Workplace dynamics can be as fraught and troublesome as any seventh-grade classroom when personalities get out of control. In a toxic meeting culture, personalities can come to dominate what should be an event focused on getting work done and making progress toward a goal. In order to change the culture of both meat-space and virtual meetings, a new skill set is needed to address the conflicts before they can erupt into full-blown disputes. According to MindTools.com, conflicts in meetings are rooted in three different places;
- Actual professional differences. Highly trained IT professionals can have strong opinions, and the higher the stakes, the more heated those conflicts can be. Left unchecked, these conflicts can spoil professional relationships, cause disruption between teams and departments, and even become full-blown personal grudges.
- Power plays. Someone feels their position or prestige is threatened. Someone else wants more power and prestige. Someone wants to play king of the hill. It’s not professional, though it’s playing out in the workplace.
- Personality conflicts. There are often personality conflicts, genuine ones, in the workplace. Resolving those conflicts is not easy, but it is essential to rooting out or preventing toxic situations.
While having this erupt during an actual video conference is something of a worst-case scenario, it may actually happen and it’s harder to handle than when all parties are in the same room. This is when the meeting runner becomes the meeting mediator. When a dispute does break out, it’s important to take charge and deal fairly and equitably with both parties until you can meet with them privately.
- Remind the interrupting party that they will have a chance to speak and be heard during IT video communication meetings.
- Call a break and ask the parties into a “side room” in the BlueJeans app in order to speak with them.
- Focus on the whats of the issue, rather than the whos. Take ad hominem attacks off the table; make both sides address facts and pinpoint their objections.
- Present options on what you can do now in this meeting to address the problem, and what might require a conflict resolution meeting at a later time.
It goes without saying that assaultive behaviors – defined by the Houston Chronicle as threats, sexist or racist speech, paranoia, and menacing – should be met with de-escalation techniques as recommended by Security Magazine and in-house training programs. Tolerating assaultive and hostile behaviors in the workplace can lead to even more problems than a blowout in a meeting, and giving this behavior a pass will only result in more of it.
Stopping Conflicts before They Start
There is no crystal ball to tell you when or where blowouts will occur, though in times of great stress on a company, emotions run high and reasoning runs low. While you can’t alter the source of the stress, you can structure how to handle the stress in meetings by making sure of a few things.
- Create an agenda in advance of the meeting, and distribute it for commentary. Use the input to revise and refine the agenda so that it addresses the reason for calling the meeting, and also identifies any issues that may need (sigh) another meeting.
- Have all the attendees sign off on the agenda. This is easy to do, but to make sure that they are actually reading the agenda, insert something like this about ¾ of the way down, “If you have read this agenda and agree with its implementation, please reply with the following phrase: BOB WEARS RED SOCKS.” Yes, it’s sneaky, but it will make sure that the agenda has actually been read by the people who need to read it.
- Set out the time that everyone is expected to be signed in, and designate a time past which no latecomers will be admitted. Likewise, set out a time that the meeting can be expected to end.
- Lay out ground rules on muting microphones when someone is speaking, the time allotted for questions, and a reminder to stick to the agenda.
After the meeting ends, follow-up is essential that all parties with assignments are following through on the decisions and plans of action reached in the meeting. Meetings that work are essential to a smoothly running workplace, but curing a toxic meeting culture doesn’t happen overnight or without conflict. There are people who thrive in a toxic atmosphere, help to overtly or covertly perpetuate it, and use organizational dysfunction to their personal advantage. Expect blowback, pushback, and the tried and true, “But we’ve always done X this way!” You’re going to have to buff up your conflict resolution and mediation skill set, but the end result will be worth it for you, your coworkers, and your company.