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November 26, 2003 Volume 3, Issue 48
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When Power Attends the Meeting


When the boss or supervisor of the chair of a regular meeting "sits in," disruption almost inevitably results, and it's usually invisible to the visitor. Here are some of the risks of sitting in on the meetings of your subordinates.

Jeff couldn't believe what he wasn't hearing. "One more time," he said, "does anyone know how Michelle's doing on the variance report?" She'd circulated a draft yesterday, but Jeff hadn't looked at it yet. The silence puzzled him — surely someone had read the report by now.

FearAha, he thought. Maybe Michelle was reporting bad news, and nobody wanted to speak up, because Nan, Jeff's boss, was sitting in on the meeting. "OK, let's move on. Maybe Michelle will show up later," he said, knowing that she probably wouldn't.

Most meetings have an owner who chairs the meeting, devises the agenda, invites attendees and so on. When the owner's boss "sits in," everything changes, especially if visits are rare. The meeting can become awkward, tense, and ineffective. Permanent harm can result.

Rarely is visiting a
subordinate's meeting
a good idea.
The risk of
disruption is high.
Rarely is visiting a subordinate's meeting a good idea. The risk of disruption is high, due to a form of the Hawthorne effect. And if attendees misinterpret the meaning of the visit, it can even disrupt relationships among them.

Here are just some of the risks when power attends the meeting:

The chair freezes
In fear of being overruled or corrected, the chair can become tentative, avoiding issues that would normally be pursued or resolved. This is what happened to Jeff.
Everyone else freezes
If the visitor rarely attends, attendees might assume the worst — that the chair is in some kind of trouble. Unsure about their own status, they restrict their comments to safe topics. Truth goes underground.
The visitor hijacks the meeting
Almost anything the visitor says can give everyone pause, but some visitors actually try to manipulate decisions, or worse, they seize control of the meeting.
The visitor takes notes
Since no one in the room can make out what the visitor is writing down, people tend to imagine the worst.
The visitor leaves the meeting early
In the absence of real evidence, when the visitor leaves early, many wonder whether someone said something that caused anger or disgust.
Ambition takes over
Some ambitious attendees might try to impress the visitor, possibly at the expense of the chair or of other attendees.
Trouble for all to see
Attendees imagine, or believe they see, evidence of tension between the visitor and the chair, which afterwards complicates their own relationships with the chair.

Unless your purpose is to shower the chair with honor, find a different approach to accomplish your goal. If it's information you seek, ask for a briefing. If the meeting owner's performance is at issue, have a consultant observe the meeting and work with the meeting owner on any issues that surface.

If you doubt these risks, do this imaginary experiment. Imagine your boss sitting in on one of your meetings — a juicy one, perhaps, where you're investigating a troubled project. How do you think it would go? Go to top Top  Next issue: When We Need a Little Help  Next Issue
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