Presentations often induce anxiety because you see firsthand how your colleagues react. You know whether they agree, disagree, or if they’ve found something of greater interest on their iPhone. Some of us might try to avoid this feedback by simply not looking up from our notes.
Until recently, I could assure clients that audiences generally want the speaker to succeed. For those who present on controversial topics or are part of a workplace culture that values spirited debate, we map out a plan to select the most appropriate content, anticipate pushback and get the right tone for delivery. Everyone emerges unscathed and more-informed about the other side.
That was until this summer.
A series of clients – from public sector and Corporate America – grappled with what can only be described as “bad behaviors” by their peers. A few witnesses called it being a workplace bully, plain and simple. These antagonizers cut speakers off to air complaints in the public venue that went against what they told the speaker in private conversations.
What’s going on?
Maybe as a society we’re increasingly tolerant of boorish behavior. Years of reality TV with people acting in outlandish ways have seeped into the mainstream, if not our own election season. Today manners, tact and consideration of others seems so 18th century.
There’s not much I can do about that.
What I can tell you is that on the other end of the spectrum we have managers, conference organizers and colleagues who can’t muster the will to share helpful but sometimes awkward feedback to their peers. That’s why they bring in companies like Portico to talk about executive presence or break the news to the Senior Vice President that no one understands him.
Their overt politeness might be a smart tactic. Professor Francisco Gina from Harvard Business School found that we’re more likely to eliminate someone from our network who offered “disconfirming” feedback (i.e., feedback that is more negative than one’s own self-evaluation) than a reviewer who provides “confirming” feedback.
One one hand we have an abundance of politeness and on the other, poor sportsmanship.
What can you do?
For the overly polite, put yourselves in the other person’s shoes. If you had spinach in your teeth, wouldn’t you want to know?
If you’re the person with the proverbial spinach in teeth and a manager shares insight about something you might want to change, go ahead and let that wave of awkwardness engulf you for all of 7 seconds. Then shake it off and thank them for telling you what no one else had the courage to.
For workplaces with bad behaviors:
If you’re a manager, set some meeting rules and remind your direct reports about the kind of behaviors that you expect. Minimal interruptions, put devices away, don’t make it personal. Follow-up with instigators.
If you’re the target of one of these attacks, try not to engage the bully. Cede the floor and once they’ve completed their rant – which often exposes the antagonist’s motivations if given enough rope – transition to the next topic or end the meeting. Follow-up with a manager afterwards.
You might also try another client’s tactic. She knew that she was going to have to deal with the fallout from an unpopular decision at her industry’s annual meeting. She had a vest made of bubblewrap to wear over her suit and faced the music. By acknowledging the tension, she diffused it and let others know she was there to answer questions and find a productive resolution.
Meetings are at their best when colleagues can debate and collaborate based on a diversity of ideas and experience. You might not hear from your top performers if speaking up comes at too high a cost.