Compliments of Amanda Woodward via Flickr

Organizational meetings are in some cases “a necessary evil,” a bureaucratic chore in which people’s true thoughts infrequently surface. If meetings evoke memories of bullying past, then perhaps staying at home is a better option. The crux of the problem revolves around the level of shamelessness people feel willing to express, and the degree of moral development of those within the room. If your message is wrapped in a mean-spirited package, Pearson and Porath (2009) argue that people will be so taken aback by your rudeness that they’ll be too shell-shocked to focus on the content. So, how to encourage all individuals to speak within a gathering of their peers? The tips below provide some guidance in how people can behave to foster connection:   

Let people know you’ll be calling on them. This is particularly important for introverts who are reluctant to make verbal gaffes. Preparation is key to those who are unaccustomed to speaking off the cuff, and for those who are uncomfortable with presentation in the first place. The Griggs film series mentions that culture may play a large role in how individuals are addressed, and in how feedback is administered (particularly if it’s in a public place). In some cultures recognition is best received in private.   

Be a change agent. It only takes one person to positively impact the course of a meeting. “Be the change you want to see” instead of observing the drama unfold. The contagion effect suggests that people sense the mood swing and behave in accordance with the revised expectations. Best yet, be abstemious with your vocabulary; “do not speak unless you can improve the silence.”     

  • Extend a helping hand, instead of creating a “hot mess.”
  • Change how business is conducted through conscious word choice.
  • When in dialogue, try sitting someplace else besides the driver’s seat; ask a question to which you do not know the response.
  • Remember that it’s a conversation, not a combat zone. Refrain from lobbing grenades on unsuspecting individuals.

Keep your tongue in check. It’s ill-mannered to contradict another person. Cultivate the social graces – be not a maker of awkward, uncomfortable moments, and choose instead to be cheerleader for your cohorts. Elevate their status rather than cutting them off at the knees; reinforce the spirit of other people by speaking esteem affirming sentences. Nitpicking, fault finding, and hair splitting are best reserved for trial attorneys, and for quality control personnel. Have the decency to respect another’s boundaries absent them forcing your hand.   

Ask yourself the following questions:   

  • Did you hurt another’s pride?
  • Did you diminish him or her as a person?
  • Did you behave in a fashion that was less than human?
  • Did you embarrass your colleagues in front of other people?

Individuals can run on fumes from the fuel of sincere compliments. The outcome depends on whether what you desire is a whipped pup or treasured partner.   

Do not become a part of the pack. Pearson and Porath (2009) comment on the cunning nature of some abusers who desecrate those lower in rank, in a manner that’s indiscernible to those around them. The more audacious and the less inhibited choose a public forum to humiliate their targets, a tactic which results in mimicry (pack mentality), especially if the abuser is in a powerful, more senior position. A brotherhood of bullies syndicates the risk of getting caught, and mitigates the possibility of prosecution. Although scape-goating may be an acceptable practice in the animal kingdom, this behavior is a far cry from what we expect of civilized persons.   

Is your behavior adding to or subtracting from the whole? If it’s subtracting, then most likely the only gain which is occurring is in your ego’s storehouse of ill-gotten gains. Bad behavior sans repercussions spawns more of the same. Some practice “contingent civility,” or good manners only to those who pose a threat, back-peddling when they fall off the behavioral wagon. Participation is not encouraged by calling on people, but rather, by creating an atmosphere in which they are not called out.   

Come to the aid of a fallen comrade. Incivility is not a spectator sport. If you choose to remain silent, you are a complicit conspirator in the abuse of your peers. Raise the emotional tenor where you are. It’s empowering to consciously choose your own behavior, and to take the high road regardless of what other people do. Put your peers in a position where they can shine – if they remain emotionally damaged, their light is then difficult to see.   

Devise alternatives. There are several ways to ensure participation without putting people on the spot. These include nominal group technique, increasing diversity, brainstorming, suggestion boxes, structured debates, and intergroup contests. You as a leader need to find the right mix so that your meetings can be an incubator of free expression. 



Pearson, C., & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Group.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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