Of the things I miss least about working for others, perhaps the biggest is the staff meeting. God, how I loathed the staff meeting! And it’s not because I wasn’t interested in pertinent news from our leadership about where we were headed in the near, medium and long term – I was! And it’s not because I didn’t want to hear about what my colleagues were working on and where we might have opportunity to collaborate – I did!
It’s because so frequently those ostensible reasons for a staff meeting to exist in the first place took a backseat to the meeting’s real purpose – providing a forum for a frustrated amateur comic to unleash his or her (but let’s face it, 99% of the time we’re talking about his) shopworn jokes and blisteringly unfunny zingers on a captive audience. Worse, the perpetrator of this eye roll-inducing ad hoc open mic night holding everyone hostage was often whomever led the meeting. There must be something irresistible about the power of knowing people cannot leave until you tell them to, a power even then more irresistible to abuse.
In my last corporate gig, I grew to harbor remarkable disdain for one of the company’s leaders who, in general, was extremely disorganized, and, worse, treated every meeting he ran like we were on the couch at a frat house ballbusting each other. The first 30 minutes of every meeting were spent grabassing, carousing, and generally holding forth like a juvenile jackass. Certainly, there were those who enjoyed this approach, but I cannot imagine I was alone in grinding my molars wishing I was anywhere else, or, failing that, for a meteor strike that would end life on this planet just so I wouldn’t have to fake laugh and pretend to smile in a way that I feared might make my head split open and my brains to fall out.
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s hard to convey properly the depth of my annoyance with this. I remember reading an interview with Bill Murray in Esquire a few years ago where he was sort of obliquely addressing his reputation of being tough to work with. He said:
“When I work, my first relationship with people is professional. There are people who want to be your friend right away. I say, ‘We’re not gonna be friends until we get this done. If we don’t get this done, we’re never going to be friends, because if we don’t get the job done, then the one thing we did together that we had to do together we failed.’ People confuse friendship and relaxation. It’s incredibly important to be relaxed — you don’t have a chance if you’re not relaxed. So I try very hard to relax any kind of tension. But friendship is different.”
I identify with that probably a little too much. If we’re working together, I’m not going to be your friend right away. Can’t we just do the fucking work? And once we’re successful, then maybe we can be friends. But the fucking meeting cut-up wants to confuse the order in which I believe these relationships are supposed to happen, which in my mind sets us all up not only for project failure, but for hurt feelings and a misplaced sense of a broken friendship. Fuck that. We’ve all got a job to do, so let’s cut the bullshit and do the fucking job before we all start smacking each other on the ass.
On a less existential level, my annoyance with the meeting cut-up is two-fold: 1) You’re undermining the efficiency of this meeting; and 2) Your shit ain’t funny.
On point the first, assuming you’re working in at least a semi-functional organization, we’ve probably all got plenty of irons in the fire, so let’s group together as quickly as possible so we can return to the tasks associated with the presumable reason we all get paid. This meeting where we’re all stopping whatever we’re doing better have a strong purpose, otherwise we’re just pushing the time where we can just finally go home even further away.
In the case of the PR firm where I worked, our leadership gave each of us the opportunity to lead a staff meeting any way we saw fit. Having grown frustrated with the state of things as they were, when my turn came, I made the staff meeting standing only. I took all the chairs out of the conference room, moved the tables to the back, and made everyone stand.
Then to further facilitate efficiency, I went to each member of the staff beforehand and asked them for their updates. Each meeting had a number of topic areas, and I made sure to hit them all with each member of the staff – Client updates, clients in/out of the office, staff in/out of the office, business development updates, personal news and notes, news from management/organizational updates. Then I wrote them on the whiteboard in the conference room so everyone knew the agenda before and during the meeting as I checked them off one by one.
The staff seemed into it, and standing in a circle in an interior conference room on the 18th floor will short circuit anyone’s designs on turning into Henny Youngman, but it had the unfortunate side effect of alienating me further from my management. I think they appreciated my balls, but disliked the implicit commentary I was making on their leadership style. Reflecting on it now – I was 27 when I did this – they’re probably right on both counts. I made my point, and while I probably could have been less of a shit about it, I’d still do it again. Most efficient meeting ever.
On point the second, I’m not opposed to a well-crafted and well-placed zinger, but if you recognize the personality type I’m bitching about in this piece at all, you know these are folks not noted for their restraint. It’s always some dusty old cliché they blast out in response to every fifth sentence they hear from a colleague. “Wow, Pam, why don’t you tell us how you REALLY feel?” Har har har! “Hey Chuck, at least buy the client dinner first before you give him a frisking like that!” Hee haw!
I first recognized this way back during my time in college radio at KCSU where we’d have mandatory monthly staff meetings (you could get suspended from your show if you didn’t attend at least two per semester) populated by insecure college kids all elbowing for time slots, and evidently a disproportionate number of them thought being “hilarious” during routine staff meetings would earn them additional kudos. I grew to despise this behavior so much I started to make up shit to get out of going to the meetings. Usually I was outright lying, but I earned my excused absences and saved everyone from my angry glowering face sucking the “fun” out of the room.
I’m not a tough laugh, but at least come correct with some freshness if you’re venturing into the waters of comedy. I realize at this point 1200 words in, and especially after the previous sentence, I’m probably alone (or nearly alone) in my irritation with this type of thing, and that’s fine. Kristin explained my personality to me once when she said, “You’re not happy unless you’re explaining your Halloween costume to everyone.”
I found that incredibly insightful because it hits me in so many of the places I live. I’m a bit pretentious. I have esoteric and unusual taste. I’m ludicrously self-aware. I have high standards for the people I interact with. I strain for real connection. And, at heart, I’m probably a complete pain in the ass. Of those traits, one that has great utility is my high level of self-awareness.
Anyone who’s listened to the podcast for any length of time has probably heard me say I’ve had a problem with basically every boss I’ve ever had except for one, and that at some point I realized my problems with them weren’t actually their problems. The problem was me, and a hierarchical situation such as the one that, by necessity, governs the way virtually any organization is run internally, is probably not a good fit for me.
So, having removed myself from this structure, I’m much happier. Conversely, I’m sure most of the people I worked with who had to endure my sourpuss during these meetings are probably happier that I’m not there, too.
Occasionally I’m dragged back into regular ass meetings, and from time to time I get a pang of existential dread about them. But mostly I just sit quietly and smile politely when the poor man’s Shecky Greene shows up and farts out some trite joke knowing I don’t work there and I get to leave this place shortly.
And maybe that’s what it was all about in the first place. Not only did I feel I had no agency in terms of deciding how my time was spent; I was trapped there with unfunny, tryhard dingleberries, too. Yuck.
TL/DR: If you think you’re funny in a staff meeting, 99% of the time you’re not. Also, I’m better off not in a corporate environment, possibly a killjoy, and impossibly pretentious.