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How to Stand Up to a Bully in Meetings

"The Apology"

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If you find yourself on a team in which playground bullies abound without any adult supervision, tread with caution.  The Navigator’s views on prematurely donning the mantle of corporate victim-hood are widely known.  Yes, it is true that there is bias in the workplace and under poor leadership team dynamics will degrade providing fertile grounds for unfairness.  However, crying foul before trying ways to regain control will impede your advancement and you will be viewed as the problem.  If you find yourself in this kind of predicament you will be delighted to know that the Navigator awaits you on the high road. 

What Can Happen at a Team Meeting

Because the team meeting is the best operating theater in which to view botched leadership, let’s dissect it, shall we?  Scalpel!  In the order of mild to severe, assaults from team members at meetings can include:

  • Someone interrupts you
  • The team completely ignores your last suggestion
  • While going ‘round-robin’, the team is quiet in response to your suggestion but responds positively to a peer who says the same thing
  • Someone takes credit for your work
  • Someone opposes your plan despite their support expressed privately to you
  • A peer disparages your work or you
  • Your boss disparages your work or you

The fact that any one of the above has occurred indicates the manager has neglected their responsibility to mandate a safe and respectful operating environment.  The admonishment of poor leaders to their teams is the “you guys need to work better together” mantra.  But the stakes are too high to leave it at that.  Disturbing things can happen if left unchecked in this neglectful environment.  For example, an abusive junior team member rises through the ranks to become your peer or your boss.

Learning to Live with Poor Leadership

Before we get to the practical suggestions for finding your balance in team meetings, you need to check your expectations. Just because you have a boss doesn’t mean that he is competent in handling the dysfunction on his team. Managers are promoted into their roles because of relationships, tenure, or technical prowess, rarely their leadership skills.  They seldom know how to manage teams. They are afraid of angering employees so they take the path of least resistance by withholding much needed feedback to aggressors.   You will need to adjust to this fact if you are in the corporate world for the long haul.

Learning from Examples and Non-Examples of Leadership

There is a lot to be gained from observing the team meeting dynamic as you prepare for your future role as a team leader.  You can resolve to be a better leader than your boss by coming to the following conclusions:

An effective people manager:

  • Observes how team members interact with each other.
  • Provides ongoing performance feedback, having taken the time to accurately observe / assess good and bad performance.
  • Is a conduit of information up and down the line. Shares timely company information important to the team’s success.   Shares team accomplishments with senior managers.

A poor people manager:

  • Withholds constructive feedback to avoid angering / demotivating team members.
  • Chastises the entire team for the actions of one person as opposed to confronting the offending party privately and directly.
  • Requires that others yield to the extreme behavior of the difficult team member so as not cause a ‘stir’.
  • Withholds information that they should be sharing with the team. Fails to share team accomplishments with senior managers.

Tactics for Regaining Control at Meetings

Now that you’ve reconciled your expectations with the realities of your environment you will need some tools to regain control at meetings in your current role.    First, distinguish between the incidents that require you to address the injustice immediately within the meeting and those that you will handle outside of the meeting.  Your aim here is to achieve long term outcomes, not feel good retorts.

You will need to respond to an injustice within the meeting for the following: Being interrupted, your suggestions are unacknowledged, and someone taking credit for your work.   Once the offending party has finished expressing their thought, a calm, dispassionate response is warranted.  Never be shrill. The Navigator has observed that the shrill employee will always lose out to the point of view (no matter how nonsensical) that is expressed in a calm and succinct manner.  A smile along with “I’m sure you didn’t mean to interrupt….”, or “…that is the point I was making earlier but perhaps I have not been clear” will allow you to reaffirm your place at the table.  If your co-worker Jessica takes credit for your project at a team meeting, you can set things right when you say (smiling no matter how tight) “…Jessica has been a great asset to our project and I appreciate her help”.  This statement re-frames Jessica as one who may have assisted you, and not the other way around.

Some incidents require that you meet with the offending party privately. If your boss or peer publicly disparages you or your work, there is no need to respond in the moment.  Their own behavior demeans them.   Instead, arrange an immediate private meeting to determine the cause of the aggression to diffuse future attacks.  Repeated infractions despite your private discussions with them will indicate that the party has ulterior motives that must not be tolerated.  The challenge for you now will be to determine a course of escalation.  If you have a major conflict with a team member, a poor manager is not likely to help you resolve it.  If your boss is the problem, going straight to HR can make matters worse.  HR is not your advocate but rather an agency of the company.  The manager will be told that you reported an incident to HR, and you are now left with an angry bad manager.  Instead, consider confiding in a trusted senior mentor for advice and/ or consulting an employment attorney who can advise you how to document and report incidents.

Finally, the Navigator cautions you against quitting too soon to find another company in the hope of a friendlier environment.  Organizations take on the values and operating standards of their leaders. But in today’s volatile times, leaders come and go as do good and bad employees throughout the org chart.  The monster that you run from will likely haunt you in your next job as well.  Better to build up your toolkit of dealing with the darker side of human nature so that you will become the leader that brings out the best in those around you.

the NavigatorHow to Stand Up to a Bully in Meetings
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Brad Graber
Brad Graber

Great advice indeed. I’ve worked for a leader who was unreliable at management. It’s quite an education to see someone up close who is doing it wrong. These are great prompts to help you understand the culture without forfeiting your dignity. Often, the problem is not you and your performance. It’s helpful to be able to stand back from that and dispassionately see that the real issue.

JSeidel
JSeidel

Thank you for this article. It has really helped me hold a mirror to my own leadership practices. It also made me more aware of how interrupting can be a form a bullying. After reading this, I’ve noticed it is actually very rampant in our meetings where I hadn’t realized this before (myself being an offender). I would almost go so far to say it might be part of our culture? I’ve noticed a good remedy is to better actively listen, and while that sounds like common sense, sometimes it gets forgotten. Any advice on other ways to how to… Read more »

Samantha Howie
Samantha Howie

brilliant

Yes Non Profit world too
Yes Non Profit world too

Super helpful. I appreciate how specific your suggestions are. All of what you write about applies to the non profit world also! I’m also curious about what we do as team members that help people not listen to us (e.g. talk too long, speak with apology in our voice). Maybe you’ll talk more about that in another posting.

Frustrated
Frustrated

It seems that bullies rule the day. More of my male coworkers seem even more empowered than usual to steam roll over my comments during meetings. How do I stand my ground and speak up without sounding weak or apologetic? Frustrated