A reader writes:
At work, I have several coworkers with the same job title as me, but our supervisor has recently designated one specific person as “lead.” They are more experienced than the rest of us and have been here the longest, so this makes sense. She is to organize training for new members, be the point person for questions, take over scheduling, and restructure how we run our meetings, etc. She is essentially in the role of managing us on a day-to-day basis, but she’s not really a manager. She is our coworker and does the same job we do; she just has extra roles that she has taken on. She’s struggling with how to do this effectively.
In reorganizing our meetings, she has eliminated a couple of them and instituted an informal but mandatory meeting where we can all talk about what is going on in our week. The idea is for us to discuss things that we want to change or work on in the office environment, clients who are difficult or causing problems, things coworkers are doing or not doing that affect our ability to work, etc. She wants to give people a forum where they can talk about things, to manage the office culture in a proactive, ongoing way, rather than being reactionary when problems happen, and to foster ideas that might benefit everyone, but that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. We are located in the Midwest, and everyone here is (notoriously) passive aggressive and doesn’t like to talk about their feelings. Our lead is a very kind, smart, personable character, but is very direct and was hoping to change this part of the office culture to facilitate more open communication. Behind the scenes drama drives her nuts.
Today we had our first meeting, and nobody wanted to say anything. We basically all sat there like we were in trouble. When the lead gave an example of what types of things she’d like for us to be able to discuss–a coworker of ours behaving unprofessionally in response to a comment–he got really offended and emailed her later to tell her that it was untactful and that he was upset. They’ve worked it out, but I don’t think a group setting is going to work well for our office. I think we all (except our lead) prefer to handle things quietly and one-on-one. She understands this, but thinks it is dysfunctional on some level and impedes our team growth and coherence. She wants to help move people to be more open about what is going on in the office so we can talk about issues and resolve them, rather than pretending like they aren’t there. Plus, many concerns affect more than just the two people immediately involved, and this meeting would provide an opportunity for everyone to be involved in the resolution.
Do you have any suggestions about how we might construct this meeting or approach this goal? How can we use this time for this purpose, given we’re all a bunch of really sensitive, introverted perfectionists who earnestly want to please people and have everyone be happy? How can we engage people to talk about problems or concerns, but not offend anyone? We’ve already established that we use “I” language, and that if you have a concern, you also need to come forward with a proposed solution, or at least some idea of where you want to go with it, so we don’t just complain or point fingers. So we’re trying to be really respectful about this. Would one-on-one office hours be better? Will it just be a tough transition, but eventually work out? Do you think this is even a good idea to begin with?
No, it’s very much not a good idea.
If your office genuinely needs weekly meetings to discuss difficult clients, problematic coworkers, and things you need to change, something is pretty damn dysfunctional. That kind of thing might come up here and there, but in most offices it’s not going to be a weekly meeting type of frequency, and most of that stuff isn’t going to be best addressed through a group meeting anyway — and especially not an unstructured, free-flow, “raise any random concern you have about a coworker with the whole group” type of meeting.
In fact, that’s a recipe for either uncomfortable silence (which is what happened) or demoralizing and upsetting people (which also happened).
Frankly, it sounds a bit like the idea of someone with little experience managing other humans coupled with grandiose ideas about what can be achieved by people just talking things out.
(To be clear, I’m a big fan of people talking things out. But not in this format with these prompts and this structure.)
Maybe you could say this: “You know, I don’t think we need a weekly meeting for this kind of thing. I’d like to just address issues as they come up. And I don’t think a format where the group addresses issues with one person will be constructive; I think that’s a recipe for tension and even drama. I’d like to propose that we continue handling those things one-on-one, as most offices do.”
If her concern is that people tend to pretend like problems aren’t there, well, she can certainly take the lead in raising them with the people involved to get the problem resolved. That’s what good managers do.
I hear you that you want to be respectful of her and open-minded to her ideas, but you also get to speak up when you think something’s a bad idea — and as long as you do that politely and respectfully, a good lead will welcome that input.