for a neurodiverse team has been the voting systems of sections of meetings. You go to the meeting and you say, “Not the topic but in the way that it was facilitated, you get to vote on your favorite section of the meeting.” It’s nothing more than a tick on the agenda that gets chucked back. They do it online now. They’ve got shared agenda online and then you get to put a star on the agenda point you most enjoyed participating in and the manager can build great knowledge about that without anyone having to have very complicated deep and meaningful conversations about balance.
People are much more aware of when their neurodiversity particularly shows up in meetings, creates challenges for them, for the situation, or when they don’t feel fully engaged and involved. This is someone who has massive problems in meetings with the way that my brain works and how it suits me. I’ve navigated it myself. I definitely think getting familiar with what people enjoy versus what they tolerate in team meetings allows you to create a good balance.
Thank you for touching on that. It’s an important aspect to bear in mind. We don’t have a full episode to focus on it, but it’s great to bring it into the conversation. We’re getting out of time. I was going to reflect a little bit on some of the takeaways and my thoughts as we’ve gone through this. I’ve scribbled down a few things that have struck me or bits that I feel that I’ve learned in this conversation.
As we’ve said before, as part of the purpose of this, we want to kick stuff around, learn, and reflect. A couple of bits that stand up for me are understanding the current state is helpful in all of this. We talked about having different ways to address the context and challenge of the disruptive individual in the meeting. That message of listening first or understanding the current state before taking action is helpful.
In this instance, it could be understanding, “What are your meetings right now? How is it going?” Doing some of that thinking piece there as well as trying to understand the individual in their framing and where they are going into a situation is important. I’d step back, understand, listen, and learn a little bit before taking action. Some of it’s come out for me.
At the same time, because you’ve not addressed your message early on before doesn’t mean you should keep putting it off. Now is the only moment that we ever have. It’s always now. If you’re not going to do it now, you’re never going to do it to some extent. Think about it, start that process, and take some of that action. Give it a go and be kind to yourself along the way.
My last reflection on this is that more broadly if we’ve got a varied team, it’s going to be hard to make team meetings that are perfect for everyone. We might not get that, but what we can do is get team meetings that have elements that are great for different people, varied, and create that fair balanced approach to team meetings that seems to work for more people. Striving for that feels like a good thing for me. Something that we should think about as managers is how we create those experiences that are good for a variety of people in our team. Those are my learning checkouts for this episode. What about you?
It’s tricky for me in the sense that the biggest thing that will always stay with me is how much it changes someone’s perception of you when you are good at calling this out. I think of the people I know who’ve been good at this and done this well to me or when I’ve done it well to others. The person who has been exhibiting the behaviors has always been long-term grateful.
Someone’s perception of you changes so much when you are good at calling people out.
Maybe not in the moment, but in the relationship that I have had, whether they’ve been calling me out or I’ve been calling them out and helping and supporting them. To change that, the relationship has been seismically different long-term in a good way. Therefore, in some senses, if a manager only does one thing, this is what they should be doing. At the very least, you should be helping your team work and collaborate together.
Also, the other thing I was thinking about was as the world is changing and more people are working hybrid and remotely, the norms of meeting together will be less. That creates different challenges and opportunities around addressing some of these things that maybe haven’t been addressed. It’s less of a learning and more of a reflection. I wonder how behavior will change in team meetings, whether people’s behavior will be less of the things I’ve seen in the past, like being on your phone, being distracted, and being unengaged. More people are not necessarily knowing how they want to be physically around each other or feel more closed off.
The one thing we haven’t mentioned is that when we were talking about what does good look like and what you can do that’s better to help this. One of the things that managers are going to have to do in meetings is to create more space for connection and protect that time. That’s going to be hard because there’s going to be even more stretch on getting stuff done. What I’m learning from this conversation in particular is that those opportunities to call it out are going to be even more few and far between in person. Remotely calling it out, the reality is different jumping on a team’s call as a meeting closes. You don’t want to say in front of people, “Dave, can you stay behind?” That’s not good for a team.
Do you literally call them back on teams instantly? What you do is in the meeting, you privately message and say, “Could we jump on a call for two ticks? I like to have a quick chat.” If you normalize that, then you allow that behavior to be addressed remotely. People get used to that happening for most of them because everyone has a bad day. If you call it out every single time in a nice way, people stop. People start seeing it as a, “I’m checking you are all right and you’re in a good place for this meeting,” and stop seeing it as a, “I’m trying to correct you.” That normalization is helpful.
It’s great to bring up a hybrid remote side of things as well. That’s pretty much it. What’s the rest of the day got for you, Jane? How are you facing into? What have you got?
I’m going to go back and review every meeting I’ve got in the next few weeks and think about how I’m going to do it differently. In all seriousness, what am I doing is I’m going to go for a walk and take breaks. I’ve been sitting here for a while. I have got a mystery call. For those of you who don’t know, you can book a call with us if you’re interested in something that we do for our client work. It’s on our website. Every so often, someone books who I don’t know. It’s pretty rare. Normally, it’s an ex-client coming back or it’s someone who listens, comes to our seminars, and wants to ask a question. I’m totally used to that. Occasionally, it’s someone I have no idea who they are.
It’s like a blind date. You’ve got a blind date, Jane.
I’ve got a blind work date.
That sounds good. You’ll have to let me know how that goes. For myself, I’ve got a little bit of admin-keeping stuff going. You mentioned the free seminars. We do a free seminar at the end of each month. Normally, the last Friday of every month for about an hour. I’m going to spend a bit of time refreshing what we’ve got coming up this month, but they’re all on Eventbrite. If people want to check them out, they can check them out via our website. That’s what I’ll be doing. It’s great to chat with you. It’s time to wrap that up. Who knew there was so much to chat about for meetings and miss loads? We could have kept going. Let’s leave it there. That’s it from me.
It’s goodbye for me.
It’s Jane. I wanted to say thanks for tuning in to the whole episode. If you enjoyed it, you have a question, or you want to say hi, you can find us on Twitter @WorldOfWork_io. Don’t forget, you can also find out more about what we do, including our online seminars, workshops, and development programs on www.WorldOfWork.io.
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