Parking Lot Meetings

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The stuff of toxic workplaces is hard to talk about. Not to your family, or to your friends, or even to the close colleagues who gather with you outside of meeting rooms for the “real” meetings. But to discuss how you really feel with the person or people responsible for such things? That’s a much harder thing to do.

Joe and Bill are part of a small management team reporting to the president and CEO of their company, Mike. Mike is a little unpredictable when it comes to his moods. He’s brilliant and known for making the company what it is today, but like many top leaders with a track record of success in a company, there is a dark side to him as well. Some days, he’s relaxed, approachable, and seems genuinely open to considering others’ ideas. Other days, without warning, he’s vicious in his attacks, unreasonable in his demands, and micro-manages at a level completely inappropriate for a company executive.

Joe and Bill struggle to balance pushing their teams to perform at their best against the demands and unpredictability of their boss. They both often feel ruthlessly attacked for no good reason, and have their leadership and management of their teams insulted and inappropriately judged. Working for Mike is quickly turning into a nightmare, and they are both fed up.

Joe and Bill meet twice a week after work for drinks and have been doing so for years. As younger executives, those meetings were usually about how to encourage and help each other as they figured out how to grow into their roles. Lately, the meetings have taken on a new tone, as Mike’s attacks and demands grow more difficult to tolerate. They now sit through executive team meetings with Mike and their other colleagues in silence, merely agreeing with Mike as necessary, and responding only when they have to. Neither of them shares their own opinions or insights any more than required, and they both often leave the weekly sessions feeling frustrated, angry, and a little more disengaged.

The bar where they meet for drinks is their parking lot. They air their concerns about Mike’s decisions and behavior. They defend their teams and their actions to one another. While Mike is painting them inaccurately as bumbling fools who don’t do their jobs, they paint themselves equally inaccurately as heroes who can single-handedly save the company.

The danger of these parking lot meetings, regardless of where they take place—water coolers, someone’s office, the bar, or the actual parking lot—is that they do absolutely nothing to improve the situation. The only thing improved by these meetings is the way the participants feel about themselves and each other. Viable solutions are rarely developed in these meetings. Progress is not made in these meetings. There is one side or voice represented, and the other side or voice is missing.

Listen, we get it that people need to vent. Sometimes you just gotta let off some steam. That’s fine—go ahead. But where is the line between letting off some steam and engaging in a parking lot meeting which is letting you give yourself permission to be off the hook for any real responsibility? Don’t we have a responsibility to fight for our teams? For ourselves? For our ideas? For making sure other perspectives are represented?

Use the parking lot meetings for their real benefit—talk to colleagues who help you gain some perspective, feel better enough to engage in productive problem-solving, and then make a plan. How can you approach the person or people causing you to seek out the parking lot meeting in the first place? How can you take responsibility for creating solutions? And if that effort gets you fired, or you’re shut down for having other ideas on how things can work for your team/boss/workplace, maybe it’s time to move on.

How have you experienced parking lots meetings? How do they help you? How do they hurt you? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments!

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