#835: Getting meetings back on track when a small group won’t focus.

Hi Captain,

I am on the executive board of a performance group, and as an extension of that role I’m also on a committee in charge of planning a small convention aimed toward our particular fandom. I’m optimistic about how the con will turn out, as we have a number of dedicated & knowledgeable people on the committee. The problem is, among them are three people who, while they are friends in “real life”, tend to butt heads somewhat violently when put together in any professional-type setting. Consequently, almost every conversation that any of them starts devolves into a heavy argument – usually person 1 makes a statement, person 2 thinks her tone is too bossy and latches onto something he disagrees with, person 3 aggressively backs up person 2, and the three of them go back and forth without much being accomplished. Generally they all have valid points buried somewhere in there, but they tend to get lost among the petty arguments.

Invariably I end up stepping in for conflict resolution because I’m a neutral party and pretty good at calming people down, and this is a role I’m happy to play if need be, but having to step into every single conversation is really wearing on me. Talking privately to the individuals involved hasn’t been very successful; I do think they’re all genuinely trying to get along, but the personality clash in this setting might just be too much. Letting the arguments run their course would stress me out even more because so much time & energy is being wasted – plus there’s no guarantee there would ever be a resolution – and simply leaving the committee myself isn’t really an option because there are some duties that align perfectly with my current role on the board. And most of the rest of the committee seems content to sit back with popcorn during these arguments rather than backing me up on anything. What do?

Thanks,
It’s Getting a Little Too Rocky Up in Here

Dear Rocky,

There is a ton of meeting running advice here, especially in the comments.

Some things I would amplify:

  • If you’re the one running the meeting, stepping in when a discussion goes on too long is your job, and you’re not being a jerk.
  • Edited to Add: If B & C are taking female A to task for “bossyness” it is EXTRA your job to step in shut it the hell down.  “‘Bossy-ness’ is not actually a problem, so, if you have no other objection, let’s go with A’s recommendation and move on.” “Whatever valid points you may have, you undermine them when you dwell on another volunteer’s tone.” “You may not realize this, but automatically calling A. ‘bossy’ for being passionate or authoritative when she proposes things is sexist. Stop it.” KILL IT WITH FIRE.
  • Interrupt the flow. If this is a habitual thing at meetings, there is probably some sort of recognizable ritual that starts it off, so when you see that start to happen, interrupt! Call on others to weigh in! Take a break!
  • Know that these people will never get hints.
  • It’s a good idea to make an agenda with a time budget for each discussion item and also to have a set end time for meetings.
  • DELEGATE. Maybe one strategy is to assign the work of deciding the issue to the three conflict-havers OUTSIDE of meeting time. “Stephanie, Phillip, Michaela, it sounds like the three of you have a lot of details to hammer out before we make a decision on this. Why don’t the three of you discuss it further and bring us a joint recommendation next meeting? Next agenda-item!” In other words, make the exhausting, annoying work into more work for them instead of more work for you. (Note: If this is about sexist steamrolling of A, this won’t work at all, so try instead to put A. in charge of something distinct from the other two.)
  • DELEGATE MORE. I could be wrong, but I sense that at least one of these folks is a person who loves to poke holes in things and point out problems, and a lot of your meeting time is getting sucked up by defining problems rather than working on plans or solutions. If this is what you’re dealing with, “How would you handle this?” or “Good summary of the potential issues. Unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today, so can you take the lead on bringing a few possible solutions to our next meeting?” can change the dynamic…somewhat.
  • DELEGATE, DIVIDE, AND CONQUER. Put each of the Three Amigos in charge of a distinct task, hopefully one that lets them have some autonomy over a thing they care about. “Jeff, we know you have a lot of recommendations for swag, but design is Christine’s job right now. I’d like you to take the lead on on security solutions, and Sahar can get cost estimates for food & drink for the reception.” Having each person be visibly accountable for one thing is (hopefully) motivating to them and gives you a way to shush them if they’re behind on their own work but all up in someone else’s.

Good luck with your event!

56 comments
  1. Charlene said:

    “her tone is too bossy”

    If A was black and B called her uppity, would you see the issue then?

