Three hours into a strategy session, we were making significant progress. Excitement grew as the team envisioned what is possible. After a couple of cups of coffee in the morning and a diet coke for lunch, I excused myself and passed the marker to the woman on my right. Little did I know that my meeting would soon be hijacked.
I returned to find the woman I asked to take over leading a discussion about sexism in the workplace. Her focus was the assignment of menial tasks to women and more meaningful tasks to men. Taking notes on the whiteboard fell into the former category.
My first thought was to become defensive. As a graduate of Texas Woman’s University, I had long ago embraced gender equity and my intention was to give her control of the discussion – not to assign a secretarial task. The others took the bait, some defended the company’s equity record and others supported the need for more gender equity.
As I realized what had just happened, my training kicked in. A “righteous underminer” had skillfully replaced our agenda with her own.
The Righteous Underminer’s Super Power
The power of righteous underminers is based on a “catch-22.” The leader would like to regain control of their agenda, but is worried that confronting the righteous underminer will appear as if they are opposed to the cause. In the example above, I knew everyone in the room was in favor of gender equity. They were led by progressive executives in a progressive city. The men in the room worried that redirecting the conversation back to strategy would be interpreted as paternalistic; the women did not act because they did not want to appear disloyal.
Instead of regaining control of the agenda and the positive momentum, the meeting devolved.
What Really Happened?
An outside observer may have interpreted the conversation as a company wrestling with a common social issue. However, what we were truly witnessing was one person who believed her agenda was more important than the team’s. She inserted her agenda like a virus into an organism and soon it took over. Had we allowed her to go unchecked, we would have spent the rest of the afternoon discussing what was important to her. Sadly, that conversation would not have led to a positive outcome and the strategy would have been lost, as well as the money invested in our team to lead the session.
For a few minutes, we did nothing. We knew this organization had several toxic elements and this event gave us a chance to directly observe how the leadership managed a difficult toxic situation.
When we realized they were not yet equipped to regain control, I stepped in, took the marker back, and restarted our original agenda. I acted as if the sexism conversation had never taken place.
In this case, the righteous underminer did not complain but they often do. They usually begin with an accusation that the leaders are against their cause. Then they attempt to rally a group in opposition.
What to Do When This Happens to You?
To balance the level of confrontation with the need to maintain focus, apply the following tactics:
- Communicate that their cause or complaint is not on the agenda and encourage them to schedule a conversation in the future to address it.
- Refer to the other attendees and remind the righteous underminder (and those participating in the extraneous discussion) that they came to the meeting to discuss topic X and not this subject.
- Confront the behavior for what it is, an attempt to replace a team’s agenda with a personal one. Then ask why the group should shift their focus away from the organization’s goals and purpose to appease a personal agenda.
Most importantly, never let the behavior go unchecked. Many of you reading this have likely faced this issue numerous times and are exhausted. Exhausted leaders often give up, which allows the behavior to multiply. Unchecked bad behavior leads to more (and often worse) bad behavior.
About the Author: Dave Popple, PhD is founder and president of Psynet Group