Eradicate Mob Mentality at the Conference Table
This is a guest post written by Andria Bicknell. Andria is a contributing writer and editor for Aspire. She writes about recovering from the effects of perfectionism on her own blog, Type A Plans B. Andria draws her leadership experience from ministry, business and home.
- Wes Saade, M.D.
Jump right into this scene with me…There’s a team meeting to present ideas for a particular challenge your organization is facing. Someone stands to share his thoughts and propose his plan of action. The room gets quiet. People are fidgeting, looking away, and leaning back in their chairs. And yet, they are gently complying with an idea that everyone knows is riddled with flaws.
What just happened?
You either lost, or never established, a safe place for people to share their candid thoughts and meaningful ideas. The result is mob mentality at the conference table—people allowing themselves to be herded along like cattle to support an inadequate idea because they are too uncomfortable to speak up. The authors of Crucial Conversations say it this way:
When people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.
- Crucial Conversations
We’ve all witnessed the flip side as well, where people begin to shout out and push their own ideas with no thought for anyone else at the table. Even when the speaker is wise enough to ask for feedback, if the environment feels unsafe, people will either retreat in silence or attack others’ ideas in order to defend their own. As you know, this can be made worse if the speaker is you, the team leader or boss. Your presence alone can shut down a dialogue if your people fear your position of authority. Unless you are making your leadership all about you, this does not serve you well.
Conducting successful conversations isn’t about having a Kumbya moment together at a team meeting. It’s about effectively navigating conversations so you can save face, save time, and save money. When we collectively agree to flawed ideas because we are afraid to speak up, reputations are at stake, and energy and resources are wasted on poor or under-developed plans. Moving forward with bad ideas also affects your personal leadership, as well as the relationships among the team. Just step out in the hall following the meeting, and you will hear what people really think about the ideas, about each other, and about you—the leader.
Here is what we are going for:
People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool—even ideas that at first glance appear to be controversial, wrong, or at odds with their beliefs. - Crucial Conversations
And here is how we can identify threatening conditions and attain a safe place to contribute to conversation.
Three Indicators That Safe Conversation Is At Risk
- The atmosphere becomes tense. Nothing shuts down freedom of expression like fear. Fear can be demonstrated by aggression, when someone begins forcing their ideas because they’re worried people aren’t really buying in. Or fear can be expressed as withdrawal, as in our illustration above, when people sense they will be shut down or ridiculed, or that perhaps their job or reputation will be negatively affected if they participate in the conversation.
- People are showing signs of stress. Whether leading an organization or a conversation, be intentionally aware of other people’s body language and tone for indications of whether they feel safe, or inhibited, about contributing. A few signs to watch for in other people: Retreat. Withdrawal. Looking down to avoid eye contact. Suddenly fidgeting. Side-talking. Reacting defensively by raising the volume and/or pitch of their voice. Leaning in. Standing up. Sweating. Or finger-pointing.
- You notice physical signs of stress in yourself. It is often much more difficult to detect your own stress levels in the midst of these kinds of conversations. We can become so consumed with preserving our ideas, intent, or actions, that we neglect to monitor our own tone, body language, and listening skills. Watch for physical reactions like stomach or throat tightening, dry mouth, sweaty palms, flushed face, changes in breathing, in addition to the symptoms we see in others (listed above).
Four Tools to Preserve Safe Conversation or Regain It If It Is Lost
- Periodically, extract yourself from the content of the conversation, and examine the condition of it. If the atmosphere is becoming uncomfortable, consider taking a short break to allow everyone to decompress and regroup. If the atmosphere is already safe, genuinely invite someone who has become silent to share their thoughts. Or, thank someone who has shared enough, and indicate you’d like to hear others’ ideas as well. Model respect by affirming the person and commenting on the ideas. Refuse to allow anyone to tear down another team member. It’s just unacceptable.
- Continuously monitor the content of the conversation. Acknowledge when the group may be getting off track. Bring everyone back to solving the key issue by restating your mutual purpose. Keep the conversation flowing openly and safely by asking how we can first preserve our common interests. Then, if other issues are left unresolved, they can be addressed, while still supporting the shared goals.
- Don’t allow yourself to react to someone’s poor behavior. If someone becomes defensive, silent, or uncooperative, it’s their coping mechanism. Rather than reacting in kind, identify what’s motivating them to act that way. Then, work toward relieving that stressor. For example, maybe they feel misunderstood, unheard, or threatened in some way. As the leader, you must restore safety to the conversation before you can effectively return to the topic at hand.
- Prepare yourself in advance for potentially tense conversations, when possible. Create talking points. Identify shared interests. Determine the most important elements that you would like to preserve, as well as those that the other people involved will potentially hold fast to. Use these as guideposts throughout the conversation to see if you are staying on course. Especially if you sense safety is being threatened, ask yourself:
What do I want for me?
What do I want for others?
What do I want for the relationship?
These tools are equally effective in conversation between two people or multiple participants. For more insight into effectively navigating personal and business conversations, negotiating contracts, or simply sharpening your communication skills at home and the office, pick up a copy of Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzter.
Contributing Writer and Editor, Aspire
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