Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 47;   November 23, 2016: Why People Hijack Meetings

Why People Hijack Meetings

by

When as Chair of a meeting, you have difficulty completing a reasonable agenda, you might be the target of a hijacking. Here's Part I of a series exploring meeting hijacking.
Derailment of Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Train 504 on September 17, 2005

Derailment of Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation (Metra) Train 504 in Chicago, Illinois, on September 17, 2005. Train derailments provide a useful metaphor for meeting hijackings, if we consider the train as the meeting, and the track as the agenda. Contributing causes to hijackings (derailments) can be found in the agenda (the tracks), the way the meeting is facilitated (the engineer's operation of the train), the attendee list (the passengers or freight), or sabotage by outside parties. Photo courtesy U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Meeting hijacking is widely defined as the result of the behavior of an individual who insists that the meeting participants discuss his or her preferred topic, instead of whatever is currently on the agenda. Although that situation could be a hijacking, the problem is both subtler and more complex.

For our purposes, we define a meeting hijacking as any attempt, in defiance of group norms, to take the meeting in a direction other than that determined by agreed-upon processes.

In the next issue, we'll catalog techniques hijackers use to hijack meetings. For now, let's explore why people try to hijack meetings.

In what follows, I'll use the names Horace or Harriet to refer to the attempted hijacker, in place of the awkward form "he or she."

Control
Some people hijack meetings to gain control of the group. They care less about content than they do about controlling the process. For example, they might want to undermine the Chair's authority, hoping to demonstrate the Chair's unsuitability for the role. Or they might be acting on behalf of powerful people, who might not even be present, if those people want the group to fail in its mission, for political reasons. Motivations abound.
Those who seek control of the meeting are not always "control addicts." Sometimes people seek control quite rationally, if for nefarious purposes.
Urgent sincerity
When Horace The choice of response to hijack
attempts depends to some extent
on the motives of the hijackers
urgently and sincerely believes that an issue must be addressed immediately, and when private attempts to convince the Chair have failed to do so, he might attempt a hijacking. In one variety of urgent sincerity, Horace is laboring under a misapprehension of the actual issues facing the meeting. He might be either confused or misled by others. One can, after all, be sincerely mistaken.
Horace can accept that the matter won't be addressed, or alternatively, he can try to persuade the other participants during the meeting. The latter alternative fits most definitions of hijacking. Appropriate responses to such actions differ markedly from responses to the more nefarious control-motivated tactics.
Conspiracies
Harriet might not actually care much about the agenda she's disrupting, but she does disrupt it because of an agreement she made with someone who does care. Typically this happens when Harriet's co-conspirator, Horace, cannot hijack the meeting himself. He might have acquired a reputation that has put the meeting Chair on guard, or he might not be present. He might have an obvious conflict of interest that would undermine his direct attempts to hijack the meeting, whereas Harriet's attempts might be more likely to appear to be sincere.
Most conspiracies are easily detected, but they often escape consideration as possible explanations for hijacking behavior because the idea seems so elaborate. Some feel reluctant to share the thought of conspiracy with others for fear of seeming "paranoid," to use the term in the lay sense. Conspiracies are most effective when they target people who can't accept their existence.

Motivations for hijack attempts vary widely. Your choice of response depends on what you think is actually happening. We'll examine hijacking techniques next time, and prevention in the issue after that.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Hijack Meetings  Next Issue

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More articles on Effective Meetings:

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Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
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Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
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When the Chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the Chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because Chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
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Overtalking other people is a practice that can be costly to organizations, even though it might confer short-term benefits on the people who engage in it. If you find that you are one who overtalks others, what can you do about it?
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Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?

See also Effective Meetings and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

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