more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Navigating meetings with Grumpy Cat

We’ve all experienced Grumpy Cat; that person who comes into a meeting or a workshop, seemingly set on bringing everyone else down, blasting any suggestion that might offer the potential for positive change. They often cloak their intentions in notions of ‘being realistic,’ or by regular references to health and safety legislation, or funding requirements. But whatever they call it, the effects are often the same: they suck the life out of the room. What’s the best response in these situations?

meetings with Grumpy CatI’ve done work with a few different organisations lately, in which Grumpy Cat has made an appearance in meetings or workshops. Grumpy Cat takes different forms in different offices, but his or her (usually his) demeanour sets him or her (usually him) apart from colleagues; Grumpy Cat doesn’t smile, Grumpy Cat doesn’t get excited, Grumpy Cat always has a problem with something.

Now I’m reluctant to label someone as ‘negative’ – I think it is an incredibly loaded term which is regularly used within organisations to silence internal critics and avoid dealing with a critical issue (much like calling someone ‘unprofessional’). I’ve been the ‘negative’ one before, because I was the only person in a group who was regularly willing to highlight subtle forms of discrimination, or point out that something the organisation had long done just wasn’t working.

So I have a lot of empathy for a certain kind of person who tends to receive the ‘negative’ label. But I try to distinguish between ‘negativity’ that is critical of the way things are being done in the present (where they may be doing active harm), and negativity to any ideas of change which at least offer the potential to make an existing problem better.

Even beyond that, I am split in terms of how to best respond when there seems to be the latter kind of negativity in the room. Grumpy Cat may be grumpy for a whole range of reasons, and each probably call for a different kind of intervention. For example:

1) If Grumpy Cat is unhappy or even depressed in life, generally, and their way of engaging is one facet of that unhappiness, how can a facilitator or colleague support Grumpy Cat?
2) If Grumpy Cat is angry at their organisation, but hasn’t found a constructive way of handling it, how can their specific frustrations be raised or addressed?
3) If Grumpy Cat is used to being the person who looks for anything that could go wrong – a common trait in management due to hierarchical accountability structures – how can we help them come into group settings with a different attitude?

However, if the result of any of the above is that Grumpy Cat is actively, if subconsciously, blocking positive changes (thus propping-up the status quo), is it fair to not call that out and hold Grumpy Cat accountable for preventing much-needed progress? A certain form of politeness can allow Grumpy Cat to keep something destructive going, simply by constantly reiterating the impossibility of the change that is needed, through comments about ‘being realistic’ and the like.

Ultimately, I find the balancing act lies in finding empathy with Grumpy Cat, without letting Grumpy Cat ruin the work others are trying to do to bring about change. This could mean having a one-to-one chat with them during a break, to either see if you can get a sense of where they’re coming from, or to highlight the impacts of their attitudes on others. More generally, I often introduce the (cheesy but effective) ‘Yes-And’ over ‘No-But’ approach when starting a session. This forces people to avoid responding to any new idea with dismissal (highlighting ‘why it wouldn’t work’), instead encouraging them to improve on the new idea (‘what could make it work?’).

I’m keen to hear your own thoughts on this, as I’m sure we’ve all sat in a workshop, training course, or meeting with Grumpy Cat before, whether we’ve done so as a facilitator or a fellow participant… Any tips or thoughts are greatly appreciated!


I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.

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Posted in accountability and hierarchy and leadership + management and organisational psychology.


2 Replies

  1. Hi Liam. I really enjoy the More Like People blog and I’m pleased to see the ideas in your book being discussed and taken forward. (..Do you feel a ‘but coming?!’)

    I feel pushed to add a comment / response here because I noticed I had a really strong frustrated reaction in reading this “grumpy cat” post.

    Disclaimer: I’ve been the grumpy cat in my fair share of meetings. And I’ve also facilitated or chaired discussions where the kind of experiences you mention have been common. I am a natural analyser and I like to work with people smarter and more experienced than me to take problems apart. While I like cats, I’d identify more as a disgruntled owl, or a curious mole maybe.

    I think my feeling of powerful disagreement with this post stems from feeling there’s an absence here of the strong element of humility and respect for people’s diverse experiences that is so central to your blogging.

    In your post you describe a grumpy cat in meetings “actively, if subconsciously, blocking positive changes”, and even more strongly, someone for whom a politeness towards can, “keep something destructive going”. Wow! To me, this feels like you’re placing a awful lot of authority and righteousness in the facilitator’s role to label positive as opposed to negative change.

    In this context, the label “grumpy cat” and the explanation that this can be motivated by being “unhappy or even depressed in life, generally”, is at best dismissive and at worst patronising.

    Here’s a range of responses I’ve had, and seen others have which a facilitator may have experienced as ‘negativity’ or even ‘grumpiness’:

    – I’m frustrated because I’ve been involved in a number of similar projects before that I’ve been evangelical about and they’ve faield, and I don’t feel my expertise through experience has been recognised or listened to up to now.
    – I’m annoyed and I’ve recently found out that a project I work on will have to come to and because of funding changes, and I am not present in the discussion because my mind and attention is on that issue which I feel is much bigger and more mission-critical than the discussion I am being offered.
    – I’m distrustful because feel the discussion is inauthentic and the parameters and questions we are bounded by is miles away from the real issues in the room. I may say the proposed change isn’t “realistic” not because of some conservatism that needs to be confronted but because I feel there are big, scary issues of power and control that aren’t being addressed.

