You are asked to join an urgent client meeting on a bridge call because the client is having production issues. You listen in on the crowded call, there are many participants on mute, and most of them have their video feeds turned off.
Experts from different parts of the organization are giving status updates and have found nothing unusual in their areas. The stress is building ..as you listen and scan through the notes sent to you prior to the meeting, a booming voice interrupts the call and asks you “What do you think we should be doing now?”
How will you respond?
This is a situation I found myself in recently.
I have been at Pythian for 12+ years and I have worked in multiple roles through the years: DBA, Team Manager, Internal Principal Consultant, Product Owner, and Solution Architect.
I’m sure you have experienced your fair share of high-stress remote meetings. I too have participated in calls, that dealt with organization threatening consequences, but the team failed to negotiate (or took far too long, to deal with) the real challenge.
Why does this happen? It happens because of human nature. People are protecting their turf, hiding information, deflecting, venting about side issues. As one would expect, it does not always end well.
So, what can we do to change the inevitable negative outcome? First, we must understand a few things before coming up with possible solutions:
#1 – People carry their emotions and skills into meetings
“When people enter a group, they bring their affective personalities and individual affective experiences and skills with them” **
Highly skilled, highly creative people are often very emotional, and high stress can bring their volatility into the mix. While listening to others in high-stress meetings, I try to classify the emotional noise with these four constructs:
How do the people in this meeting see their world?
I can tell you that stuff is always breaking apart here, this entire place is going to pieces! ( Fear Uncertainty Doubt)
I have seen similar stuff, but this is unusual (Never seen this big wave coming our way!)
I am sure these guys are smarter than we are and will have this figured out quickly (Humility is so refreshing.. and transfers the pressure too!)
I told them to not change the <product mix/version/location/timing/price>, did we change anything? (Missing the good old days of stability..)
What is the low-intensity diffuse feeling state (mood) during the meeting?
We may see that the members are:
- cheerful, secure, actually joking about how bad this is, almost everyone is on video and people are joining in the discussion. (overall positive mood, this team pulls together )
- glum, no one is making comments or suggestions, everyone’s video is turned off, voices are guarded, HiPPO *** is in action (overall negative mood, blame is being sprayed around, no one is going to take the initiative)
- not affected by what is going on, insulated in their own stuff, and they have to be probed to get an answer. Most answers are “I’ll need to get back to you.” (indifferent mood, emergencies happen here too often and people will not volunteer information, the team may muddle through this one!)
Are some members reacting emotionally during the meeting?
Emotions usually have a clear cause or object, are shorter in duration, and are more focused and intense.
Fear: We are losing $$$$$ by the minute … what is the ETA for this fix?
Hostility: Who hired these guys? Have they ever seen this stuff before?
Circling the Wagons: All the info is in this document, my people are too busy fighting the fire to bring you up to speed!
Victory Lap: Look at that response Graph! I told you we could fix it!
What sentiments are being expressed?
Sentiments are based on likes/dislikes that can come from previous experience with the object/situation or through social learning.
The last time we had to fail-over to the DR site. It took us __ days to get everything back! Not again!
The Black Friday period is tough for us every year… this is pretty normal given our web traffic.
Hope we have a backup for the data center that just went down!
#2 –EI (Emotional Intelligence)
“Being emotionally intelligent involves being actively able to identify, understand, process, and influence one’s own emotions and those of others to guide feeling, thinking, and action.” **
An EI+ meeting has an overall good mood, emotions are usually positive, and people share positive sentiments. In meetings like this, we can be assured a good level of discussion. People will be able to communicate openly. An EI+ meeting is well on its way to a solution — the scale of the disaster does not matter!
Conversely, in an EI- meeting we see the stress, the bad mood, and the negative emotions. The real issues are not being discussed and therefore the solutions are peripheral at best. A small disaster balloons into a bigger one!
With so much at stake, it makes sense to recognize emotional artifacts separately, which will help us to redirect the focus of the team towards the solution.
#3 – The Order of Priority
Negative Emotions are the biggest distractions because they cloud issues that a team needs to address urgently. To handle negative emotions in a meeting:
- Re-summarize — look for the causes that are generating the negative emotions. Aiming for a clear articulation of the issues (acknowledge the passion and recognize the problems; dig deeper after handling the emotional outburst)
- Look for real data — what is the machine/algorithm/monitoring telling us? ( facts will always clear the smoke, whereas emotions thicken it)
- Explain the current thinking and ask for suggestions (clear, upfront communication, invite participation, bring people out of the “fog of war” and back into reality)
An overall negative mood requires a different remedy since it is an undercurrent that everyone is aware of ( an outsider invited into the meeting may not know why, but will sense it).
A good mood, like a bad mood, can be injected into the meeting. Unlike emotions, there are no hard causes, so I recommend being patient while trying these things out:
- Look for small quick wins, and emphasize that we are following the right approach.
- Re-invite participation from all members. Thank them for their inputs.
- Maintain a positive tone, with due respect to the gravity of the situation.
I have found that when I bring up a general observation on the dark mood, in one-on-one interactions outside the meeting, most attendees pinged after tough calls, will deny anything was wrong. But then an amazing thing happens — they will usually tell me more about the background to the problem! The iceberg starts to come out of the water!
Negative sentiments are built on real experience. I will prepare to store them away for future. They will be cross-checked when we are developing the “go”/”no-go” areas of the solution. Some problems that brought about the negative sentiments could well be fixable.They will be priorities for future calls.
A negative dispositional affect is the last thing to focus on. I have found that genuine praise and courtesy works wonders, especially when summarizing a team ’s effort after the main problem is tackled. For a team’s worldview to change, their belief in their skills in overcoming their challenges is essential.
So before responding to the question “What do you think we should be doing now?”
- Re-summarize the issues
- Look for actionable causes behind Emotions
- Acknowledge the Mood
- Listen to Sentiments and Dispositional Affect (use them when I build the solution).
I then take a deep breath and start:
“Hi, my name is Karun. Here is what I see happening right now, please correct me if I am wrong …”
** Janice R. Kelly & Sigal G. Barsade in 2001 wrote a paper “Mood and Emotions in Small Groups and Work Teams” published in “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes” where they explore how elements of the affective context, such as organizationwide emotion norms and the group’s particular emotional history, may serve to constrain or amplify group members’ emotions.
*** HiPPO: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion