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A Constructive Way for Dealing with Problem Behaviors (and Comments) in Meetings

Sometimes, people treat conflict the way toddlers play hide and seek.

A toddler will hide only their face, thinking no one else can see them because they can't see anything. Meanwhile, the rest of their body is in plain view, which makes for a pretty easy game of hide and seek.

It's tempting to obfuscate conflict because it feels like the nice thing to do or the easy option or the right way to handle it rather than "making a big deal about something."

Except it's like the toddler hiding. It's ineffective. Everyone sees there's a conflict even if they don't know the specifics of what went on. They sense a shift like the barometric pressure changing when a storm blows in.

One way leaders might skirt around conflict is by changing practices or creating new rules.

I saw a leader do this recently. They changed the format of a standing meeting, hoping it would limit inappropriate contributions. Instead, it made people feel unsure and confused.

The problem persisted. So then they tried limiting the length of time of the meeting. The logic being, with it taking up less time, there should be less room for activating remarks.

The problem still didn't go away. And now, the rest of the team felt less safe. People filtered their contributions, which inhibited progress. The conversations lacked depth, or meaning. The absence of open, honest and curious sharing made for a much less effective meeting. They became very transactional, exchanging information that could have easily been conveyed over email.

Now, on top of the initial conflict, they had to repair and rebuild trust with everyone. A challenge that takes a lot of time, energy, persistence and patients to overcome.

It would have been much more effective to directly and compassionately address the problem behavior with the person that was causing pause for concern to being with. These conversations would have best unfolded privately, outside of the group setting. It might have felt awkward or hard, but it would have set them up to develop a shared understanding while finding an agreeable way forward.

Such conversations also enable leaders to uncover individual's needs so they may provide adequate support for them to be more effective contributors.

In addition, the leader could have redirected problem behaviors when they happened by revisiting the norms of engagement with the group. It's easy to agree to a norm like, "we practice reflective listening." But it doesn't mean there's a shared understanding of what it means to embody this practice nor does it guarantee follow through.

Revisiting the norms of engagement (assuming they've been set as was the case in the instance above) offers an opportunity to dig deeper and develop a shared understanding of what it means to embody them. There's tremendous value in exploring what it means to engage in reflective listening. It's not enough to have a common language, there needs to be mutual understanding about what those words look, feel and sound like in practice.

What's more, norms or rules of engagement are only effective when they are reinforced. But when push comes to shove, holding each other accountable can be extra tricky.

I've seen professionals ostracized from their colleagues for pointing out behaviors that are counter to the norms of engagement. They may get labeled for policing others and called a stickler or a know it all or sensitive. Such a reaction is not only discouraging, it is dehumanizing and hurtful. It also sets a precedence that rules of engagement aren't genuinely part of the culture, like people who see speed limit signs as mere suggestions.

Inviting conversation around the norms of engagement becomes a method for creating accountability.

One simple go to question is to ask, "How does [this behavior/comment] align with the rules of engagement?" Posing the question with genuine curiosity invites more consideration, self-awareness and honest dialogue. It's not as effective as a rhetorical question, because it doesn't build trust through transparency and engagement.

In order to make sure such conversations don't fall into the all talk, no action trap, it's important to reach an agreement around expectations and next steps. I've had one client agree to use hand signals when a norm is broken. Another agreed to address such discrepancies offline. There isn't one right way, it's the shared commitment to moving collectively that matters most.

Having a constructive way for dealing with problem behaviors in meetings is like baking sourdough bread. You have to keep the starter alive by routinely feeding it before you can bake any bread. Exploring what it means to embody norms of engagement as a group is akin to feeding the sourdough. There need to be regular touchpoints around the norms in order to cultivate the right chemistry for effective meetings.

It's easy to be like a toddler playing hide and seek by obfuscating conflict because there's so much "real work" to be done and "not enough time." And yet, directly addressing misunderstandings and problem behaviors in meetings is the only way to ensure that the work not only gets done, but is done exceptionally well.

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