Meetings are great opportunities for your career.
This post gives you the ground rules of meeting power dynamics and strategies.
So let’s start:
- 1. Get Buy-In Before the Meeting
- 2. Adapt Like a Chamelon to Boss & Culture
- 3. In Inter-Department Meetings, Side With Your Team
- 4. Focus on The Top Banana, Ignore The Rest
- 5. Grill External Vendors (& Job Candidates)
- 6. Sit Right to The Boss
- 7. Speak Early, Speak Often, Speak Confidently
- 8. Self-Promote, But Offset It With Collaborative Frames
1. Get Buy-In Before the Meeting
This is a common mistake for less power-aware folks.
They see a meeting set on their calendar to discuss a certain topic and they think: “great, that’s my opportunity to introduce my great idea”.
Big freaking mistake.
Persuasion is about power.
Most big-shot executives worth their salt have big egos and are very high on power.
If you persuade them the spot, it sub-communicates that you have power over them. And that you are “better” than them.
And the higher in power -and the higher up in the organization- the attendees are, the more they will naturally resist.
Especially if it comes from someone far lower down.
Of course, they might not consciously think that they are going to resist your idea so that they can retain power, but they still act like it.
This is when you will meet the most natural resistance:
- You are junior compared to the attendees
- You are on the same level, but you’re newer in the organization
- You have only average -or below average- status
- Your idea entails a big change
- Your idea is costly
- You are asking for changes on the status quo that the attendees previously approved
Think about what the last one says.
If you see why it’s likely to fail, you’re becoming an effective strategist.
That last one says “I know better than you”.
And nobody wants to accept that frame.
Reverse of The Law: Lucio Under Fire
I have my own experience with this mistake.
When I was in a graduate talent programme we had the chance to put our discussion items on the table of the senior leadership to discuss and possibly implement.
We all had pretty ambitious changes to propose, and mine was the most ambitious. I wanted to change the home office policy from 2 days a week with manager’s approval, to no manager’s approval needed, no limits on the number of days.
So we -or at least, me- strolled into the room, spotless suits and matching ties, powerpoints ready, and we started our show.
How did that go?
It was one of my career’s biggest fails.
At a certain point, the top executives were cracking jokes and laughing about us.
I did manage to defend myself with some pacing and leading -I wish there was a video of it-, but it was still a major at a team level fail.
You must do your persuasive work before the meeting.
Speak to the key stakeholder before the meeting, and get their opinions. Make their input feel appreciated, modify your pitch based on some of their recommendations, and then go back to them until they are at least open to hearing you.
Get the buy-in of as many key stakeholders as possible. If there is one top-decision maker, then focus on him.
Ideally, you get approval before the meeting, and then the meeting’s presentation becomes a formality.
And imagine how cooler and smoother you look when you walk in, and everyone welcomes your solutions.
You might not always be able to get buy-in or contact the attendees before the presentation.
But unless you have more power than everyone else in the room, at least prepare your presentation with power dynamics in mind. Avoid making your idea or big pitch sound like you are criticizing or improving on a terrible status quo. And avoid a frame where it’s you who has to “convince them”.
If you get stuck in a “you convincing us frame”, avoid at all costs to make it a confrontational exchange.
Welcome their criticism, say they are right, avoid the word “but”, empower them to decide.
If things are getting bad, say this:
You: look, I’m not saying this is a silver bullet. I’m saying this might be a solution. But you guys are smart people who know the business, so you might know better here. All I know is that it worked in this and that company. What I’m saying is that it’s something that it might be worth considering.
Offer Yourself To Test It Out
If you’re in a position to do so, say that you’re happy to take the lead on it on your own time, and report back to them.
That puts your effort where your money is. 100x better than just pitching ideas.
Higher-ups love people who are willing to go the extra mile to test things. And people are always far more likely to agree when the change doesn’t cost them time and effort.
Gender Power Dynamics
as a rule of thumb, men resist being influenced in public far more than women do.
So this is twice as important if you are presenting to men, and three times as important if you are a woman.
See this post:
2. Adapt Like a Chamelon to Boss & Culture
The simplest way to fix a political blunder is to prevent one.
As a general rule:
You can ask pointed questions and challenge your peers, but you are not allowed nearly the same latitude with those above your paygrade.
However, how much you can talk, ask, and challenge, depends in large part on:
- The company culture
- Your boss’ personality
If you don’t know the company culture and if you haven’t gotten the measures of your boss yet, ask him.
For example “boss, I’d like your opinion: is it OK to express my opinions if they don’t align with the upper management in a meeting, or is it better to talk with you first?”.
He will also take it as a sign you respect his authority, and it will help you establish a mentor-mentee relationship.
3. In Inter-Department Meetings, Side With Your Team
In intra-team meetings, you can argue with your colleagues.
But in inter-team meetings arguing with your colleagues can be perceived as “friendly fire”. It frames you like you are not being a team player.
When you criticize your colleagues in intra-team meetings, it can be perceived like you’re not sufficiently feeling a “team belonging”. You’re not a team player, and they won’t want to support you.
Worst of all if the boss is present: he will take it as treason, and as a sign of disloyalty.
Because intra-team’s dynamics in the male culture have a tinge of “us/them”.
Yes, it’s childish having to “side” with your team, but that’s how the game is often played in most organizations.
And if you don’t show you’re part of the “us”, you lose status in your team -especially with men, and especially with male bosses-.
