Lights, Cameras, Action: The Tragedy of Meeting Drama
Think like a scientist: Do a test. Record your next video meeting of three or more people. Afterward, transcribe the recording. Then, with a printed copy of the transcript in hand, watch the recording. As you do, add notes to the transcript of who said each line. And—this is essential—note the non-verbal cues you observe. You will then have something very much like a screenplay.
Review that screenplay. See how each person (including you) assumes their roles and acts them out. Observe how people strive to comply with the social rules and rituals of in-person meetings plastered onto virtual work. Detect their attempts to adhere to scripts assigned long ago by those who write the rules: leaders. Perceive how they strive to appear credible, confident, capable, reliable, trustworthy, engaged. Note how the outcome of their efforts falls short because they are visually boxed into tiny video frames and mostly on mute. You will begin to feel a little sad because what you observe is a tragedy unfolding.
Non-Credible On-Camera Performances
Inarguably, video meetings can be exhausting, as demonstrated by a Stanford labs study. Cognitive overload, eye fatigue, and lack of physical mobility erode workers’ energies. The good news: Employers can address these ubiquitous strains through adjustments in technology and scheduling.
However, there is a far more challenging issue for Human Resources professionals. How do you ensure that organizational norms for virtual meetings promote employees’ abilities to perform credibly, confidently, capably, and reliably? Participants in my 2021 study poignantly raised this issue. They expressed how, despite tremendous investments of personal energy, their on-camera performances fail to meet expectations.
Consider this example:
“As an executive and salesperson, I am often ‘On Stage’ presenting some idea or explaining a product. That takes more energy via Zoom because the audience is not as engaged or interactive. In person, there is more give-and-take, even from a large audience. With Zoom, the interactions decrease in logarithmic proportion to the size of the audience. After four or five people get in a Zoom room, it gets really QUIET…. exactly the opposite of an in-person meeting. That silence is hard for me, and I feel I have to make up for it by ‘performing’ or ‘wearing a mask.’”
Performing in such a way is risky business because people are highly sensitive to others’ facial expressions. Audiences easily perceive inauthentic on-camera performances. In turn, such inauthenticity erodes the psychological safety necessary for high performance virtual and hybrid work.
Uncertainty, Dread, and Drama
As actors on-screen, virtual workers are today’s improvisational actors. Such is congruent with Goffman’s 1959 theory of dramaturgy. Before the pandemic, workers came together in a well-known playscript entitled The Team Meeting. There, they knew how others expected the action would take place. They were familiar with expectations of their roles and the scripts they were to follow to create a pleasing performance.
Now, they perform amid high uncertainty for far longer hours, in a far greater number of meetings, without the benefit of appropriate norms. As demonstrated in my study, they hunger for interaction with their fellow performers to co-create a compelling on-camera performance. However, their co-actors often feel “dread being on ‘display’ and looking and reacting perfect” and compelled to “act interested and focused the entire time.” Their interaction “doesn’t mimic in-person interactions, in which people look away from time to time.” And “the expectation of focusing on the screen 100 percent, which is not normal in regular human interaction” is untenable.
On-Camera Performances Must Be Heard and Believed
Like professional improv artists, those who perform in video meetings also need audience feedback. Verbal cues and body language indicate the effectiveness of their performance and can encourage them to believe that, yes, you are credible. But those giving on-camera performances in work video meetings don’t get enough feedback indicating that they are heard and believed due to thumbnail images, muted microphones, and some cameras being off altogether. According to my research, at best, they may get, “blink, blink, stare.”
Because they cannot hear listening noises or see heads nodding, they cannot discern whether what they say is received as intended or what the audience is thinking or feeling in response. As a study participant says, “Videos make it hard to read energy, and that is frustrating for me. I also feel drained because I can’t read body language or tell who is really engaged.” Uncertainty about their impression on their audience, whether they are giving a successful on-camera performance, presents a challenge to their context-specific identity. Am I credible? Am I valued? Do I belong here?
Old Norms, New Culture, and Belonging
On the pre-COVID in-person meeting stage, there were (often) unwritten directions. These included tacit understandings about how to facilitate a meeting, what was permissible to say, when and how to speak up, and when to remain quiet. These directions were formed by what the dominant members of the group believed. Adhering to these prevailing group norms could help people create an impression consistent with their goals. They value me. I told them what they wanted to hear. That impression could help solidify their belonging as a competent social actor in those settings. But when someone in a nondominant subgroup spoke up, those in the dominant group were likely to give overly critical feedback based on stereotyped categorizations. The dominant group thereby thwarted the nondominant contributor’s goal of making an impression as a competent performer.
Now, Covid-19, massive global social unrest, and growing intolerance of racism in the U.S. workplace upend dominant group norms. The roles and scripts for leaders and other attendees in video meetings are less clear. Cultural uncertainty abounds. Workers are less willing to painstakingly comply with social norms to fulfill their role requirements and meet their context’s shifting political and social expectations. They now choose whether to sustain or challenge power relations.
As they make these choices, norms continue to evolve. How are leaders and other attendees to perform their roles together, collectively? Workers’ sense of belonging is at stake, as are their energies. As some feel that the power and control status they previously enjoyed in meetings is threatened, they may feel ungrounded. As others with less power (i.e., representatives of nondominant groups) attempt to contribute, they must typically work harder.
Belonging and Inclusive Virtual Practices
Virtual workers who contributed to my 2021 research suggested practices human resources staff members and other leaders should adopt. These simple practices help promote greater inclusion and help relieve the unsustainable social-performance anxiety workers across the organizational hierarchy experience. They make video meetings more beneficial for the casts of millions who show up daily to do their best. They, thereby, enable organizations to reap greater rewards from diverse knowledge and talent. Here is what virtual workers say their leaders should do.
1. Invite those who are off camera to speak.
My research shows leaders make many negative assumptions about workers who are off camera: They are hiding, overly multi-tasking, not listening, disengaged. However, off-camera attendees say, “Some people seem to assume that if your camera is not on, you don’t care. It’s actually physically exhausting to stare at the screen meeting after meeting.” They say, “Visuals distract me from meaning/content, so having to look at the camera and people means I’m not getting as much content/meaning, so I turn my camera off.” They are “waiting to be called on.” So, ask them to chime in instead of assuming they are disengaged. I regularly do this and have not once found an attendee unresponsive. Indeed, the contributions they make are well-considered and solution-focused, perhaps because they are spending their energies thinking rather than acting.
2. Tie the camera-use rule to the meeting purpose.
If camera use is necessary to achieve the intended meeting outcome, say so. If you can achieve the outcome without seeing faces, make on-camera performances optional. That way, those who enjoy seeing faces can see others who wish to display themselves, and those who find videos to be cognitively exhausting can be off camera. For this to work, you must adopt practice number one. Otherwise, you will thwart inclusion: Employees who have cameras on will become the de facto “in” group, and those who are off camera will be the “out” group.
3. Be a good “director.”
When filming, directors famously say “action,” “cut,” and “retake.” But before filming starts, rehearsals happen during which directors give guidance. They convey how the story is to unfold and how the actors must support one another when performing. A good meeting director gives that sort of guidance upfront, in an agenda. A good agenda provides the actors with the storyline: Who will speak about what, when, and why. Provide an agenda in advance so that your actors can prepare. Include the names of those who will lead each “act” by discussing their topic. Give the estimated time they’ll do that so that they can prepare their lines. Above all, tell everyone the purpose of the meeting in advance, so they’ll know why the meeting and their performance in it matters.