The Conference Room Door Closes

The Conference Room Door Closes

Jack, our 12 year old son, and I went along with my wife to a company where she was recruiting investment for Michigan. Jack and I lined up for a tour of this “great company to work for” and Jennifer was ushered into a conference room and the door closed behind for her meeting. I felt the old ego-twinge and confided to my growing son, “I’m having one of those moments, Jack, where Mom is going into the meeting, and I’m being sent off on the spouses and grandparents tour. Makes me feel unimportant.” And I wondered out loud to him, “Does that make any sense to you?”

“Are you kidding?” he shot back. “I only feel that way all the time!”

Dumbfounded by the intensity of his response and the frequency he expressed, I asked, “Seriously?” “Yes,” he said, “People always treat me like a little kid who doesn’t think.”

What a lesson to relearn! It made me wonder: how many executives complain to their spouses, “You won’t believe it, but the strategy team is meeting without me,” or “The management team is going ahead without even asking our opinions!” But those same people – like me in the situation with Jack – are largely oblivious to the facts that (a) their subordinates often feel every bit as excluded, and (b) they are likely the cause of at least some of that exclusion.

We hardly need to speculate on the results: Feelings of exclusion, thoughts of cynicism, declining trust, and increasing detachment from both the work and the leaders.

Seek to include and to value others’ opinions to

Lead with your best self,


  • Dan,

    A bigger trick is once you have included other’s opinions and input. If you plan on going in a different direction then how do you make that person feel as if they were heard and valued?

    That is a big hurdle at times if you seek a lot of input.

    • Tom,
      As others have expressed better than I the best thing you can do is communicate going in, thank them for sharing, and communicate going out. My experience is that people are extremely understanding when leaders explain the reasons and move on. Heck, even kids will get over it when they hear with clarity that this is the decision.

  • Good morning Dan,

    I can see (2) situations in your RFL lesson. While the Governor being the top executive of the state of Michigan, I have a little suspicion that the left out feeling before a meeting, becomes a feeling of worth after a meeting. When your son explained that he felt like this all the time, that was a great time to act as a father and mentor to help him through those negative feelings; On the other hand, it was a great time to listen to your own lesson.

    When the Governor has finished a meeting, i’m quite sure she is overwhelmed at times and needs to “vent out”, and you are there to be her rock offering your opinion which may give her an even better insight to what ever the subject is about.

    In essence, the feelings of feeling left out can make a person feel worthless, but a person will come to realize their worth in other ways.

    Thomas K. Burke – Mentor

    • So right, Mr. Burke! No one can put dollar signs on the value to the State of Michigan that Governor Granholm has a wise and trusted partner with solid values–someone she can rely on to co-parent and take care of all those things a busy governor can’t do for a family. It’s only after one has lost such a trusted partner that one realizes the incalculable value, and it’s so much more important in her case, with not only children to raise but an entire state to care for!

  • Short but profound message. I also understand Tom Butz’ comments and have felt the same way at times. The people you ask for input must understand at the outset that you are gathering info from several good resources, and cannot act in accordance with all of them most of the time. There needs to be continuing conversation so that they know why you chose another path, and that you really considered their counsel. You may not be able to act as they suggested, but you can share how their comments helped you make the decision.

  • I recently hit a similar ‘exclusion’ hurdle for corporate strategic planning. I decided to submit unsolicited input, included my best wishes for their success, and offered to help if there is another opportunity in the future.
    I’m reminded here to try to avoid this with my staff. By consistently include their input – and providing feedback about how the decisions were made – I realize that I can help my staff to feel a part of the process.

  • As with Thomas Burke, this struck me on two levels, with the first perspective being that of Jack. Too many times I’ve met a family, engaged in conversation with the mom and dad, but had the kid(s) be almost invisible to me in terms of any ongoing discussion. I’m trying to get better at that. Engaging children and teenagers in dialog might not only show them that they’re included, but we as adults almost certain to learn something from them (as Dan’s point illustrates.)

    The other perspective for me is the work perspective. At my company, one of the “leader behaviors” against which I’m evaluated each year is inclusion. Do I seek to include others in the discussion, whether it’s a vice president of a division or a technician whose work helps to determine whether or not we succeed? We can be too quick as a society to stratify and subconsciously “grade” people based on what they do. Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life while seeking a better life for the sanitation workers in Memphis. I’m sure that he recognized not only the importance of their work, but the importance of each and every one of them as an individual.

  • Good Morning Dan,

    I am not so sure that I would agree that the “spouse and grandparent tour” is unimportant. You have a wonderful relationship with your son. I know this because I have seen you and Jack together and the relationship speaks for itself. With all that said, you were unaware how unimportant your son felt until you expressed your identical feeling with him. This only happened because you were going on the “spouse and granparents” tour. 🙂

    At that moment you were able to give Jack something that he felt was being neglected: His opinion, which you asked for. At that moment that tour just became an icon in your relationship with Jack.

