Surviving High Pressure Meetings And Other Gotcha Moments
My last boss would corral his team approximately one week before a big meeting. We would pull together and organize multiple binders full of data, anticipating any and all questions.
He had a deep fear of what we dubbed the “gotcha moment” favored by the CEO at the time.
I don’t think this particular CEO is unique. The higher up you go the more you have to delegate, which means you won’t be able to do the work yourself. So you are left to essentially stress test the results to make sure the conclusions are sound.
What people feared more from this CEO was the way by which he delivered it. Not only did he follow these moments with a scornful look, but then he would SMILE. I was in a meeting where this happened once, and chills ran up my spine.
We’ve all been there. When times are good and you know all the answers, it’s all good. But the real test of any employee is when times are not good: when you have to deliver bad news or simply don’t know the answer. These are the moments we all fear, but can be transformed into opportunities. There is no better time to show your adulthood and professionalism.
It’s hard. Let’s explore some ways to respond:
Easier said than done right? I think it would be a bit extreme to call this behavior bullying, but it is definitely interrelated. They are trying to stir you up. They are trying to find a fault. They want to see what you’re made of.
Just like in the schoolyard or when attacked by a grizzly bear, your best bet is to play dead. Fighting back only increases the intensity of the situation. What this means in the boardroom is to remain still, breathe, and ask non-directive clarifying questions to take the pressure off:
- Could you repeat…
- When you said…did you mean…
- I’m not sure I heard that right, would you mind…
In big-time meetings, there is pressure to come up with an answer to continue the conversation. While I am a proponent of honesty and saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know…I have witnessed where this can really put a damper on the momentum of a meeting or decision that needs to be made.
I think there is a way to be honest, but also rely on your intuition. If you’re in a meeting with senior executives, it means you deserve to be there – no matter what your role. But be careful. Especially when it comes to facts and figures, people will remember what they want to hear. And it is hard to course correct without some residual egg on your face.
The technique I’ve seen work best here is to emphasize that you’re going out on a limb based on your experience. Perhaps even front it with “I’m not sure. I would have to check, but if I had to guess…”
Sidenote: there are some articles out there that seem to chide women for using soft language like the above. I understand. However, in high pressure situations like the one we are imagining now, I believe it’s important to demonstrate flexibility to protect your work and reputation. When it comes to other communication or standard email back-and-forth, I fully support kind yet direct language.
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Don’t beat yourself up over a bad meeting. There are so many uncontrollable factors from what somebody ate for lunch that day (that’s giving them a bellyache) to everyday computer glitches. It’s best to embrace Murphy’s Law.
“If anything can go wrong, it will”
This doesn’t absolve us from doing our best, we absolutely should. Prepare! Study! Power pose! But know that things happen, and you are not some higher power that can read minds or control thoughts – which is a relief. Who needs the pressure?
One final piece of advice that I picked up from the renowned producer Lynda Obst is instead of fighting against them, pretend that they actually want to give you what you want. They are obstinate because it’s their job, but it’s not who they are. They want to help you.
So remind them of the shared goal and what you need to get it done. And let it be done.
“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”