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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

The Role of the Peanut Gallery in a Boardroom

Stop me if that sounds familiar: You’re in a meeting at work listening to a colleague present an idea. In the middle of their pitch, they mention something — a person, another company, an example of a problem — that triggers that happy little recognition light in your brain. “Oh wait!,” you think. “I know what that is, too!”

After all, it was just last week that you and your colleague were having a debate about that exact thing.

And so, without any interruption or vocalizations, you look across the table, make eye contact with your teammate, and give them a knowing smile. They smile back. You feel warm and fuzzy inside. And the meeting goes on.

That’s the essence of a non-verbal social validation. And I believe that, particularly during large team meetings, these micro moments of non-verbal social cues might be among the most powerful ways to stay connected and engaged. Let's dig into this a little bit more.


Board Room Dynamics: The Personas

As an example, let’s imagine you have a standing 10-person meeting with the same group of people on a regular basis.

At any given point in time, it’s likely that everyone falls into a sort of “role” or “persona” for that meeting. Here are several that I’ve noticed most frequently:

The Director: The person who either called the meeting or is running the agenda. It’s worth noting that the best “directors” often speak the least in meetings. Their role is really more as facilitator.

The Active Speaker: The person who’s holding the floor, either presenting on a topic or articulating and important point. This person is in the hot seat.

The Active Audience: The person who the speaker is actively engaging with in conversation. While at times, the “active audience” might in fact be everyone else at the table other than the speaker it’s more likely that, at any given point, the active speaker is honing in on one person or a small group of people in particular. Note that, as the active speaker, it’s really important to make sure you know who your active audience is at any point in time. Otherwise, you’ll be off in your arguments and presentations.

The “In Queue” group: The person waiting to speak next. Whenever someone is holding court in a large meeting (particularly on a charged topic), there’s a very good chance that there’s someone else around the table who’s holding their breath just waiting for a moment to speak up. This is the “in queue” group — the person or people on the bench who are following the discussion as closely as a basketball game, just waiting for their chance to chime in. (Note: This is another role the director can play — helping to get the “in queue” people air time.)

The Peanut Gallery: The rest of the group. These people aren’t checked out, but they also aren’t as engaged as the active speaker or audience. You might think of them as “lurkers” on Stack Overflow or Reddit, following along but not necessarily feeling like they need to add their two cents on every topic. If left unengaged too long, the Peanut Gallery can start to drift into becoming checked out.

The Checked Out Ones: The ones who aren’t paying attention at all. It’s an inevitability in any meeting. The larger the group, the more likely that one or more people are totally checked out. Maybe they are on their phones, maybe they are still in their heads about something that happened that morning. The more obvious this person’s checked out behavior becomes, the more likely it is for the rest of the Peanut Gallery to follow suit.

During the course of any given meeting, you may switch personas or roles multiple times. That’s normal. But where things get interesting is understanding the power of these subtler, quieter personas.


The Role of the Peanut Gallery I don’t think we give the Peanut Gallery enough credit for the very important role they play in any meeting: Driving alignment and team cohesion.

We spend a lot of time in our professional lives preparing for the first three roles — directing the meeting, speaking at meetings, and actively engaging in meetings. But the reality is, we aren’t the most important person in the room in every meeting that we’re in. That means, the bigger your team grows and the more meetings you’re a part of, it’s pretty likely that you’ll spend a decent amount of your professional life doing more listening than talking. By the way, this is a very important skill too.

The trouble is, we don’t really know how to prepare ourselves to be “Peanut Gallery” members in meetings. As a Peanut Gallery member, you might be constantly wondering, “Should I be speaking up more to prove my value?” You might be asking, “Is it my job to take the notes for the group?” Or, at worst, you might start to feel like your presence in the room doesn’t matter at all. That icky feeling may lead to you feeling like you don’t belong which might spiral into disengagement and may eventually cause a deleterious ripple throughout the whole organization.

Even if you’re not speaking, some serious social bonding and group cohesion work can happen among the folks in the Peanut Gallery. In fact, there may even be two simultaneous conversations taking place at once — one among the active speaker and active listeners, and a second interaction model happening among the Peanut Gallery. And this is where the importance of non-verbal social cues comes into play.

Board Room Dynamics: Interaction Models

In an ideal meeting scenario, I’ve noticed that the Peanut Gallery members are constantly scanning the room for minor social validation cues, similar to how a driver might scan the road ahead, their rearview mirror, and their side mirrors constantly. You can learn a lot in a second — everything from, “I’m paying attention, are you?” to “Did you write that down too?” or even, “Maybe we should offline about this later.”

Let’s see a few examples of how this might play out:

Scenario 1:Interaction Type: Active Speaker says something amazing. Peanut Gallery Signal: Make eye contact with each other and nod in agreement. Resulting Action: The room feels a mutual feeling of belonging: “We are doing something great, and so we feel great. We are proud to be a part of this group.”

Scenario 2: Interaction Type: Active Speaker says something troubling. Peanut Gallery Signal: Share skeptical looks around the table. Resulting Action: “In Queue” person catches a whiff of this skepticism, gains confidences to share their point of view, and then speaks up to surface an important counterpoint.

Scenario 3: Interaction Type: Peanut Gallery person suddenly switches roles to “Active Speaker” Peanut Gallery Signal: Heightened active engagement and social support. Resulting Action: Active Audience shifts from a small fraction of the group to the majority of the group, giving overall engagement a boost.

Of course, this can also play out negatively.

When the Peanut Gallery is checked out, the balance of the room falls entirely to the active speaker and active listeners, which may cause the meeting to over-index in a certain way. It might also dissuade the quieter folks in the room from speaking up at all. Without any validation of social signals around the table, the meeting becomes a much more intimidating environment to speak up. There’s also the case where the Peanut Gallery can morph into a non-verbal “gossip circle,” rolling their eyes or expressing silent disapproval anytime a particular person becomes the active speaker. That in itself is toxic, too. All this to say -- there's power in the Peanut Gallery.


Know Your Role

Done correctly, such high-intensity active listening and non-verbal social solicitations can be as exhausting as being the presenter. But it really helps with connectivity, engagement, and team cohesion. So no matter what role you typically take on in meetings, I encourage you to settle into being a Peanut Gallery member for a little bit longer than usual next time. Look around. See who else is paying attention. You might be surprised what comes out of it.

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