Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 26;   June 28, 2023: Toxic Disrupters: Responses

Toxic Disrupters: Responses


Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but their techniques are predictable. If we've identified someone as using these techniques we have available a set of effective actions that can guide him or her toward a more productive role.
A jumbled jigsaw puzzle

A jumbled jigsaw puzzle. When fully assembled, these pieces are more pleasing to the eye. But in this state of chaos, they're less so — so much less so that we cannot even determine what image would be produced.

So it is with disrupted meetings and teams. All the pieces of something useful are present, but because of the disruptions, determining the nature of that useful thing is difficult indeed.

In a recent post, I explored the techniques of toxic disrupters — people who repeatedly disrupt meetings for reasons of their own. Whether by violating norms, demanding attention, messing with the agenda, or sowing distrust, or any other tactic, they manage to halt forward progress, or worse, to generate negative progress.

The temptation to eject them from the meeting can be difficult to resist. A preferable outcome would be to bring them into the fold — to guide them back to a productive role within the group. That's the basis of the approach I sketch in this post, which includes suggestions for a set of tactics that can bring about that result for a specific set of cases.

The cases The temptation to eject disrupters from the meeting
or the group can be difficult to resist. A preferable
outcome would be to bring them into the fold — to
guide them back to a productive role within the group.
that respond to this approach include those I regard as well meaning. This class excludes those that might be said to involve saboteurs and coup plotters. The former are people whose objective is purely subversion of the group conducting the meetings. The latter are those who want to seize control of the group, or failing that, to subvert it. Because these cases are complex and rare, I'll address them in future posts.

For the present, my focus is the individual group member who intends to prevent the group from proceeding in the manner it has chosen, making progress towards the objective it has chosen. In what follows, I'll refer to the Disrupter as David (he/him) or Diane (she/her).

Demotivational techniques

The core concept of the approach is to apply techniques that cause David/Diane to experience intense discouragement and frustration, because his/her tactics are utterly unproductive.

Strengthen alliances
As noted in that previous post, Diane might try to sow distrust among group members. Strengthening alliances can render this tactic of hers quite useless. Meetings of members of the alliances might be required.
Revisit your group norms
A set of norms for respectful discussion is a useful tool for controlling David. If your group hasn't established norms, you'll find it helpful. Examples that are especially useful are bans on interrupting others, deviating from the agenda, raising one's voice, and disparaging the character of others.
Deploy a Norm Check protocol
A "norm check" occurs when any member of the group feels that the discussion has led to a violation of one or more norms. That member can then call out "Norm Check" or another agreed-upon signal. At that point the discussion halts and the Chair interviews the person who called the check. After taking appropriate remedial action, the Chair restarts the discussion. This tactic can be an effective means of obtaining compliance with established norms.
Delegate responsibility
In meetings of size greater than five or six, it's beneficial to delegate to participants some of the work of running the meeting. Delegation can then also serve as a means of integrating Diane into the group. For example, appointing Diane to the office of Timekeeper can help to change her focus from disruption to process maintenance. Other roles that can also serve in this way are Facilitator, Designated Digression Detector, Scribe, and Parking Lot Valet.

Last words

Using these tactics is one approach to ending the disruptions David/Diane is creating. More important, this approach preserves the possibility of saving the relationship between the disrupter and the group. If at any point either the group or the disrupter determines that achieving that goal is so unlikely as to make investing in further efforts difficult to justify, terminating the effort is the best option. Until then, it's certainly worth a try. Go to top Top  Next issue: Fractures in Virtual Teams  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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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
Budget and ScheduleGames for Meetings: IV
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
A foxhunt in VirginiaExasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
Braided streams in Grewingk Glacier RiverWhy Sidebars Happen
Sidebar conversations between meeting participants, conducted while someone else has the floor, are a distracting form of disorder that can waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. Why do sidebars happen?
A labyrinth. It's a good metaphor for what toxic disrupters try to erect in the path of the group.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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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