    I plan to execute this strategy to translate not only in my own personal life, but in my job as well.

    If all your readers “get it” we will lead with our best self, because you show us what it looks like. Thanks for sharing.

    David Smith

    • David,
      It took reading your message to realize the point: it was a teachable moment for Jack and me!
      I am reminded of a great line from Kouzes and Posner in their classic, The Leadership Challenge. They say “leaders go first,” by which they mean that leader self-disclose and this allows for greater candor. A voice in the back of my head said: “you shouldn’t burden Jack with your silly ego issues.” I think leaders often feel they must withhold some thoughts and feelings – especially those which make them appear less than in-control or make them appear weak. But without that lead, I would not have heard Jack’s feelings and had the chance to observe and support him in a different way. Thanks for helping me see the connection again.

  • Dan, in this example we see the complication of a strong personal relationship. This exact separation of a spouses work from the other spouses life, does not happen often in the work place. But if we stand back, the part about being left out, when there is some connection to the process or decision being made is common in almost all decision making.

    It is not practical, after a point, to bring in every person who will be affected by most decisions, when we are talking about millions of people. They can all vote for who will be governor, but they cannot all sit around the table.

    President Obama brought the television cameras into a health care meeting, and what we got was not necessarily what would have happened if the door had been shut. It might be better if all governmental meetings were available at the click of the television remote. The public conscience might work some useful deterence and useful honesty.

    Technology is getting close top allow all of us to participate more directly in government. We could even vote on every bill Congress proposes. I no longer believe in the need for closed door meetings, and the use of baby steps by government to do what the people do not want to happen.

    The Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security long term unfunded liabilities can easily be corrected by adjusting the tax formulas to catch up with the increasing costs of inflation, using mroe agressive methods of catching abuse and fraud, and reducing medical costs.

    By taking the baby steps of not doing anything the situation gets worse, so that the solution becomes more draconian at each step, until finally Social Security must be eliminated, or started over. But elminating Social Security may be the goal for those who say no to correcting it, and keeping it, or even increasing payouts.

    But they go into the closed door rooms to discuss the strategy of ending Medicare, Meidcaid and Social Security. Our nation would not want to have lived through the last year with out the economically stabailizing effects of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

    We need to look at the insurance aspect of government, rather than the fee for services idea. Fee for services may be useful for some things, but not for health care and retirement. Mark John Hunter – Alpena

  • This past weekend in Ann Arbor offered two full days of ‘conference’ with activists/leaders (notable and unsung)in diverse areas. There were some inspiring exchanges, attendance seemed, well, modest, and gifted with maturity. On a business Friday and long Saturday, was the door really open to emerging leaders? I missed the Saturday evening performances by young artists and heard from a sage that he learned a lot. He entered the open door. Still, whether engaging younger leaders or older, it’s as important to invite, as it is to leave the door open. And the invitation has to be delivered to the right address.

  • Dan
    This is such an important lesson, thank you. Whenever a door closes and we are excluded our thoughts will go to the negative, not only do we feel left out, but, we also worry that what is being talked about behind closed doors will have a negative impact on our lives.

    I don’t think there is a way around closing doors. Parents need to have private conversation. Bosses need to have confidential meetings. But, as leaders we can be better at the way we communicate what is going on behind those doors. In our office we try to keep doors open as much as possible. it sends a positive message.

  • Dan,

    I think everyone feels this way in some shape or form. For example, when it comes to business, being a woman and younger in age, often leads to people judging the book by its cover. (Never by you, but by others)

    When people close the door on others, they truly miss a chance to grow, better themselves or better their industry.

    It’s tough no doubt, but I look at is as though they are really missing out on a great opportunity 🙂

  • Dan,
    This touched a nerve for me! I’m a lower ranked employee who works directly with our customers. I often wonder if anyone is listening to them. No one asks me (or my peers) what is the ‘word on the street’? How can a company be responsive to the customers real or perceived needs, if they aren’t hearing them?

    Good job building raport with your son!

    • Linda,
      I was looking at the list of the board of directors of a well-known company the other day. It blew me away to see all the “retired CEO” and “chairman emereti” there. About 12 people – 9 looked to be in their late 60s to 80, and there were I believe 2 women.
      I value wisdom (the older I get – haha – the better wisdom looks), but in this age of extraordinary change, technology and evolving tastes, shouldn’t a company like that have some broader representation????
      I suppose we need to make a little more noise on this point!
      What do you think of Steve Makovec’s comment above? He found a way to respectfully submit his comments, though unsolicited. I suspect we need to do more of this!

