Many corporate executives spend up to half or more of their working
hours in meetings of all kinds: staff meetings, project meetings, board
meetings, sales meetings, impromptu meetings and others. Perhaps your
organization and its people are exceptional, and your meetings are the
very model of efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps in your dreams!
Reactions of managers, professionals and others with whom I come in
contact range from amusement to frustration when they share what happens
in meetings. Many adults who are otherwise mature and competent people
often behave just the opposite in meetings. It doesn't take much to
derail a meeting. Sometimes the process is at fault; most often than
not, disruptive people bring meetings to a grinding halt.
Who are the big offenders? Ramblers, bores and show-offs are at the
top of the list. Let's not forget latecomers, naysayers, timewasters,
Mr./Ms. Minutia…and others. What can be done about people displaying
these disruptive behaviors in meetings? First of all, you can head off
many problems by getting the group to agree on ground rules -- the "norms"
that everyone agrees to about how your meetings will be conducted. Typical
ground rules might include:
meetings will start and end on time
there is only one meeting -- no side conversations
one person talk at a time
stay on the subject (follow the agenda)
Ground rules are useful because they are essentially neutral. Rather
than dictate them, have everyone agree on the ground rules (for groups
that meet often, this has to be done only once). Post the ground rules.
Then, the leader, facilitator, or anyone else in the meeting can simply
refer to them whenever another's disruptive behavior is throwing the
meeting off course. For example, when the "rambler" appears,
heading the discussion off into la-la land, someone can say, "Folks,
we all agreed to stay on the subject…let's get back to the topic."
A very useful tool is a prioritized agenda. When constructing
an agenda, identify the most important items and place them first on
the agenda with an estimated time allocation. Place less important items,
and the estimated time for them, lower on the list. The group can construct
a prioritized agenda before the meeting, or even do it as the first
order of business when the meeting starts. A prioritized agenda forces
everyone to give some thought to what is really important; it helps
the group to stay on track and puts "meat" into the ground
rule of staying on agenda.
What about other problem people…the ones who display behavior that is
disruptive and even obnoxious at times…despite ground rules and prioritized
agendas? Addressing such behaviors requires a delicate balance between
assertiveness and tact. The goal is to preserve the integrity of the
meeting, not to claim a victory over the person or people who are causing
the problems. Here are some techniques that can help:
Focus on the behavior, not the person. Stay in the
realm of neutral enforcers such as ground rules, rather than attacking
individuals. For example, bring up the "stay on agenda"
ground rules for ramblers, bores and other timewasters. When two or
more people engage in a side discussion, remind them of the "one
meeting" ground rule. Suggest that their discussion be shared
with the entire group, or continued privately at the break. A more
drastic approach is to separate people, a la grade school. This can
be done in a subtle way, such as breaking into smaller groups for
Always start the meeting on time, no matter how many
people are there. This sends a clear message that everyone's time
is important. For chronic latecomers, have them facilitate the next
meeting! Use a timekeeper to remind the group of how much time remains,
and to stay on track for specific agenda items. Try starting the meeting
at something other than the hour, quarter hour or half hour. For example,
one group starts its weekly staff meeting at exactly 9:03 every Monday
Keep notes of major discussions, ideas and decisions
on a flip chart or white board. When people start covering items that
have already been discussed, refer to the notes (or "group notes").
For clowns, show-offs and other attention seekers,
give them a job, such as timekeeper. If their behavior is severe,
talk with them privately at the break (rather than in front of the
group), give your feedback on how their behavior is affecting the
group and ask for their help.
For Mr./Ms. Minutia (people who focus on small details
and miss the big picture) or people who bring up side issues, suggest
that details and other issues be set aside (a useful device is the
"parking lot" -- a piece of flip chart paper that lists
all such issues), to be covered later as time permits.
All of these techniques employ the use of gentle, yet assertive, intervention
rather than direct confrontation. The meeting facilitator is in the
best position to help the group to enforce the ground rules, since she/he
is charged with running the meeting process. The boss, or other nominal
group leader, is often not the best person to facilitate, since he/she
has an investment in the issues and outcomes, whereas the facilitator
can (and should) be "issue neutral." More and more organizations
are teaching people how to facilitate meetings; the trained facilitators
lend their talents to different groups as needed.
Sadly, some people will still not "get it" with these methods.
A more direct approach may be in order for a highly disruptive person,
and that is usually more appropriate for the boss or group leader to
carry out. The most effective direct method for dealing such a person
is simply not inviting them to meetings! There is no reason to tolerate
childish behavior that drags down the productivity of the entire group.
If their input or opinions are valuable, then a frank discussion (from
the boss) of how their behaviors are affecting the group may work.
Meetings don't have to be boring, unfocused and unproductive. Setting
ground rules and making a prioritized agenda are the first keys to more
interesting, shorter and more productive meetings. They will also help
prevent disruptive behaviors before they start and provide a neutral
enforcer. Add a few techniques to help manage specific behaviors and
you will be well on your way to meeting success.
About the Author
Charlie Hawkins is president of Seahawk Associates, a management resource for
strategic planning, idea generation and communications effectiveness. Charlie
has over 30 years' experience as a facilitator and consultant, and is the author
of Make Meetings Matter,
a complete guide for planning and running effective meetings.
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