I just returned from a board meeting that was challenging. It was challenging both in the issues that were being debated, but also in the behavior of one participant. I’ve been in hundreds of meetings like it, and it makes me want to scream.
I love challenging subject matter. Nothing is more fun than a group of bright people exploring complex issues and trying to come to a reasonable decision. Even when the momentum is going against my position, it’s a treat to have the insights of others, and to work with the group dynamics to make progress on tough issues. But the whole thing can go down the tubes through the efforts of just one person.
I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person. I tend to be optimistic about things, tend to try to find the best in others, and tend to think everything will work out for the best. But I have just as much respect for people who are “glass half-empty” kinds of people. They tend to think things won’t work and that everyone is out to screw you. Most of the ones I know are lawyers… Generally, these people make a great match for people like me. Together, we tend to find a reasonable middle groud — with the optimism to get it done, and the caution not to do something stupid in the process.
Then there are the “empty glass” people. You know these people, they can’t imagine how or why it will work, don’t understand why we’d even consider doing that, and generally find fault in everything. They want to think they are just cautious, glass half-empty people, but their glass is bone dry. I’m sure there are people at the other end of the spectrum, who are encouragably optimistic, I just don’t see them in business meetings that often.
When the empty glass people are in your meeting, you can spot them immediately. They second-guess everything, and nothing is ever right — even the coffee. Beyond being just being another person to sway in the meeting, these people are more incidious. They sap everyone’s energy, and end up sucking the life out of the group. The optimists have to fight against an unreasonable position, and the pessimists find themselves having to defend the reasonable glass half-empty perspective, lest it be sucked entirely down the drain.
In my board meeting, the empty glass person was relentless. She kept at it, with all her weapons. She countered every comment, saw nothing positive in anything, and scoffed at reasonable attempts at compromise. She, simply, made a fool of herself.
So, what do you do about them? Well, if you are leader, it’s simple: just don’t invite them. Avoid the risk and pain of having these people torpedo your meeting, and keep them off the roster. Just like a bad employee, the whole organization will be better off if you just cut your losses early.
If you are unfortunate enough to merely be stuck in a meeting with one of these people, there’s little you can do. Try to make them see reason, toss up arguments to combat their negativism. But it usually doesn’t work.
So I go back to the lessons I learned from child-rearing. More often than not, I find that ignoring them works. If the rest of the meeting participants follow suit, they grow weary of pushing the rock up the hill, and stop. With any luck, they will get so tired of it, they will decline the next meeting invite, and everyone will be better off.