    In these instances, the quickest way to alienate me further would label me as trying to derail positive change. If you try and have a meta conversation with me in a coffee break about my approach, rather than engage with me on my own terms, even odds they’ll be a part of me saying to myself, “see, this guy doesn’t get it, particpation won’t be worth the effort, so I might as well check out completely”.

    The most effective approaches I’ve felt to manage this in others and myself are in Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There by Weisbord and Janoff; which is a smart, person-centred, mindful and -yes- realistic approach to facilitating. Good advice I’ve taken from that include:

    ‘Find common ground’: hold off problem solving and conflict resolution and start a dialogue to find common ground.

    ‘Master the art of sub-grouping’: take advantage of alliances that form naturally during meetings to help them become functional
    subgroups and to experience their differences. In the kind of context you are describing, why not try and find me an ally in the room that gets my perspective and is interested in building something from there, rather than labelling me as a ‘grumpy cat’

    As a facilitator, get to understand one’s common projections,
    to avoid getting upset or agitated when meetings seem to shift in tone or direction.

    And, the powerful authenticity of: ‘Learn to say no if you want yes to mean something’. If you can’t meet my needs in the meeting, be honest about it and let’s talk about what we can do.

  2. Hey Jake –

    Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful reply. Important challenge there for sure, and I’ll do my best to respond…

    In terms of labelling positive and negative – yes – that is something I am doing, I will be upfront on that. I believe that if criticism is not accompanied at least occasionally with something positive (ie – what might be better than the shit we’re dealing with now), that yes, it is a sum negative. In my time in an organisation we both know, I was definitely grumpy cat – and while I attribute a fair bit of that to the organisational culture, I also have to hold some of the responsibility for it myself. My approach didn’t work – to the point where retrospectively, I feel I was definitely part of a culture of perpetual blame, that left little room for anything resembling a different approach.

    The biggest problem – and someone pointed it out to me there – was that even if previous programmes had all kinds of issues, the people responsible weren’t often aware of them at the time and most felt attacked by my ongoing references to the failure of programmes that they had worked on. They were not bad people at all, they had just managed to do things the ways they’d always known and thus ended up speaking to the same group of privileged large national voluntary orgs over and over again as a result. I was really angry about this. I would say that my anger was justified, but my ways of expressing it were more destructive than anything, making others defensive or depressed at different times… if that makes sense?

    In terms of the ‘unhappy or even depressed’ description, I raise this as one possibility there (among others). Depression is not something I look down on at all – I’ve experienced it and done my best to help others get through it enough to not be presenting this as a character judgement at all, just something that can manifest in all parts of our lives. Apologies if it comes across this way. I mostly wanted to highlight how people inevitably bring stuff that’s happening in other parts of their lives into meetings and events… and that that can be difficult, if not addressed. I think we need, together, to find ways of calling it out if it is working against the group or people in it in a consistent way. I definitely think that if someone is struggling, it is important to check in and do what can be done to be supportive… but I also think if someone is actively shooting down anyone else’s ideas, in what can often resemble a bullying approach (even if not the intent), that can be a problem, and that there is a collective accountability question in finding ways of preventing someone from derailing a process or treating others poorly, if this has happened consistently.

    The way you describe your own experiences of ‘being grumpy cat’ seems a lot closer to the 2nd point I used – a wider-spread frustration with the organisation/process. Again, I can absolutely realte. Most organisations give good reasons for this level of frustration. I actively try to bring these things out in my own facilitation, so that there can be spaces for the frustrations to be raised, depending on the dynamics of who is in the room, and the potential to create a safe space for open discussion. But how do you move a conversation from there, into a more constructive space, if that’s where almost everyone else is at, and one person keeps wanting to dwell on everything that’s wrong? How much space do you give that, if you are facilitating? (I don’t know, by the way… thus writing the blog)

    I use the ‘grumpy cat’ label in a blog to highlight a set of issues that I personally struggle with, and have had raised to me by others after events as problems in their ability to engage. I posted it because I have seen – as participant and facilitator – people make events and meetings incredibly difficult, in a way that prevented people being able to get important things done, but more importantly, hurt them as people, feeling constantly criticised by someone whenever they open their mouths. And I think that kind of thing needs to be addressed, even if the ‘how’ is quite different, depending on the person and the context.

    Finding common ground is definitely an important idea. This is usually my starting point, though is it can be really challenging, depending on how entrenched someone is in their oppositional stance.

    RE: sub-grouping – agree this can be really useful.

    …As I’m re-reading this, I wonder if you’re right… and if I would have been saying exactly the same thing, when I was spending my days working in an office each day still?… I don’t know if my relative distance has just offered me a certain kind of privilege, to spend less time worrying about the massive, ongoing frustrations of a full-time job (making me out of touch with most people’s situations), or if my perspective has helped me refocus the frustrations to help get somewhere better? And I don’t know… so thank you for flagging it up… will definitely think it through some more…



More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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