When the Chair Is a Bully:
by Rick Brenner
When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector since 2010. In April, 2012, his office released a Petition Audit Report on the operations of the Town of Bernice in Delaware County, Oklahoma, about 70 miles Northeast of Tulsa. The report found a number of abuses of the state's Open Meetings Act, which were well summarized the following day by FOI Oklahoma in their blog. Many of the identified abuses involved executive sessions. Some examples: discussing contracts of independent contractors in executive session; rarely taking minutes of executive sessions; not listing the statutory authorization for executive sessions or listing the wrong one; not including the names or unique titles of employees to be discussed in executive sessions; not identifying the "specific purposes of the sessions"; and voting in an executive session.
Although these abuses are somewhat characteristic of abuses of public trust, they do have analogs in the organizational context. And those analogs are just as corrosive. Too bad most private sector organizations don't have an analog of a State Auditor's Office. And too bad most organizations don't have an analog of someone like Oklahoma's Gary Jones. Photo courtesy State of Oklahoma.
Continuing our exploration of the tactics of bully Chairs, we now turn to techniques that depend on the Chair's abuse of the form of the meeting itself. See "When the Chair Is a Bully: Part I," Point Lookout for June 20, 2012, for more.
- Abusing the executive session
- The executive session, either formal or informal, is perhaps the most extreme form of participation control. It is especially tempting when the executive session attendees are trusted allies of the Chair. When there are customs or bylaws that specify executive session attendees, the Chair's ability to abuse this form is limited to overuse. That is, the Chair allocates to executive sessions decisions regarding issues for which executive sessions aren't required. But when there is no definition of the reasons for convening executive sessions, any use at all potentially constitutes abuse.
- Excluding members of a team that otherwise meets regularly as a whole should be a rare event. Frequent use might indicate intentional exclusion of disfavored attendees. Logging dates and times of all incidents is useful, but unfortunately it is possible only if the executive sessions themselves aren't secret.
- Abusing the one-on-one
- Some Chairs feel that the "entire meeting is against me." Some distrust nearly all attendees. Others feel powerless to oppose the influence of disfavored attendees. To these bully Chairs, the one-on-one provides control. They meet privately with each attendee, so as to eliminate open discussion altogether, and enhance their ability to control — or misrepresent — what the "attendees" can say to each other.
- Since open discussion is an effective means of ensuring informed and sound decisions, Chairs who adopt the serial one-on-one tactic are placing their organizations at risk. Log the frequency of open meetings and note trends in that frequency.
- Limiting what the meeting can discuss or decide
- It's typical for Chairs to determine what is appropriate for discussion at meetings, or at what meetings particular topics can be discussed. This power is abused by Chairs who schedule topics for meetings that disfavored attendees cannot attend, or who sequence agendas so as to schedule certain topics for portions of meetings in which disfavored attendees will be absent. Some Chairs schedule topics so that disfavored attendees might be attending by means of a disadvantaged medium, such as telephone or video, when they usually attend in person. Some Chairs decide that some topics won't be discussed at all.
- Log all Excluding members of a team
that otherwise meets regularly
as a whole should be
a rare eventdecisions that appear to have been taken outside the meeting context, or when disfavored attendees are absent or disadvantaged. This information can be helpful in demonstrating a pattern of abuse.
Chairs are powerful. Bully Chairs abuse that power. Proof of abuse requires both an unambiguous demonstration of a pattern of abuse, and an open-minded supervisor who is willing to examine the proof. First in this series Top Next Issue
Are you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2010 survey indicated that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, and that bullying is about four times more prevalent than all other forms of illegal harassment combined. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99, Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
- The High Cost of Low Trust: Part I
- We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
- Dismissive Gestures: Part I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
- What Is Workplace Bullying?
- We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: Part I
- Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: