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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Group Leaders: Are your meetings safe?

Updated: Apr 9

An upset mixed race woman turning away from people sitting at a table in a cafe

Recently, church leaders in England have been grappling with bullying in church meetings. 

"Poor behaviors sidetrack meetings, waste the time and energy of all participants and detract from the church's ability to share the gospel and nurture disciples," according to one church leader.*

The leader also cited "aggressive" behavior in meetings, such as slamming on tables and continually interrupting when others speak.

If you are tempted to throw stones at people in churches, be honest. This kind of behavior can happen anywhere: in schools, businesses, government, the military, non-profits and our own homes. In healthcare, for example, groups such as Civility Saves Lives have documented the impact of incivility on staff and patients alike.

Maybe you’ve witnessed aggressive behavior in meetings, maybe not. But safety in meetings is more than just an absence of physical aggression. Psychological safety matters too.**

Group leaders: do your meetings seem unsafe to you or anyone in the room? How would you know? What are visible signs of a lack of psychological or emotional safety?

Signs of unsafe meetings

Some meeting facilitators and I gathered recently to talk about what makes meetings feel unsafe, unproductive, risky or potentially harmful. Here are some common themes that emerged from our discussions:

  • Unwillingness to Participate: One or more participants feel uncomfortable, unwilling, or unable to engage. Hesitant body language or low energy levels in the room may indicate disengagement caused by feeling unsafe.

  • Micromanagement: Excessive control and micromanagement stifle creativity and undermine trust among group members. 

  • Disrespect: People unwilling to listen to diverse viewpoints may use condescending or dismissive language, “call names” or blame others.

  • Miscommunication: People may struggle to communicate effectively. And there may also be misunderstandings arising from cultural differences.  Unclear questions can signal confusion on the part of the leader or participants.

  • Power Dynamics: You may observe power imbalances both within the room or in the broader context. For example, a person with positional power may frequently speak first, dominate conversations, and “get their way.” Or persons with lesser authority may habitually defer to those with more authority.

  • Emotional Discomfort: Pay attention to your own intuition and emotional response. If something feels off or generates discomfort, it might indicate underlying issues that need addressing.

  • False Sense of Safety:  When a group relies solely on a facilitator or one particular person to guarantee safety for all,  the group members have abdicated their individual responsibility for creating a safe environment.

  • Lack of Confidentiality: After confidentiality has been breached for anyone, group members often stop sharing personal information or opinions.  

  • Post-meeting Discussions:  Listen for any “meetings after the meeting” that discuss supposed “misbehavior.”  Gossiping, analyzing motives, undoing or undermining decisions, and even trying to soothe ruffled feelings are all signs of a lack of safety during the meeting itself.

Awareness is the first step

Recognize any of these red flags during or after your meetings?  Don’t despair!  Being aware of the existing situation is the first step in creating meeting cultures that are inclusive and respectful.

What other behaviors are signs that a meeting or group may be psychologically unsafe? How can you change your group leadership to address it?

Next post: Creating Safer Meetings ---------------

* Source: Protection Needed from ‘Aggressive Parishioners’, on the BBC

** "What is Psychological Safety? " in the Harvard Business Review

Photo credit: fizkes from Getty Images on Canva Pro

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