    I don’t know – and it doesn’t actually matter – if B or C are women, but when they go on about A’s *tone* being “bossy” and refuse to engage with what she’s actually said? They’re nullifying her. They’re saying she isn’t conforming to their idea of how a nice girl should speak, so what she says isn’t worth listening to. They’re ignoring her content and slamming her for her delivery – and making it clear that because she’s a woman she owes them a certain amount of passivity. No wonder she reacts so badly; anyone would.

    You don’t need to delegate; you need to manage. You need to stop these petty, nullifying squabbles that come down to A not communicating in a way B and C are comfortable with and B and C choosing to ignore the content of her communications. Listen to A, and imagine A was a man: would she still be coming across as “bossy” (I doubt it – oh, I so very, very much doubt it) or would she be the assertive leader?

    In short, your problem isn’t primarily one of personality clash but one of unintentional but really blatant disrespect. Delegating things isn’t going to stop the disrespect: pointing out the disrespect and calling on B and C to address content and not “bossiness” (and I’m sorry, but my shoulders are about three feet above my ears right now).

    I can’t be the only one wondering why A hasn’t just given up.

    • JenniferP said:

      Great point, Charlene. GREAT point. I linked your comment in the OP. Thank you.

      • Agreed. I felt it necessary to be a little skeptical in my own comment, just because we’re not actually viewing the meetings, but Charlene pretty much knocked it out of the park.

    • Without being there, I’m not sure we can say for sure that “nullifying” behavior is what’s happening, but its definitely a possibility and certainly something LW should be watching out for!

      The opposite is also possible. It may be that Person 1 is simply to loud and forceful regardless of gender – there are plenty of men who would get much better results if they turned it down a notch (and I know this because I’m one of those men, and if I don’t police my own tone I get in a whole mess of meaningless arguments) but there’s almost certainly a dynamic between the principal arguers that needs to be dissected.

      I find it interesting that Person 1 is always the first to speak.

      • Temporary Null said:

        In my experience, being loud, passionate and authoritative aren’t problems. Interrupting others, ignoring others and dominating conversations are problems.

        If I’m working with someone who does all the above, I’m not going to police their tone or tell them to not be “bossy,” I’m going to tell them to not interrupt others and I’m going to signal boost the other members of the group.

        Effective criticism focuses on behaviors, not personality. The problem isn’t, who you are, but, what you’re doing.

        Maybe A is interrupting others or dominating the conversation, but labeling her as bossy doesn’t help, and needs to stop.

      • kat said:

        i think it makes perfect sense that the problem mostly only happens when person one is the first to speak. It kind of sounds like the other two are just waiting to jump on her. Also, LW doesn’t say she’s bossy, but that person two thinks her tone is bossy, with one (1) person backing him up.

      • reanimated said:

        “I find it interesting that Person 1 is always the first to speak.” *blink* …What’s remotely interesting about that?

      • “I find it interesting that Person 1 is always the first to speak.” *blink*… what’s remotely interesting about that?

      • BigdogLittlecat said:

        I didn’t get the impression that Person A is always the first to speak. Rather, that in the course of a conversation A says something and B and C go off on her.

    • I agree with all of your points except for the (I’m sorry…).
      Don’t be sorry for being correct.

  2. Frankie said:

    Hey, LW here. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts so far!

    A couple of things I want to clear up/elaborate on before the speculation goes on much longer:

    – I am not the one in charge of keeping things on task, but the guy who was has not been doing a good job of it and in fact is one of the people usually involved in the arguments. We recently voted on someone else to coordinate discussions and things have improved somewhat since then.

    – Most of these arguments take place online, where it’s a lot harder to rein people in (I guess this would have been an important detail for me to mention in my original email?) Our physical meetings are actually a lot more productive, but the committee is large enough and hard enough to assemble that we don’t have those nearly as often as we’d like to.

    – “Bossy” is not a descriptor that’s come up in the actual arguments or to A herself; I got it from the private conversations I’ve had with both B and C about this issue. I pointed out that just because A is showing that she knows what she’s talking about, or says something you don’t want to hear, doesn’t make her bossy; both of them have dropped that subject with me, but I get the feeling that’s still the mindset they’re going in with. (Usually what happens is, B or C will find some detail in A’s posts that they take issue with – rightly or not – and it becomes an argument about That Thing rather than a discussion of the original issue.)

