Monday, 25 July 2016

When whataboutery derails your meeting

You're having a discussion about the lack of women in senior roles in the organisation. Someone suggests that the organisation adopts a mentoring programme and quotas, saying that there is good evidence that this improves the talent pipeline for women. Then someone says "There is no evidence that more women managers will improve our bottom line", and the fight is on.

The meeting derails, clusters of small discussion groups spring up, the room divides on gender lines and then suddenly the time has gone, with no tangible outcome, aside from lots of ruffled feathers and on-going coffee conversations.

The MacMillan dictionary defines whataboutery (n) as "the practice of responding to a difficult question or problem by raising another difficult question or problem, in order to deflect attention from the original question".

This is an extraordinarily unproductive strategy which can completely derail the purpose of a meeting, driving everyone's attention from the core issues. 

It enables master manipulators to hijack valuable company time; or those who want to hide their lack of delivery to focus the spotlight elsewhere.


Frisch and Greene note that getting sidetracked is one of the most common issues that make meetings unproductive. They suggest a technique for when "someone goes off on a tangent that, while interesting, is only marginally related to the designated topic. Then another person jumps in to elaborate, and the two start talking in detail about issues relevant only to them. Other attendees begin to tune out. Now 20 minutes have passed — and you haven’t made any progress" (8 April 2016).

Their solution is saying 'jellyfish', which someone lobs into a discussion to flag that the group is drifting from the agenda. 

At the start of the meeting, you explain the jellyfish rule. Frisch and Greene suggest that "If any attendee feels the conversation is heading off course or delving into an inappropriate level of detail, they can and should employ the word to indicate that opinion. Simply say 'jellyfish' or 'I think we’re having a jellyfish moment'(8 April 2016).

They find jellyfish effective because it is (a) safe - and a bit silly (so is non-threatening). It allows a redirect without seeming rude. It is (b) equitable, because it can be used by anyone at the meeting. And (c) it makes everyone aware that, to be productive, we need to stay on topic to get the job done.

Combat whataboutery with jellyfish :-)


Sam

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