Tips and Techniques
September 13, 2021

Boom! Deal With Those Meeting Disruptors Before They Go Off

Sometimes meetings are like that game Jenga, where everybody takes turns to solve a big puzzle, with cool heads and steady hands. The last thing you need is disruptive behaviour that puts everybody off. Here are some ideas on how to deal with that.

When my kids were little, we used to love playing a game called Jenga BOOM. It’s like the regular game Jenga, but you had to remove as many of the blocks before the ‘bomb’ underneath the tower of blocks went off, and the blocks scattered everywhere.

It was freaky hilarious fun (as was making jokes about the two illustrations of people on the box… I mean, are they actually playing the game, or are they in a toothpaste TV ad?). It was fun because everybody knew it was just a matter of time before the whole thing came crashing down.

But when you’re in a meeting
, and everybody knows it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down, that’s not fun.

Disruptive behaviours in meetings

We’ve all had to deal with them in our meetings. The Overbearing Boss. The Interrupter. The Constant Cynic. The Manipulator. The Derailer. The Wanderer. Sometimes their behaviour is a light distraction, while other times it can be a powerful Dementor-like destabilising force, sucking the oxygen and energy out of an otherwise productive discussion.

It can be hard to breathe, let alone make that gnarly business decision together.

In my work as a facilitator (and just a regular human in meetings), I’ve seen these disruption behaviours a lot. And if I’m honest, I’ve done a few of these behaviours myself.

What’s often worse is when you and others in the meeting know that a disruption behaviour is going to happen, and it’s just a matter of time.

Stopping the disruptive behaviours before they happen

As they say, hope is not a strategy
. Whether you’re the one planning a meeting, running it, or just being in it, just hoping the disruption behaviour won’t happen shouldn’t be an option. Like any kind of risk, you need to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen at all, or at least minimise the disruptive effects.

I’m going to assume you know methods of Meeting Etiquette 101, such as setting up ‘rules of engagement’ beforehand (equal time on the mic for everyone, build on each others’ ideas, and so on). Instead I want to offer ideas about trying to ward off the Dementor life-sucking anti-productivity effects of disruption behaviours before they happen.

Invest time in understanding and addressing any disruptive behaviours you’re going to have before your meeting
. Given Murphy’s Law, if someone has been disruptive before, they’ll be disruptive again. Use a bit of radical candour and tactfully raise this with them. Once (or if!) they accept that a particular behaviour of theirs is disruptive, ask them what they will do to curb whatever the disruptive behaviour is, to put the onus of change onto them.

Don’t even have a meeting
. Sometimes we want to hold a meeting just because it’s what we’ve always done. Instead, think first about what you need to achieve, and perhaps you can achieve that through another means that avoids giving the disruptive behaviour the forum to disrupt at all. Consider just having asynchronous conversations over chat, or asking everyone to collaborate on an online document or canvas instead. But if you do need a meeting...

Don’t invite them
. Just don’t. We all want less meetings if we can avoid it, so do them a favour and don’t invite them. If they ask, say that they don’t need to be there. Oops sorry, I meant to say: they’re very busy, and their time is better spent giving their contribution in a more effective way. Which of course leads to…

Give them other ways to contribute, according to their role
, and their – ahem – disruptive behaviour:

  • The HiPPO, Controller, or Interrupter - Just invite them for the first part of the meeting, so that they can make their position and expectations clear. Or, just invite them for the last part of the meeting, once everyone else has said their piece, all options are on the table, and everybody else is confident in being able to ‘sell’ each option.
  • The Cynic, Manipulator or Controller - Involve them in the design and agenda (that you still control) of the meeting rather than having them present at the meeting itself, so that you know exactly what their expectations and intentions are. Ask provoking questions to surface any of the kinds of issues that you would want to avoid in the group setting, and deal with them there and then, if at all possible.  
  • The Cynic, Manipulator or Controller (again!) - What pre-work does everybody need to do? Ask them what they think it should be. This should be pretty revealing, and will give you more insight into what drives them, and how they prefer to operate.
  • The Wanderer or Derailer - Wanderers and Derailers tend to prefer more options and exploring, rather than less options and closing (I know, because I have this behaviour!). Consider asking them to do some pre-work that’s specific to their subject matter area (that you will then bring up in the meeting itself), rather than coming along to the meeting. This could include their specific ideas and opinions, or specific risks or other connections they know about.

The main thing to remember here is that everybody has specific value to contribute; it’s just that big group discussions aren’t usually the most optimal way for everybody to do that most effectively.

Lead well by leading meetings well

Designing, planning and running meetings is actually a huge privilege, and a huge opportunity we all have to lead, and to help people to do their best work together. Does that take some work? Absolutely! But the work should be in service of that aim, and not the sort of work we often do where we tip-toe around dysfunctional behaviours instead.

Meetings can be tough enough as they are; let’s see if we can avoid the ‘Jenga BOOM’-style meetings, and do more to remove any ticking time-bombs ‘underneath’ them!

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