You’re in your monthly strategic meeting when for the umpteenth time, Feng makes a snarky comment to a new suggestion. Everyone either glares at him with annoyance or audibly sighs. Here we go again! Will the boss ever say something to him??
While it may seem like a simple case of poor work ethic (which it sometimes is), this lack of proper meeting decorum is also a symptom of poor emotional intelligence (EI). Koman and Wolff identify four overarching clusters of EI skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (Goleman, 2001; Boyatzis, Goleman & Rhee, 1999). The lack of any of the cluster of skills mentioned can present in inappropriate behavior with a damaging impact at your meetings. I call these resulting behaviors – for simplicity sake – “pouting”.
Categories of “pouting” we may observe at meetings
A-Body language and facial expressions that are offputting and unprofessional (i.e. glaring, avoiding eye contact when someone is speaking, rolling the eyes, literal pouting or pursing of the lips)
B-Physical posture or gestures that communicates withdrawal or disrespect
C-Verbal hostility – negative tone of voice, dismissive, insulting, or hostile comments.
D-Excessive emotionalism such as crying or raising the voice at meetings as a habitual pattern (the occasional tears are just human, however uncomfortable it may make the rest of us).
E- Emotional/Psychological abuse – this includes ignoring or excluding an individual repeatedly or selecting one person or subgroup on the team as your target for hostility and humiliation (including any or all of the behaviors above).
1. Establish expectations and standards up front about meeting decorum
Because so few managers and executives do this, when you establish meeting norms you may feel that you’re out on a limb, yet training facilitators do it all the time, (i.e. “ground rules”). Some realistic norms include full engagement; such as active listening, physical posture and putting your voice in the room. Establish ground rules for conflict and disagreement. Conflict is a good thing; the healthy, fierce conversations can advance a group’s goals and make for innovations in business. Name calling, deriding, withdrawing, checking-out, shaming or other off-putting behavior is unacceptable. Personal conflicts should be handled outside the meeting room or mediated separately by the manager.
Refer to these norms perodically to protect the integrity of the team and productivity.
2. Model real-time accountability for poor behavior
Teach all of the members of your team how to respond to the hostile body language or withdrawal behaviors of their team mate. Give them permission to speak up about it. “Jim, I noticed that this is the second meeting in a row where you have sat silently without making eye contact with anyone. I am feeling uncomfortable about it and am wondering what’s going on?” “Attiya, I am feeling pretty frustrated with your outbursts whenever anyone challenges the quality of your work on this committee. It’s a violation of our team decorum.”
Once that “elephant” has been pointed out, it is up to the team leader to step in (perhaps after a few more employees speak up and some dialog ensues) and re-establish the norms.
3. Coach employees in emotional intelligence
Introduce your team to the concept of emotional intelligence (resource mentioned below). Include coaching around the four clusters of competencies in your supervisory one-on-ones. We have to start talking about emotional and social competency as leaders and managers because it has such a lasting impact in overall organizational health.
4. Set up warnings and consequences for repeat offenses
Follow the same procedures for inappropriate decorum as you would for any form of poor performance. It should be part of your supervisory conversations and employee evaluations. Give warnings and document the same as you would insubordiation.
What if the meeting pouter is the boss? What if you’re realizing it’s you?
As a recovered meeting pouter, I was once pulled aside by the supervisor and sternly given behavioral expectations (yea, it worked). It required some soul searching about how better to cope with the emotions and situations that were causing me to withdraw. I’ve also had an inappropriate “pouting” boss (type E), in which case I eventually exited myself from the meetings altogether. That was an extreme response to an extremely abusive circumstance. That situation warrants a one-on-one confrontation with the immediate supervisor (if you’re a union member, it might be appropriate to pull in your rep). If that meeting is unsatisfactory, follow your company guidelines and take it to HR or the next level of management. There may be EEO or workplace discrimination implications depending on the nature of the boss’ behavior.
An excellent resource to get your team back to optimal function is Quick Emotional Intelligence Activities for Busy Managers by Adele B. Lynn. It contains dozens of 15 minute exercises that can be done in meetings to work on specific areas of group EI improvement. Eliminate headaches caused by your meeting pouters. It will grow the whole team up.