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How to Manage Disruptive Meeting Attendees

April 2014
Roxi Hewertson

Roxi Hewertson

Meetings can either be the best or worst way to your spend time and the organization’s resources. It depends on who is there, the agenda and the way the meeting is facilitated.

Meetings cost a lot of money – in people hours preparing, traveling, meeting time, follow-up, etc. Disruptive attendees disrupt for a reason. They aren’t happy about something going on, and it’s often, although not always, about what’s going on in the actual meeting. When you drill down to the reason, you’ll have a good idea of the solution. Here are four common reasons for disruptions and four solutions.

Reason #1: They don’t feel heard. People who feel sidelined or marginalized will often do one of two things – shut down or disrupt the meeting with some kind of agitated behavior or noise like tapping a pen, getting on email, taking a call, sidebars, etc.

Solution: Create meeting Ground Rules or Rules of Engagement that the group agrees to and keeps front and center if they meet regularly – even put them on the agenda if it helps remind people. Then make sure the group takes ownership for them and self-enforces. Facilitate the meeting such that everyone who wants to make a comment, on discussion or decision topics, can do so within the agreed upon set of ground rules for that group. If this does not work, speak to the person privately and ask what is bothering them, give and receive constructive feedback, and clarify your expectations.

Reason #2: They don’t want to be there. People who feel their attendance is a waste of their time will disrupt by being late, leaving early, having sidebar conversations, etc.

Solution: Prepare and distribute good agendas ahead of time and then stick closely to the agenda. Invite only people who are key players in the meeting’s planned discussion or decision-making. Don’t invite everyone and their sister to a meeting just to be “inclusive.” Don’t waste people’s time with more than 20 percent time spent on information sharing that could happen in many different ways. People hate meetings that waste their time – and most meetings in the United States do waste time – over 50 percent of the time.

Reason #3: They like to argue for argument’s sake. These are people who like to be the center of attention, perhaps because they think their ideas are smarter or better, or just because they like the limelight and aren’t getting it in other places at work or in life. They just disrupt to disrupt. This demonstrates a true lack of respect for the meeting’s leader and other attendees.

Solution: Ground Rules help here as well. Time limits and good meeting facilitation skills also help dilute this behavior. Another solution is to ask people to consider a question or topic by teaming up with one or two others for a few minutes and then ask someone from that group to report out the results of their small group discussion. This effectively spreads engagement around the room and prevents anyone from monopolizing the conversation. It’s also effective to say, “Thank you Bob, and now I’d like to hear from some others around the table.” And then move on.

Reason #4: Something gets this person off on a tangent and they won’t let go; they drone on and on.

Solution: The “Parking Lot.” Put up a “Parking Lot” sign and let everyone know that if something that is not on the agenda comes up and matters to anyone in the group, you or they can put it on the Parking Lot sheet/board and it will get a space at the end of the meeting, or on the right agenda at the right time. This way people feel heard, valued and can calm down because it’s up there somewhere and there is a promise to get around to it. Then keep your promise!

Leadership authority Roxana (Roxi) Hewertson is a no-nonsense business veteran revered for her nuts-and-bolts, tell-it-like-it-is approach and practical, out-of-the-box insights that help both emerging and expert managers, executives and owners boost quantifiable job performance in various mission critical facets of business. Through, Roxi – “the Dear Abby of Leadership” – imparts invaluable free advice to managers and leaders at all levels, from the bullpen to the boardroom, to help them solve problems, become more effective and realize a higher measure of business and career success. I95