Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 23;   June 7, 2023: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics

Toxic Disrupters: Tactics


Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics.
A labyrinth. It's a good metaphor for what toxic disrupters try to erect in the path of the group.

A labyrinth. It's a good metaphor for what toxic disrupts try to erect in the path of the group.

Like all meetings, the meetings of small teams, boards, task forces, and commissions are vulnerable to disruption by determined individuals among their members. Disruption of these groups is sometimes helpful. Indeed, in many cases, disruption by a group member might be the only avenue that leads to a productive outcome. Usually, disruptions are unwelcome, even if they are productive and well intentioned.

But some unwelcome disruptions are toxic. They prevent the group — or, at least, they are intended to prevent the group — from producing a useful outcome. That's why it's important for members of small teams to be familiar with the strategies and tactics of toxic disrupters. In a post to come I'll address responses small groups can use to limit the damage toxic disrupters can do. In this post, I examine the tactics of toxic disrupters, and provide some insight into what makes them so effective.

A field guide for toxic disrupters

This post If members of small teams are familiar
with the strategies and tactics of toxic
disrupters, the team is better able to
limit the harm toxic disrupters can do
is written as a set of recommendations for disrupters who want to be truly effective at preventing the small group from producing anything useful. I wrote them this way to make them clear to people who are among the other members of groups disrupted by toxic disrupters. They aren't recommendations, though they do sound as if they are.

In what follows, I use the names Ted (he/him) and Trish (she/her) to refer to the toxic disrupter.

Know (and violate) the group's norms and customs
Most groups have sets of norms and customs that prescribe acceptable and unacceptable behavior of group members. These norms and customs may be written or unwritten, and they may be honored to various degrees. Example: Meetings will start and end on time. Or: We will not interrupt each other.
To prevent the groups' achieving a specific goal, Ted violates outrageously whatever norm or custom supports achieving that goal. For example, if the meeting Chair is facilitating the discussion, interrupting the Chair violates the norm, "We will not interrupt each other." By disrespecting the Chair, Ted reduces the Chair's authority. If Ted is persistent and rude enough, most Chairs are unwilling to do what's necessary to maintain their authority. Ted makes progess towards his goal by making the Chair appear to be feckless, rather than powerful.
Demand attention
Control the focus of the group's attention. If the group is addressing Issue #3, Trish raises Issue #79. If they somehow manage to stay on Issue #3, she raises questions about the manner in which they pursue Issue #3. If the group has formal rules of procedure, she uses parliamentary objections, quorum calls, or anything at all to throw sand in the gears. If necessary, she engages in specious personal attacks and name-calling. Political incorrectness is a useful tool in this effort.
Disrupters had best be aware, though, that counter-attacks are likely if their tactics are too obviously aimed at focusing attention. Connect objections and deflections as closely as possible to the stated objective of the group, without actually advancing the group toward that objective.
Insist on an agenda that conflicts with the stated agenda
In any given meeting, there are usually opportunities to amend the stated agenda. For example, there is the casual question, "Does everyone approve of this agenda?" But the more spontaneous, unanticipated moments are more likely to be disruptive.
For example, consider asking questions of the form, "Is anyone else uncomfortable addressing this item with X unavailable?" X can be a person, a piece of information, the results of a pending decision by another body, and so on. Unnecessary delay, disguised as prudence, can be very disruptive.
Sow distrust
As a toxic disrupter, if you know of personal alliances between or among some of the members of the group, be aware that these folks probably speak with each other privately, out of your awareness. They can coordinate their activities to limit your ability to disrupt the group.
Do what you can to break up these alliances. Question the motives of these people, privately if necessary. Misquote individuals to each other to create distrust among them.

Last words

This post has explored an approach for limiting the harm toxic disrupters can do by first recognizing their strategies and tactics, and then taking appropriate action. One note of caution: distinguishing between toxic disrupters and other well-intentioned disrupters is tricky business. Limiting the ability of a well-intentioned disrupter to disrupt can be just as damaging as failing to limit the ability of a toxic disrupter to disrupt. Much depends on what you know about the disruptive individual outside the context of the small team. Use what you know. If you know little of the person, get to know him or her better. Go to top Top  Next issue: Pseudo-Collaborations  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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See also Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upComing April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
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Recognizing just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can reduce the incidence of problems. Here is Part 2 of a collection of antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure, emphasizing those that depend on content. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

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