Leadership

How to Disrupt Your Next Meeting -- and Look Like the Smartest Person in the Room

Even the most ineffective meetings represent opportunities for leverage.
How to Disrupt Your Next Meeting -- and Look Like the Smartest Person in the Room
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Eighty percent of success, the saying holds, is about just showing up.

By this measure, the millions of meetings that are held in offices across the U.S. every day provide attendees with a strong chance to make the other 20 percent happen.

If they could appreciate being there, that is.

Last year, a survey of 2,066 Americans by Harris/Clarizen showed that almost 50 percent preferred just about “any unpleasant activity” to sitting in a meeting. Alternatives included taking a trip to the DMV (18 percent), watching paint dry (17 percent) and undergoing a root canal (8 percent).

But is taking this attitude a winning strategy for an ambitious professional? Spoiler alert: not so much.

Related: Let's Give Meetings a Much-Needed Makeover

Worse, it drives your boss nuts. Recently, one senior executive of an American-based tech multinational told me that members of her team routinely “check out” during meetings.

“These are very smart people,” she says. “But often, they either start multitasking or just aren’t fully present at meetings.”

Behavior like this can hurt even the most valued high-potential employees, because it shows passivity, rather than leadership and initiative. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to mentally check out during an endless round of meetings -- including fuzzy agendas, vague objectives and the general feeling that one just doesn’t need to be there.

In theory, anyone who calls a meeting will have a purpose in mind: to arrive at a decision, solve a problem or share updates that require feedback. In practice, that’s often not what happens.

So that kind of meeting is a waste of your time, right? Wrong. Even the most ineffective meetings represent opportunities for leverage.

Here are three ways to look like the smartest person in the room, even when a meeting feels like the dumbest time-suck ever:

1. Challenge up.

When the CEO or a senior executive attends a meeting, lower-ranking team members can wind up feeling intimidated or tongue-tied. Even when they have valuable ideas to offer, they can feel obliged to defer to authority -- or worse, wholly succumb to group-think, which occurs when an organization appears to value harmony and conformity over rigorous analysis and critical evaluation.

But reticence in meetings often leads to flawed decision-making, so bosses hate it. (You may snort at this with disbelief, but my coaching experience bears this out.) 

Recently, the president of a Detroit-based automotive parts manufacturer, whose VP of sales I coached for executive presence, shared that he wanted his lieutenant to “challenge [him] more in meetings.”

Recent research supports this. A 2013 Center for Talent Innovation survey of 268 senior executives found that integrity and speaking truth to power are highly sought-after qualities in emerging leaders. Similarly, a 2014 paper by the American Psychological Association showed that being courageous and speaking from the heart are characteristics of executive presence that help people get ahead.   

But that begs the question: how do you successfully challenge the boss and not get fired? The answer is to offer substance -- through sound reasoning and compelling evidence -- and in a way that doesn’t threaten his or her status. This is important to get right: Neuroscience research has shown that a perceived status threat -- such as a condescending tone, a scowling facial expression or thinly veiled sarcasm -- is as painful as a blow to the head, leading to increased cortisol levels and anxiety.

A boss experiencing this sudden flash of stress hormones may react emotionally (translation: negatively) rather than focus on the value of your perspective.      

Related: 5 Tips For Better Meetings

Conveniently, success can lie in a simple swap-out of prepositions. Replace “but” with “and” when challenging your boss. Try saying it out loud to yourself right now, and see which sounds better: “I appreciate everything you just said, but we should consider XYZ.” Or, “I appreciate everything you just said, and we should consider XYZ.” The latter conveys a collaborative spirit whereas the former just sounds oppositional.

But you can’t approach this half-heartedly. A challenged boss may challenge back by probing for context or detail, or both. You responding with a sheepish expression and a half-baked argument can do more harm than if you’d said nothing. Still, if you’re immediately short on the requested details, offer to provide additional information post-meeting, as you take the lead in engaging in a productive dialogue with the boss.

2. Disrupt the seating order.

It’s natural to sit with those who make us feel comfortable: friends, allies or teammates. But you’ve already established those bonds. Because organizations run on relationships, use your next meeting to expand your network.

Try sitting next to someone to whom you’ve never spoken, someone with a vastly different skillset or professional background -- even someone who, at first blush, you may not like. This takes effort, but the approach can yield significant benefits, allowing you to establish new connections, gain a new perspective on a problem or cooperatively brainstorm ideas.

What's more, the gesture signals to someone that you respect them. And if there isn’t an opportunity for a quick sidebar chat, you’ve created an opening to connect after the meeting -- provided you actually speak to them, of course.

You can break the ice, and avoid a threat response, by elegantly justifying your disruption of the usual seating order. Ask, “’Mind if I sit next to you? I wanted to run something by you.” Or offer a firm handshake and say, “We haven’t officially met. I’d love to learn a bit more about you.” The options are endless.

The point is to take advantage of the many opportunities at meetings for smaller conversations with your colleagues, especially in problem-solving sessions. Reduce emotional distance by reducing physical distance.

3. Commit to providing something of value.

Providing value is the antithesis of “just showing up.” But if you think that value means the loaf of banana bread that you distributed at the last meeting, think again. People will gladly accept your kindness and thank you politely, but no one will see you as a serious player or respect you for filling their tummies with empty calories, however delicious.

Meetings are about progress, results and relationships. Being prepared is a good foundation for providing value, but as corporate meetings go, especially impromptu ones, you may not always be clear on a meeting’s objective until it starts.

Related: An Introvert's Guide to Communicating With Results

Regardless, the key here is to be engaged. When a meeting begins, commit yourself to providing value in one form or another. Don’t hang back and wait for others to speak. Instead, take the lead -- humbly (especially when you’re not in charge). This could mean asking thoughtful questions that broaden everyone’s understanding of an issue. It could mean offering fresh ideas that lead to possible solutions to a pesky problem. It could mean bringing the meeting back on track when it’s been hijacked by an off-topic rant, or using humor -- judiciously -- to de-escalate tension in the face of a frosty exchange between participants.

There are many ways to contribute value. Deciding in advance that you’ll do so can sufficiently prime you to shine in a meeting, even as others in the room silently wish they were somewhere else.