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Managing the "Meeting from Hell!"

Facilitation techniques to manage three common dysfunctional behaviours

~ By Dana Brownlee

Woman looking annoyed in a meeting

Project Manager Sherry Martin couldn't stop thinking about her last team meeting as she walked down the hall towards her office. Slamming her office door behind her, she let out an exasperated scream and looked for something to punch! Her team was driving her absolutely crazy and she channelled Scarlett O'Hara as she proclaimed, I will never run a meeting like that again! Her problem in a nutshell boiled down to three really difficult personalities that continually recurred on her team. These personalities were indeed a cancer not just infecting the team and its results but also spreading throughout the group and impacting the other team members as well.

Sherry needs an antidote…now!

Here's a little help for Sherry, and for you! Let's explore these common dysfunctional personalities and how to effectively manage them.

The Dominator

We've all experienced "the dominator" in one-way or another. Some people tend to dominate discussion simply because they're excited and overzealous. These can actually be assets to the team if we can find appropriate approaches to harness and manage all that positive energy. Unfortunately, most of us are more familiar with the other type of dominator - the overly aggressive, bullying personality that tramples on others' comments and may attempt to hijack the meeting completely! Sometimes, these dominators are overly negative "That will never work here!"), and other times they just won't let anyone else get a word in edgewise. In either case, dominators can certainly sour not just the effectiveness of the meeting, but also the morale of the team.

Techniques for effectively managing the dominator…

  • Thank the dominator for their feedback and ask for other's input (for example Steven, that's an interesting idea. Let's see if others have suggestions as well.)
  • Reiterate the dominator's comment, write it visibly for all to see, and then ask for other ideas to complete the list. (for example Steven, it sounds like you're recommending that we use these three vendors as our shortlist…is that correct? That's a great suggestion. Let's compile a list of several suggestions, then discuss them all. We'll list your suggestion as "A" on the list. I'd like to get at least three other suggestions from the team. What do others think?)
  • Instead of having the group respond to an issue verbally, ask them to take 2 minutes to jot down their idea, issue, or recommendations on a sticky note instead. Then ask each person to share one comment they wrote.
  • Suggest the group use the round robin technique (go around the room asking each person to share a comment) and start at the opposite end of the table from the dominator (for example This is such an important issue that I want to be sure I'm getting everyone's ideas. Let's do a quick round robin starting with Jill…)
  • Call on a few people you haven't heard from (for example Michael, what are your thoughts on this issue?)
  • Take a break and solicit the dominator's support off-line (Steven, you've brought up several key points. I'm hoping to get some of the other team members involved in the discussion to hear their ideas as well. Some members of the group are not as assertive, but I want to be sure we hear from them.)
  • Break the group into pairs or triads and let them discuss an issue in those smaller groups before initiating a large group discussion
  • Gain agreement with your team to use a physical object (for example sponge football) to balance discussion. The person holding the football has the floor, and they must toss it to someone else once they make their point.

The MultiTasker

Increasingly, we're seeing more and more multitaskers in our meetings. Aptly named, they're the ones whose attention constantly darts between the meeting leader and any number of other tantalising distractions (for example PDA, laptop, reading material, etc.). Indeed, the multitasker is physically present but mentally elsewhere.

Techniques for effectively managing the MultiTasker…

  • Bring the issue up to the group during the first few team meetings and decide as a group how you want to handle the technology distractions. Options may include the following:
    • Using a "technology drop box" at the front of the meeting room and agreeing to drop in all phones, etc. prior to meeting start.
    • Limiting meeting time to one hour to ensure participants aren't away for too long.
    • Agreeing on 15-minute technology breaks every hour.
    • Participants bring a buddy to "cover" for them in case they have to step out for a call.
  • Use facilitation techniques that keep participants actively engaged.
    • Round robin
    • Active questioning
    • Affinity diagramming
    • Sub team work
    • Dot voting
  • Use a circular or U shape room setup that allows you to easily walk around (and near) violators quite easily.
  • Agree on a mild punishment for texting, emailing, etc. During the meeting…one group used a PDA jar and any violators had to put in $5/violation. (Money was later used for team lunches).

