Management Tactic #29: Geriatrics

A couple years ago, I had a memorable staff meeting at work. During the first half of the meeting, one staff member was particularly vocal about his/her displeasure with the performance of several coworkers. He/she  consistently broke one of the golden rules of management: criticize individuals in private, compliment individuals in public. 
An hour into the meeting, the door to the library (where the meeting was taking place) opened, and an old man walked in. He nodded politely to us and began to peruse the books on the shelves. It was a private meeting, but I think we all assumed that someone knew this guy and had given him permission to grab a book off the shelves and get on his way.
Except that’s not what happened. The old dude browsed the books for a while, selected one that met his fancy, and settled down on an overstuffed chair in the corner. All the while we’re discussing policies and programming and students–private stuff. But he didn’t seem to care.
In hindsight, the effect this had on the meeting was quite interesting. The employee who had been reaming into his/her coworkers stopped treating them so poorly. After all, what would you do? When you were little, do you remember the difference between how you treated your parents in private when you were angry versus in public? You were a lot nicer to them in public. You want to put your best face forward to your clients, but for your coworkers–your weekday family–you don’t really care.
Eventually I got up and asked the old guy to read in the living room because, come on, seriously? But I’m thinking I should have gotten his number so that I could invite him back for the next staff meeting. The presence of a single geriatric could make things so much more pleasant.
Lesson Learned: At staff meetings where employees could be unreasonably mean to one another, ask a geriatric to read in the corner of the conference room. One old person–an outsider–can completely change the tone of a meeting.
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