Categories: Career Help, Careers, Collaboration, Communication, Continuous Learning, Human Aspects of PM, Leadership, Mentoring, SelfLeadership, Sharing Knowledge, Talent Management
By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP
A few years ago, my manager invited me to a meeting to discuss how to organize teams for a strategic topic. No one asked me to do it, but because I was delivering these projects for a while, I prepared some detailed slides to give a state-of-the-art look at the current organization. In the online meeting, I was the only one who was not a manager—and the only woman. These facts laid the groundwork for stress that was triggered within me.
I began to go through the slides. One of the managers began to bombard me with questions. I answered him, and I often had to repeat answers. I got nervous and annoyed. To me, he was questioning my competence. I felt threatened and got defensive. I asked another manager to reformulate an answer for me. That gave me time to take a breath.
My second-level manager—let's call him Dave—was also present. He tried to help and play facilitator. The other managers had other meetings and left.
This meeting lasted 30 minutes, but felt like an eternity to me. When I hung up, I was tired—and angry at myself for how I behaved in front of all the managers.
What would Dave think of me? It was the first time he saw me in action. Will my professional reputation be damaged? In the past, I was labeled a bad communicator, and I had worked hard to improve it.
After the meeting, I got three text messages—none from my manager. The texts all congratulated me on the presentation. I was ashamed to receive these messages, because I thought they signalled that people felt pity for me.
I talked to friends outside of the firm about what happened. They were not present at the meeting, so they listened to the perspective I gave them. They were compassionate and supported me, but I thought it was because they were my friends. I slept badly at night in the throes of shame and anger with myself.
Two weeks later, I had a follow-up conference call with my manager. I was wondering what reproaches I would get. “By the way,” he said, “Dave appreciated your professionalism and calm during the meeting."
I couldn’t believe it. I answered with almost tears in my voice. "Thank you,” I said. “I thought I was too aggressive."
Here are the lessons learned that I gleaned from this experience—they sound basic, but I did not follow them because I was overconfident and too hard on myself:
Before the meeting
- Enquire who is going to take part. Perhaps you can send some participants a presentation and ask them for feedback before the meeting. Or maybe a close co-worker will take part in the meeting and you can ask them for advice beforehand. You can also ask them to chime in during the meeting to help you refocus if they sense you are getting off track.
- Prepare yourself mentally. For some meetings, when I don’t know who will take part, I write reminders on a piece of paper: “Go in with an open mind and listen carefully.”
- Know your stress triggers/words that will strike a chord during meetings, and don’t let them distract you.
During the meeting
- Turn on the video if the meeting is online. This keeps you more honest by allowing others to see your facial expressions—and instils more humanity.
- Take a quiet deep breath before speaking if you feel stressed.
- Ask to stop and have a dedicated meeting with a challenging person if the conversation goes off topic.
After the meeting
- Check with your manager and other people at the meeting about how it went from their perspectives. For instance, you can reach out to each of them (ideally by phone or face to face) and say: "I am trying to improve myself every day and I would like to have your feedback on how I did during this meeting. What did I do well? What did I need to improve?"
- Write down all the feedback. This external view will help you to gain other perspectives.
In the instance above, I dared not ask my manager because I was afraid of getting negative feedback that would have reminded me of the “bad communicator” label I got in the past. But I should have—and I also learned through this experience that I should be more kind to myself and not assume the worst intentions in others.
If you are a leader in this kind of situation, reach out to the person and give your perspective and feedback—whether positive, negative or neutral (and do it promptly…don’t wait two weeks).
Have you ever experienced this kind of reality gap, where the way you perceived yourself acting in a situation was different from the way others did?