  • Oh, wow, could I relate to this one, having been excluded from three major events at our office–all unintentinal but still harmful to the clients we all serve, all having a negative effect on the outcomes we hope to achieve!

    I coped by assertively reminding my co-workers that though I work under a different grant and am often busy with clients, I AM a member of the team and the best way to communicate with me, if I’m busy with clients, is to email me or hand me the same flyer that they hand to their clients.

    Frustrating to feel like a whiner / complainer when after all, I want what’s in our company’s and clients’ best long-term interests (as my co-workers agree, once I’ve made my point).

    As for young people, 12 and younger or older, it seems to me that the Harry Potter books convey an important message, though not stated explicitly. Children can have very fine intelligence and analytical skill, though they lack experience and knowledge of facts which adults take for granted. When we supply information on why we do things as we do, we enrich them.

    Similarly, when we keep subordinates in the loop, not only for input, but also for information on how and why the decision was made as it was, we treat them with the dignity they deserve as human beings (not mere automotons who were hired for their bodies but not their brains). The view from the bottom is important, but so is the view from the top. It’s best not to confuse the forest with some of its trees.

    When we treat others inclusively, showing we value their contribution and insight, we offer the respect that everyone deserves (and so, no hard feelings or backlash), as advocated by the dignitarian movement.

  • Dan,

    Your column dredged up some painful memories for me. In 2004, when the university I worked for decided to eliminate several jobs, including mine, two seemingly disconnected things happened. First, many jobs (including mine) were downgraded, based on a completely new matrix cooked up behind closed doors. No explanations were given, no regular staff were consulted or informed until the matrix was in place. Second, my meeting schedule grew very thin. I noticed that doors were closed, even with those I considered friends. I began checking my breath and asked a few friends if I had developed some personality quirk that turned people off. It never dawned on me that I was being shunted aside and isolated in preparation for the day my job disappeared. People I knew and called “friend” had foreknowledge of the lay off, and willingly participated in the cover up. Many friendships ended that day, and my world view was irrevocably changed.

    In 2008, a similar process occurred at the non-profit where I worked. People held meetings and “forgot” to tell me. Open doors became closed doors. When folks went to lunch, they forgot to invite me. This time, however, I could feel the disconnect, and had a good idea what was coming. On Monday, January 26, 2009, at 2:13 PM, my position was eliminated because of budget problems.

    In an economy like ours, excluding staff and coworkers from meetings or discussions or get-togethers can be a red flag and cause for a loyal partner to doubt your loyalty, and start looking for another venue. A leader needs to be aware of the potential. After all, conventional wisdom teaches us that “you are not truly paranoid if they really are out to get you!” Folks are fearful and terribly sensitive to even unintentional exclusion.

    Each time that trust is violated, or apparently violated, it becomes exponentially more difficult to earn it back. I am so glad you were able to share with your son. Children are remarkable attuned to the emotional state of parents. He had to know something was bothering you, and sharing that opened a door for him to share. My children are grown, but noticed the “media blackout” after each unfortunate layoff. I withdrew my trust because I had been burned, not once, but twice. Perhaps this is one reason families suffer so much when a breadwinner is suddenly bread-less.

    It’s just a thought.

    • Mick,
      I think you have experienced something very deep in us as humans. We pull back when someone is about to be excised from the clan. It feels like one of those behaviors that had some evolutionary antecedents, some purpose that no longer exists. It’s like avoiding those who are sick – not a bad idea if it’s infectious. Here the “sickness” is sociological or metaphorical: Mick is about to be let go; don’t get too close, you might catch what he’s got.
      I don’t say this to excuse it, but to suggest that there is something quite impersonal and mechanistic, something instinctual at play. This of course increases the need for those who lead – with or without authority – to stand in that breach, to move against that current, and to engage people.
      Thanks for again sharing your honest and painful experience.

  • Dan,

    I don’t have a choice since I’m rated on this standard by my superior in my performance plan.Nevertheless, I attempt to communicate with my staff and seek their input whenever the moment requires that interaction. The exchange and sharing of information also happens at staff meetings and I ask staff for input on developing the agenda for those gatherings and to bring up items that need to be shared with the other members of the staff.

    Fortunately, I am not excluded from important discussions about agency affairs. However, I can appreciate the segregated feeling of not being involed in confidential discussions that deal with significant matters.

  • Good message(s). I too have been on both sides of this issue. Seems to me part of the rationale is it gets very time consuming to involve more and more people. There’s an element of truth in that, but the cost down the road can be substantial with regard to having missed key input, and/or lowered commitment to the mission.

  • Dan,
    Great one. I feel that way as well. I AM a grandpa but want to play with the movers and shakers sometimes anyway.

    I think you are on to something significant here.

    Uncle G

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