How can we deal with someone who constantly derails, hijacks, and otherwise ruins a business meeting? I’m a communications and meetings specialist who works with enormous corporations, major firms, ambitious leaders, and professionals on all levels. The question I get more than any other now is how to deal with a certain kind of bully. How can we save a meeting from people who believe that whatever they think, it must be right — and then they aggressively push their own agendas?
I call this particular breed of troublemaker a Think-They-Know-it-All. Meetings have never been our strong suit, and most of us carry the scars of terrible meetings, as well as the wish we could do it better. There will always be problem personalities like Think-They-Know-It-Alls. But there’s a very simple way to defuse them in five steps:
- Know who and what you’re dealing with before the meeting. There are many kinds of disruptive behaviors — aggressive to distracting to infuriatingly passive. The first step to dealing with them is recognizing them. You’ll recognize a Think-They-Know-It-All by their insistence that they know everything, though clearly they don’t. They wear their ego right on the surface, one-upping everyone else: If you were sick, they were sicker. If you had a great vacation, theirs was greater. Many are also Tanks, crashing through discussions and running roughshod over anyone else’s ideas. They won’t absorb or accept conflicting information, respect the consultation of experts, or stick to an agenda they didn’t create. When they hold positions of power, that’s the unholy trinity. It’s the worst possible combination to have in a meeting. But it’s not impossible to overcome.
- Get their buy-in. To start defusing the power of a Think-They-Know-It-All-Tank with Positional Power, appeal to what they want. Their Think-They-Know-It-All part wants attention and validation, while their Tank part wants to push to get things done. Since there’s ego involved, you’re also secretly appealing to their vanity — as someone in power, they likely want to look good. Let them know you have a proposal: an effective way to run meetings in a clear format that saves time, energy, and money, and will have a far more desirable outcome. Get them to buy into the concept. Ironically, Tanks have their hearts in the right place. They just don’t know how to make it happen. Then, follow the format below for the meeting.
- Create an agenda for the meeting. The agenda acts as your flight plan. By establishing specific topics ahead of time, and delineating the process by which people contribute, you’ve got built-in protection against a Tank hijacking the meeting and sending it off course. Preemptively, the agenda is a way to steer the meeting back to the topic at hand. The agenda should include the reason for the meeting, the purpose of each agenda item, what you expect from everyone there as it relates to that item, and the participation process to be used. Distribute the agenda ahead of time so everyone, including the Tank, knows why they have to spend forty minutes in a meeting as opposed to doing their own work.
- Establish a speaking order with time limits. The process of the meeting includes a speaking order. There are two options: by name, or circular. For name order, take names, then go down the list and call on each person. For circular order, go around the room and call on each person. With a set speaking order, everyone knows they will get the chance to talk. Those who tend to shy away from talking, especially in the presence of a Tank, know they will get their own turn, and feel that it’s safe to speak up. Those who tend to speak for too long have to curtail their long-windedness, because there’s someone next in line. People who blurt thoughts out of turn have to wait until they’re up. Make sure you get everyone to sign off on this as part of the agenda. With everyone in agreement, the room has the power, not the Tank. It’s far easier to keep the meeting from going off course.
- Have a ‘flight recorder.” During the meeting, don’t just record what people say. Record it so everyone can see it. Use a flip chart or a shared screen — whatever works in that particular setting. By making each speaker’s ideas and point of view visible, it establishes that everyone’s ideas and viewpoints are important. Those with needy egos feel validated by seeing their contribution in writing. It also depersonalizes each point, so it’s not one person’s perspective versus another’s. By keeping the discussion visible, nobody’s contribution gets lost in the shuffle. This also prevents two common Tank behaviors: repeating their own points in order to keep them in everyone’s awareness; and taking credit for other people’s ideas. Flight recording enables the group to come to a far more detailed and higher understanding of the subject, which I call holographic thinking. It produces the best solutions — and there’s your better outcome, as you originally proposed it to the Think-They-Know-It-All-Tank with Positional Power.
These five strategies in place create a profound result: People want to come to another meeting. So many of us have given up on meetings, and dealing with disruptive behaviors is a key reason why. But the bottom line here is that you can effectively corral the problematic personality. Appealing to them first got them invested in a better outcome. But you, and everyone else in the room, know that it’s not really about the Tank at all. It’s about the meeting.