Don’t go out of your way to attack the other team, of course, but remind yourself which team you’re on (quick reminder: it’s fair to be on “team you“, in certain circumstances).
Starting with the seating position. Sit with your team. Ideally, centrally, not on the edges. Most of all, avoid sitting with the “them” team.
4. Focus on The Top Banana, Ignore The Rest
Remember the example above?
In that meeting with the senior leadership, the big boss made a joke that my proposal would make a far-west of the organization, and that next we could allow beers at work-.
Of course, him being the big boss, the whole room exploded in laughter.
I laughed too -this was strategic: to avoid “us VS me”, and to show I was on their side and not taking it personally-.
Then, as the laugh started dying down, I said something like this:
Me: Look, I can see why you’re worried about this (pacing, and showing respect for his point of view).
It is worrying to give away so much power (aligning with him. Before leading, it’s best to align first).
And I agree with you, some people will abuse of that power (validating his fears). And that’s great (leading now with a total 360 turn. Now everyone’s attention is sky-high: what is he going to say?). That’s exactly why this proposal can be a good idea (notice: “can”, which is power protecting, not “is”). When everyone’s free to choose between abusing the system or use the freedom to do better work, we can quickly tell who are the good guys from the bad ones (notice: “we”, we’re on the same boat, we both want the good of the organization).
This proposal is not a blank cheque for everyone to do whatever they want. This is a reward for the best performers, so that we can keep and attract the top performers we want.
I wasn’t this smooth. I was thinking on my feet, but I’m providing you the best version for you to learn more. It still worked great though, and the coordinator of the programme referred to this instance when in her Linkedin recommendation she said “negotiate with a very difficult opponent“.
Now nobody was laughing anymore.
And everyone was thinking about it. It was finally sinking in that, albeit drastic, the idea might not be so stupid after all.
Why did it work?
Well, one, because it was smartly worded, and using collaborative frames
But it also worked because I addressed the leader, the highest-ranking authority, and he was pondering it.
Had I said the exact same thing to someone else, it would have still been good, but most people would have turned to the leader to see if he bought it.
And you can rest assured of this: the leader wouldn’t have liked that I addressed someone else for my crucial appeal. Likely, he would have remained unconvinced just to prove his power.
And if the leader had kept attacking, the whole spiel would have fallen on deaf ears.
Mind you, the board still did not move forward with the decision.
But they at least consider it.
And they all remembered my name from that day on (a loss for the proposal, but definitely a personal win).
If you find yourself under assault, you want to do something similar.
Don’t escalate the attacks and barbs from the lower-level individuals in the room: they are just social-climbing for status.
Instead, deflect, ignore, frame their questions as nonsense maybe, and generally avoid losing power. But don’t escalate, don’t get emotional and, ultimately, don’t worry too much about them.
This is again a situation where emotional detachment will carry you forward. And instead, focus on highest rank in the room.
When you can win him over, you won everyone over.
5. Grill External Vendors (& Job Candidates)
Why do so many underlings get so aggressive at meetings?
In part, it’s because some men enjoy ganging up on others from a position of power.
And in part, it’ because aggressive questioning can actually be a good strategy to showcase your skills -and toughness-.
It can be a strategic decision then to take a similar approach when there is a meeting with external vendors, say, a consultant, or a seller of third-party software.
In those cases, you don’t want to grill them just for the sake of grilling them -that’s a low-quality power move-.
But you want to ask questions to showcase your critical thinking skills and your ownership mindset, which is very leader-like.
If the tool or person is going to impact your job, then you want to ask questions to make sure you can keep doing a great job. And if you are spending the company’s money, take ownership and ask questions as if it were your money.
This is also an opportunity to showcase your critical thinking skills.
At the very least, you can ask basic questions such as “how do you know that”, which shows that you care about the sources of information.
The same is true for interviews.
You always want to ask at least a few questions to the job candidate.
6. Sit Right to The Boss
You’ve heard this one because it’s quite popular.
And for good reasons: it’s true.
The power of the boss permeates around him, and it will rub off of you.
Furthermore, sitting near communicates that you probably have a good relationship with the boss -and that you’re not uncomfortable with power, which is good, since many men are-.
Most of all, you want to avoid team meetings where your boss and your teammates are sitting on the same side, and you are sitting across from them.
It sends the message you are not close to your team.
7. Speak Early, Speak Often, Speak Confidently
This is the rule of thumb when it comes to the order of speaking:
Those who speak early and often are seen as more credible, greater risk takers, and possessing more leadership potential than those who speak later.
Those who speak last are seen as “also-run”, the ones that didn’t have enough value or courage to speak first.
What if you didn’t have anything to say, or you really didn’t dare to go first?
Well, here is a cool power move for you, then: summarize what everyone else has said before you add your own. Give credit, mention a few people and their ideas. And then add yours.
Summarizing the conversation is very leader-like.
Exception: The Decision Makers Can Go Last
The exception to this rule are the bosses, who can let everyone run, and then speak last once they’re ready for the decision-making.
A few posts on how to be confident:
8. Self-Promote, But Offset It With Collaborative Frames
You want to self-promote, of course.
But you don’t want to look like you’re only out for “team you” (and if you are, you need to cover that up).
Doing it well requires some social smoothness.
Imagine you’re in a team meeting.
There is a lot of discussions back and forth, but so far no decision has been taken and there seems to be no one leading.
You feel that you have found the perfect way forward.
How do you present it?
It’s usually best to present your idea as the culmination of everyone’s input, rather than your own stroke of genius.
See Power University for examples.