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How to Steer Workplace Tangents Back on Track

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Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows how easy it is for a meeting to veer wildly off topic. Even in casual work environments, these familiar tangents -- whether they be about current events, politics, or a viral social media post -- deal a huge blow to productivity. When heated emotions come into the equation, it's even harder to refocus your team on the task at hand.


The other day I was in a meeting where someone mentioned that the U.S. women's national soccer players are paid less than their male counterparts, even though a budget report from the U.S. Soccer Federation puts the women's team revenue at nearly double the men's team. Some people felt that was unfair. Other people believed male players needed to be paid higher salaries to counteract the fact they are offered much higher salaries to play for club teams. By this person's logic, the only way to have a decent men's soccer team is to pay them more than the women. That's all it took to be off and running.

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The problem with tangents is they seem to spawn other tangents. From the soccer debate, someone said it was unfair that teenage boys have to pay more for auto insurance than teenage girls. Someone else said it is because they get in more accidents. Still another person said they know a very conservative teenage boy who is more careful than most girls. So why should he have to pay more? From there, people went off on health insurance, Obamacare, on and on.

Finally, one person spoke up and said, "We're all going around in circles and getting nowhere. Can we get back to the original point about U.S. women soccer players?" Needless to say, at that point, everyone was heated and distracted.

This is how bar fights happen. People attack other people for something they weren't even saying or, at least in their mind, had no idea they were saying. Tangents are often open to misinterpretation, because of the emotions that come into play. When we take a step back and look at this sort of thing, it's comical, but it's a terrible workplace dynamic.

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Pick any ordinary business day. If you pay attention, you will realize this dynamic permeates and compromises many business conversations. The fact is, people love to debate. Even if your fundamental point is agreed with, a tangential point will come up with a tone of opposition. This sends the conversation spinning in who knows what direction, but certainly not one germane to the business at hand.

Good managers and leaders must know how to navigate such situations and steer the ship back on course into more productive waters. From water cooler conversations to important team meetings, we've all seen the phenomenon of emotional tangents at play. How do we reroute in situations like these?

First of all, remain calm. As a leader, you must act as the anchor in the room, bringing stability to the crew during the choppy waters of opposing viewpoints, hot button debate issues and so on. One person remaining calm, centered and collected can make all the difference in the world. Oftentimes, your presence can act as a mirror for people to become a witness to their own behavior. By noticing that you are not engaging in the gossip, your employees are more likely to take a hint and save the unprofessional conversations for after hours.

Next, get back to the point. Don't let the tangential points pettifog the issue or confuse you. Somewhere amidst the seething torrent of emotional uproar, find an opportunity to get the conversation back on track. This may take some time. If you try to push too hard or too soon, you risk being seen as an opponent of the tangential debate, rather than a voice of reason who just wants to get back to work.

Related: 5 Strategies for Subtly Dominating Meetings

Granted, tangents are not always emotional or unproductive. Often a meeting can spawn other ideas and brainstorming that could potentially be of value at a later time. You might acknowledge that, but then complete your point and make sure it is understood. Acknowledging useful ideas, writing them down, and telling the team you will meet about those at a later time can be an effective technique.

The successful running of your business has as much to do with well functioning interpersonal dynamics as the value of your product or service. Of course you want to value opposing viewpoints and perspectives, but business communications are not a productive venue for emotional tangents. As a leader, you will do well to keep everyone on task to work together as a team. Being able to effectively manage conflicting personalities will not only keep your ship in calm waters, but also help you to reach the other shore much more quickly.

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