“I thought they were my colleagues,” Bev Gardner’s scream escaped from a body flattened by restraining straps onto a trolley stretcher, wheeled at speed from the soaring glass building towards an ambulance, all flashing lights, static and frantic activity. “They looked like colleagues! I thought that’s what they were!” That was the last we heard of her as the orange and white doors slammed shut behind the disappearing stretcher.
Speaking to Brian Glazer, one of Bev’s so called colleagues, I got his version of events. “The meeting was going fine. And then, all of a sudden, we were all laying into Bev as she tried to take us through this particular agenda item. None of us saw it coming. And now, we’ve said things that can’t be taken back. And Bev is in a straitjacket in the back of an ambulance.”
“What was the agenda item?” I enquired.
“Bev was proposing improvements to the way we run our weekly team meetings.”
“And was there any preamble, any pre-reads or consultation, or a bit of a brainstorm to test the water?”
“No, she just rocked up and told us how we should be behaving.”
I grimaced. Bev had been playing with fire: proposing to a large, senior group, to their faces and without perceived just cause, that they should change their behaviour was a bullseye topic for meeting rage. It was astonishing that the agenda item had even been allowed to go ahead in the context of the government ban on behavioural change programmes in organisations, imposed recently to preserve capitalism as we know it.
“How did you get the agenda item past the authorities?”
“I’ve got no idea,” replied Brian, “I think Bev may have pulled some strings. She’s quite an influential person.”
“You mean she thought she could handle it?”
Brian thought about this, and then continued, “Well, it doesn’t sound that difficult, does it: ‘let me propose to you all how we could run our weekly meetings more effectively’? It’s something that every reasonable person wants. And yet, somehow, when you’re faced with someone suggesting that you could behave better, sitting there right in front of you and actually saying it, you feel this strange sensation inside your chest and your gall bladder, and suddenly…” At this point, Brian seemed to break down. I think it was genuine. “…And suddenly,” he picked up the thread again, “this vitriolic sentence is flying across the room full speed at Bev who doesn’t stand a chance, she can’t get out of the way. And you realise that you’re the one who threw it.”
Brian looked down at his shoes, and, at that moment there was no doubt in my mind that his remorse was genuine. Nor, looking down with him, was there any doubt in my mind either that the shoes in question were custom-fit Milanese loafers. I tried to resist the tug of my inner judge – just because the guy was wearing a £400 pair of shoes with a tassle on the tongue did not mean he was incapable of experiencing remorse for a colleague.
“At what point did you realise that Bev was in trouble?”
“Well, I think I’d sensed it from the very beginning, when Bev put up an infographic that listed good meeting behaviours and everyone seemed to go cold. But it was only when security burst in and locked down the room that I realised fully.”
“What was on the infographic?”
“Oh, really obvious, helpful stuff like, you know, no phones, no interruptions, attack the idea not the person, silence equals agreement, you know the kind of thing.”
“So, instead of agreeing with her proposal and moving on, you proceeded to exhibit most of the bad behaviours that Bev was suggesting you try to avoid?”
Brian, baffled by this contradiction, nodded his head reluctantly.
We were now at the irrational, logic-defying heart of the meeting rage phenomenon: the force of the reaction is rarely justified by the topic in question. The topic in question, always behavioural and involving new ways of working, seems to act as a conduit to a well of pent up emotions. When this well is opened, intelligent, reasonable people suddenly lose the ability to act intelligently or reasonably. Or even to follow simple, helpful instructions. “Was Bev the best person to make this proposal?” I asked.
“Not at all,” said Brian, “when she put up the infographic I think we all thought, ‘what a rip off!’ Bev is the worst offender when it comes to using her phone during meetings, and she has an annoying habit of speaking down to us like she knows best.”
“Does she know that you think this about her?”
“I doubt it. I have never told her.”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you afraid of her?”
“Of course not!” and, as Brian shot back this denial, I felt like I’d had a glimpse of what Bev must have faced in that meeting room.
But I pressed on, “Does Bev have redeeming features, or is she difficult in every respect?”
“Well, she is very protective of her team, and she comes to the aid of others if she feels that they are under pressure. And she’s off-the-charts smart.”
“And where was her phone today?”
Brian thought about this, “Nowhere to be seen.”
“So, perhaps she was aware of her own hyprocrisy as she was making the presentation? Perhaps this was her own new beginning as well? Perhaps you should have given her a little more respect, or at the very least just pointed out that it was difficult for you to listen to her recommend a code of behaviour that she struggles to live up to herself? Doesn’t all of this make her, in fact, the best person to make this presentation?”
“Perhaps,” was all Brian could offer in response, “but that’s easy for you to say.” And I realised that he had suddenly lost interest in our conversation. And sure enough, a second later, out came the phone, and Brian was checking messages.
In this, as in all other cases of meeting rage that I have witnessed, no one was blameless. Yet one person was in a straitjacket, and another was standing here in loafers checking his e-mails. They are a woman down, and nothing has changed.
As a way of solving a team’s problems, and getting the best out of the human resource that makes up our economy at a time like this when our economy needs all the help it can get, there has to be a better way than meeting rage.
“Our inability to have consistently open and honest conversations with each other was a major barrier to productivity and quality decision making. We introduced the concept of ‘straight talk’ and provided feedback mechanisms and training, but it didn’t really work because people were still hesitant to speak their mind, or if they did pluck up the courage to speak out, it almost always seemed to cause some kind of fall out. Then we tried the Inadvertent Saboteur approach, and it’s been liberating.”
Glorious Day client that used to suffer from ‘meeting rage’ (references available)