The Rambler

The rambler can seriously derail a meeting with their circuitous, protracted, rambling commentary. Oftentimes, the rambling strays into areas bearing little resemblance to the topic at hand. The rambler cannot only significantly extend the length of a meeting, but also completely alter the meeting content - thereby minimising the team's efficiency and effectiveness.

Techniques for effectively managing the Rambler…

  • Have a printed agenda (on a flip chart or whiteboard) in the room. When conversation strays off topic, stand up and point to the specific agenda topic to refocus the group.
  • Include timings for each section of the agenda so you can more easily focus the group on the time allotted for each discussion point. Possibly ask someone on the team to provide a 5-minute warning before the scheduled end time for each section of the agenda.
  • Simply, raise your hand and interrupt discussion to ask if the conversation is on topic and helping the group reach their goal for the meeting. (Guys, allow me to step in for a moment to ask whether the vendor discussion is relevant for this particular section of the agenda?)
  • Introduce the Parking Lot at the beginning of the meeting and announce that you'll interrupt discussion to place any off topic discussion points on the parking lot to help keep the group on track. (Jill, I realise that you feel strongly about the inventory control issue, but I'm wondering if we should try to resolve that now or could we possibly place it on the parking lot?) Review all parking lot items at the close of the meeting and assign action items for each.
  • Assign someone on the team to act as the "rambler police" (use a badge if appropriate). This person is responsible for raising their hand any time the discussion veers off topic.
  • Consider using the ELMO technique. ELMO = "Everybody, Let's Move On!" Whenever anyone in the group feels the group is rambling too much, they're expected to pick up the ELMO doll (in the centre of the table).

Clearly, Sherry is dealing with some personalities that are difficult to contend with, but the biggest mistake she could make as a project manager is to ignore them. Too often project managers simply ignore their "problem children" and instead stick their head in the sand hoping the behaviour will improve on its own. It won't!

As project managers, we're constantly balancing our focus between task and relationship. Indeed, it is because of our need to maintain positive team member relationships, that we often avoid dealing with problem behaviours. We must realise that when we fail to promptly address counter-productive behaviour in our team meetings, we not only allow the project to suffer, but also we allow our image and credibility to be eroded somewhat. Indeed, if we are frustrated by dominators, multitaskers, and ramblers in our team meeting, others are as well. When we don't address the behaviour, we're simply sending a message to the rest of the team that we condone the behaviour or we're not strong enough to address it. Neither is a healthy message to send.

The good news is that there are a variety of facilitation techniques at your disposal, and the techniques enable us to be assertive while preserving those critical relationships. Remember these key points when using the techniques:

  • Don't forget the power of questions. Questioning is a powerful way to deliver a difficult message. Instead of saying, John, I think we need to move on. We don't have time to continue discussing the vendor issues. Ask a question instead, John, the vendor issues you raise are important points so I want to be sure to document them. I'm also cognisant of our time constraints and wondering if this is an issue we should try to resolve in our meeting today or if we could possibly take it off-line to resolve when we have more time?
  • Use the "progressive discipline" approach. Try less assertive techniques before progressing to more assertive ones. Many will respond to very mild interventions.
  • Act early! You want to send a very clear signal to the team that you will address counter-productive behaviour quickly. This is a great signal to send to the entire team early. Also, it becomes MUCH more difficult to correct the behaviour when it's been left unchecked for awhile. Err on the side of being stricter early on and more lenient later (instead of the opposite approach).
  • Act on behalf of the team. When you're addressing an individual on the team about their behaviour remember that you're stepping in on behalf of the entire team. The more you remember it's not a situation of "you" verses "them", the easier the exchange will be. Feel free to reinforce this perspective with your wording (for example Jeff, I understand that you feel strongly about the problems with the inventory control process, and I want to ensure we address that issue. You'll recall that one of our ground rules was "Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem" so I just want to step in to be sure we respect that team ground rule. With that in mind, what would you recommend to help fix this problem?)

Dana Brownlee is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm. Her latest publications are "Are You Running a Meeting or Drowning in Chaos?" and "5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting Time in Half!" She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com


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