The workplace pontificator

Most of us have experienced it, and some of us have engaged in it: Pontificating at work. You know, the practice of eating up valuable meeting time by yammering away incessantly as a way of showing off supposed knowledge or insight, establishing alleged expertise, and/or marking one’s territory.

On the scale of undesirable workplace “interactions” (word placed in quotes because it’s not really an interactive experience), being in the room with a workplace pontificator is more annoying or exasperating than hostile or abusive. Thus it thankfully falls short of bullying or other forms of workplace mistreatment.

If you’ve been in a given organization long enough, then you can actually start to estimate the numbers of hours wasted and never recovered due to being held verbally captive by workplace pontificators. In academe, my bailiwick, those numbers may start to look scary. My guess is that professions grounded in verbal facility are especially susceptible to these behaviors. 

What drives the pontificator?

Well, when I’ve engaged in pontificating (hopefully a rarer event over time!), it usually has been as a mask for my insecurity, fueling an attempt to puff up myself to the unfortunate listeners. By contrast, others feeling unsure about themselves may hide their lights under a bushel and opt not to share what might’ve been great insights. (Funny, isn’t it, how the same uncertainties about ourselves can result in different behaviors!)

Of course, some pontificators are fueled by entitlement, not insecurity. They believe they know it all, regardless of the truth of that assumption. Alas, their social intelligence is too underdeveloped to cue them to stop. It’s like flipping on a switch that cannot be turned off, absent a forceful intervention or death.

What can be done about the workplace pontificator?

The individual chairing the meeting can set rules or intervene in ways that try to cut down on long-winded remarks. (If the pontificator is the meeting chair, then it’s time to take hallucinogens.) A group can also set express expectations of participation, sending a message that extended speeches will be frowned upon.

An individual’s ability to keep a pontificator in check often depends on his or her standing within the organization. Generally, a subordinate usually isn’t in a position to send that message, but someone in a higher position may be able to do so.

At times it may be possible to leave the meeting, purely as a sanity-preserving survival response. It helps to be known as a busy person, so the reason for your sudden exit doesn’t appear too obvious. Others will envy you.

I could go on and on about this topic, but that would be pontificating. I hope that I’ve at least hit the big points.

2 responses

  1. Great column. When someone is pontificating – in a group setting – it’s a valuable opportunity to better understand individual and group dynamics, i.e., the ways others respond to the pontificator (if they respond, what it may trigger in their responses (emotions, verbal comments), etc.). It’s just all good information when navigating one’s own actions.

  2. I started to imagine myself and a number of other employees trapped in a board room with our pontificative facilitator while taking hallucinogenic drugs and then decided no, I was not even going there. Grin.

    Sincere thanks, as always, for your words of wisdom.

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