One of the themes in Good Boss, Bad Boss, as well as some of my past academic research (see this old chapter on meetings as status contests), is that bosses and other participants use meetings to establish and retain prestige and power. This isn't always dysfunctional; for example, when I studied brainstorming at IDEO, designers gained prestige in the culture by following the brainstorming rules, especially by generating lots of ideas and building on the ideas of others. And when they built a cool prototype in a brainstorm, their colleagues were impressed. The IDEO status contest was remarkably functional because it wasn't an I win-you lose game; everyone who brainstormed well was seen as cool and constructive. In addition, the status game rewarded people who performed IDEO's core work well.
Unfortunately, too many people, especially power-hungry and clueless bosses, use meetings to display and reinforce their "coercive power" over others in ways that undermine both the performance and the dignity of their followers. As I've shown, bosses often don't realize how destructive they are because power often causes people to be more focused on their own needs, less focused on the needs and actions of others,and to act like "the rules don't apply to me."
I was reminded of the dangers of bosshole behavior in meetings by this troubling but instructive note I received the other day. It is a classic case. Note this is the exact text sent me by this unnamed reader, except that I have changed the bosshole's name to Ralph to protect the innocent and the guilty:
I wanted to pass on to you a trick my most recent crappy boss used to use in meetings.
The manager I am thinking of is particularly passive-aggressive and also really arrogant at the same time. He was notorious for sending these ridiculous emails that were so long that no one would read them. (He’s also an engineer in every sense of that word) This was at a technology company and we used to start our Mondays off with a business/technical discussion. These meetings initially took an hour but soon turned into 2 and would regularly go 3 and sometimes 4 hours. It was mostly ‘Ralph’ talking expansively about the issues at hand, about those mother-scratchers in the head office and why we shouldn’t take our challenges back to them (Really? Don’t want to solve anything? Really?). It was just unbelievable, we rarely got anything useful accomplished.
His favorite tricks, though, were pretty much verbatim from your book. He’d arrive 10 – 20 minutes later for almost every meeting and then kill them once in a while. He added an interesting twist to this too. Every so often, if we knew we had work items to cover, we’d forget about the last time and start the meeting without him. Then he’d arrive an hour late without apology, ask what we covered and then make us start the whole meeting again. After all, it couldn’t be a real meeting without ‘Ralph’. And we needed to learn from his vast wealth of experience, didn’t we?
A few questions:
Have you ever seen behavior like this in other places?
If you are a boss, how do you stop yourself from wielding power in dysfunctional ways, and instead, create a functional status contest?
If you boss acts like an overbearing jerk during meetings, how can you fight back?