One Bad Meeting Can Create a Culture of Silence

Elizabeth O’Neill, People & Culture expert, BoS participant and, this year, speaker, explains the difference between having one bad meeting and creating a culture of silence in this guest blog post.

One Bad Meeting Can Create a Culture of Silence

A Founder, who I’ll call Sam, has finally come up with an idea that will pivot his company from its flatlined growth. It’s taken many sleepless nights, but he’s formed a solid vision for a new product that will make their existing platform exponentially more valuable. Excitedly, he pulls together his small team and describes his idea. 

His team is quiet at first, and then they gradually start to ask questions. 

  • Does the new product conflict with what we’re currently selling? 
  • Are we sure there are customers who actually want it?
  • Will it pull the team’s attention away from our other product?

Sam, who’s spent the last week imagining his vision into reality, feels his excitement morph into irritation with each new question. The tension in his body rises. His tone changes from being enthusiastic and open, to closed and clipped. When a team member flatly says, “I don’t think this will work”, he feels his frustration surge. 

He points out to his team member that she’s new to the company and doesn’t have enough organizational context. Moreover, as a junior developer, she doesn’t have the necessary experience to back up her opinion. He goes on to lecture the team about why his idea is so game changing. 

The meeting- which should have ended 15 minutes ago – ends in awkward silence.

One Bad Meeting Can Create a Culture of Silence

For leaders who have a “fighter” response when triggered, this scenario may sound familiar. And it’s no surprise that in this case, Sam’s was activated. Faced with intense pressure over his company’s stagnation, he’s been wracking his brain for a strategy that will bring hope and confidence back to his company- and back to him personally. 

For a founder, the business and the personal are often one and the same. As the business has decelerated, Sam in turn has become lethargic and anxious. What’s more, the roller coaster of running his company is starting to wear him down. So when his team asks questions- even though they were curious, thoughtful questions – it sets off his style under stress.

That one bad meeting, can very quickly lead to a culture of silence.

Or it Can Just be One Bad Meeting

After taking the night to cool down, Sam is better able to reflect on his actions in the meeting. He becomes aware of a few key things:

  • First, he went into the meeting with an unclear goal. To be completely honest, he had hoped the team would be as excited as he was about his idea, and he wasn’t prepared for actual feedback. What’s more, since he went in unprepared, his style under stress was triggered more quickly.
  • Second, rather than getting much-needed feedback about the practicality of his idea, Sam’s defensive responses actually closed off communication with the team. This made it nearly impossible to get important input into a critical strategic decision. And with Sam’s influence as founder, their reluctance to share their opinions could easily become the norm if he continues to act defensively.
  • Lastly, the persistent stress he’s been under is beginning to affect his overall mindset. Where he’s normally energized by daily challenges, he increasingly feels frustrated, judgmental and stuck. Which is making it harder for him to tap into the creativity he needs in order to figure things out.     

What to do After One Bad Meeting

Fortunately, one bad meeting usually doesn’t make or break a company. And yet, what Sam chooses to do next will determine if his culture stays open and collaborative, or devolves into one of silence.

He decides to address his ineffective behavior and lessons learned head-on with his team. Beforehand, he mentally prepares himself to take responsibility, be curious and ask open-ended questions. 

He apologizes both to the teammate he talked down to in the meeting and the whole team. He acknowledges that his actions were ineffective and he shares that he’s trying to improve. Then he plans a new meeting with the team to discuss his product idea. This time, he shares the purpose and desired outcomes of the meeting in advance.

For the most part, the conversations go as Sam hoped. While he finds himself getting triggered at times by critical feedback, he’s able to notice the signs more quickly and redirect himself back to his true goal.

And crucially, his team notices the difference: that he talks less, asks thoughtful follow-up questions, and doesn’t react defensively. 

Reflect

Ultimately, what you choose to do with what you’ve learned often makes all the difference to your company. It’s the difference between having one bad meeting and a series of bad meetings that culminates in a culture of silence. 

Reflect on your wins and misses, acknowledge what you’ve learned with those around you, and keep trying to do better. That’s the best any of us can do.

Join Elizabeth at BoS Conference Online Fall, 27-29 September, where she’ll be leading a breakout conversation about managing your mind as a founder.

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