Uncomfortable Meetings: Group Responses to Anxiety And Dissatisfaction

If you have ever been in a meeting where nothing was solved, significant problems were ignored and it all seemed an immense waste of time, you have experienced the phenomena I’m speaking about.

Meetings are important tools. They are the best way to develop and manage teams. But when they go astray, they can become cumbersome and ineffective. That happens, mostly, because of how groups tend to react to anxiety and dissatisfaction.

We still often believe that emotions don’t belong in the workplace. Even though it has been confirmed repeatedly, it’s never too much to assert that there cannot be a human environment devoid of emotion. Emotional responses are not only most of our responses they are systematically our first responses and people make decisions primarily based on emotional considerations no matter what you do. They will unconsciously find rational and logical explanations for their decisions, but the impact of their emotions is inevitably the most prevalent. That is even more obvious when the situation is tense with anxiety and dissatisfaction. I have already stated the importance of dissatisfaction to organizations here: dissatisfaction is the bread and butter of evolution and innovation. But it can lead to uncomfortable feelings and emotional distress. Teams and groups also tend to respond emotionally to tense situations and usually, they set in one of the following behaviors:

Scapegoating: someone is blamed for the whole situation and/or incited to solve the problem. Sometimes they are different people: one is blamed, and another is set to save the group. Often, the one that is empowered to save the group will later be the one blamed for not delivering a perfect painless solution. Either way, the group is relieved from the responsibility posed by the problem and can have a good explanation for why it was not overcome: the person or persons who should have done something just failed.

Fight/Flight: sometimes, in a group environment, the interactions become focused on something minor or unrelated to the subject at hand. It could be the wording of an email, the color of the competitor’s logo, whether it’s going to rain or not, the philosophy of space travel, or the latest trend in hats. Afterward, people will wonder why the group wasted so much time on something so trivial. And why it became so important that the group got emotionally involved and discussed it eagerly and aggressively. Someone will likely get blamed — Bob is always the same, he can’t let go; Joe simply doesn’t care about grammar and always makes a mess of things; Jill lacks the intellect to be in the group, she can’t even grasp the meaning of space travel. In fact, the group just skillfully avoided for some time, maybe most of the time, the anxiety of dealing with a crucial but scary real problem. The problem will eventually lead to real trouble, but for now, it was avoided.

Pairing: other times, the group focuses solely on the interactions between two members or parties. The interaction may even begin in a positive way, trying to solve a detail or a part of the problem that those two people oversee. The group patiently waits for the pair to get to a conclusion, but it never seems to happen. The conversation seems to go on and on, always finding new ways to proceed and getting to new heights and marvelous profoundness. Or it could be a competitive discussion where the parties don’t seem to be able to get out of their entrenched points of view, so they argue and argue, without any real progress, leaving the rest of the group looking at the clock and sighing in relief when the meeting is finally over, and everyone can proceed to do some real work.

These basic group mindsets (Bion would call them Basic Assumptions) are ways to avoid addressing the concrete disturbing problem the team is facing, whatever it may be, which brings so much anxiety and dissatisfaction to everyone. The group is simply not ready to cope with the disturbing consequences of this problem, so a shadow emotional response takes over.

There is a fourth mindset, which is called: the Workgroup mindset. When settling into a Workgroup mindset, everyone seems razor-focused on solving the real problem and everything seems to go smoothly — difficulties are openly discussed, analyses are clear, conclusions are reached.

Still, it remains an illusion in organizations that this mindset is easy to get into and that it is possible to remain in it forever. This is not true. Most of the time, teams and groups find themselves in basic mindsets, avoiding the disturbing difficulties of solving problems, managing to derail meetings, engaging in politics, and escaping responsibility.

Getting to a Workgroup mindset as much as possible requires skillful leadership, a safe environment, and some training. The more a team is trained in inclusion, transparency, blameless analysis, and balanced discussion, the easier it becomes to get into a Workgroup mindset. And it is possible, it just takes the right investment and determination. Magic requires dedicated effort. We are social beings, but we are emotional beings as well.

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Bruno Martins Soares

I’m a Business and Communications Consultant. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. Find me and my books at brunomartinssoares.com