    • omj said:

      Are these online discussions happening in real-time, like a Skype or Chat situation, or is it more of a forum or email setup where the pace is slower?

      If it’s in real time, then capping the amount of time you can spend on different discussion points would probably be your best bet. Always have something you need to do, urgently, as soon as this meeting is over, so that you have an excuse to say, “Can you guys take that to [method of private communication] or handle it later? It really seems like we’re getting off-topic here and I want to make sure I’m present for everything.”

      If it’s a little more at-your-leisure, you might just have to get selective about which topic threads you actually pick up on, and find something self-soothing to do during the downtime.

    • Jessica said:

      So, you’re not in charge of the meeting or agenda?

      If you feel someone is being tone-policed or otherwise derailed, you can ask to refocus, something like “I want to get back to A’s point about ____ (hone in on the issue and not the part that the other two are choosing as an issue). I think that has potential/merit and would like to explore that a bit.”

      Are others showing similar fatigue? Can you get one or two allies to help you reign in the side-talk?

      Could you do conference calls or skype instead of online chats which are dominated/derailed by these interactions?

    • enigmaticblue said:

      Would it be helpful to institute formal rules for meetings, whether online or off? I’ve been on message boards before where things that are off topic are shunted off the message board, and strict rules for germaneness are followed. Also, have you thought about approaching the guy who’s in charge of keeping things reined in and offering to take over? Maybe he just doesn’t want to deal with it, and would relish being able to delegate and give you some actual authority to keep things on track.

    • If I had control over it, I’d be quite happy to kick B and C out. ;p What do they bring to the table that is uniquely valuable?

    • kat said:

      Okay, if you have voted on someone else to coordinate discussions, my advice would be to let them. Find your happy place, and stop investing all your energy trying to manage these people. I get that this sucks, but how is it your problem/responsibility?

    • Rose Fox said:

      I feel your pain, Frankie. I have been a member of a couple of organizations where people attempted to have useful conversations online, and they almost always failed in basically the ways you’re describing.

      If by “online” you mean in email or other non-realtime ways, here’s the recipe for success:

      * Have a dedicated mailing list or forum just for substantive discussions. Keep chit-chat and brainstorming elsewhere.
      * Set a start and end time for discussion just like you would for a real meeting. It can be a longer time period if you like–“noon Saturday the 25th to noon Sunday the 26th” is fine, especially if people are in different time zones–but it needs to be finite. Ideally schedule these meetings regularly, such as on the last weekend of every month, so people can set aside time for them in advance and no one gets left out.
      * Circulate a request for agenda items.
      * Release an agenda 24 hours before the meeting. At this point people will inevitably think of things they meant to add. It’s up to you whether you want a rule of “if that item is not literally on fire it goes on next month’s agenda” (which I recommend), but if you do make that rule, stick to it. Otherwise, the revised agenda should go out no later than 12 hours before the meeting.
      * Anyone making a progress report should send that report to the person running the meeting (the chair) no later than 12 hours before the meeting.
      * When the meeting begins, the chair starts one discussion thread for each top-level item on the agenda, and for each report (which is posted by the chair on behalf of the person who compiled it). Anyone wanting to discuss that item needs to reply to that thread, and no other.
      * The chair can declare a particular discussion thread closed at any time. Any replies to a closed thread are ignored or deleted.
      * When the meeting ends, the person running the meeting says “Discussion is now closed” and provides a quick list of any action items. The secretary sends out a summary of the discussion within the next few days. No further non-urgent decisions are made until the next meeting.

      Depending on how rowdy your crowd gets, the chair may want to have a couple of vice-chairs who help with what is basically comment moderation.

      If by “online” you mean in realtime over Skype or Google Hangouts or something, that’s easier to run like an in-person meeting. Still have an agenda, etc. Anyone who wants to speak raises a hand in chat, and the chair calls on one speaker at a time. This is necessary to avoid incomprehensible crosstalk (and also makes it easier to cut people off or derail dogpiling).

      These strategies necessarily require a quick-thinking, strong-willed, fair-minded, broadly respected meeting chair. I hope you have one handy! Without that, it’s very hard to get anything done at any kind of meeting.

      Best of luck to you and your crew.

      • In terms of agenda, I put a call out for items (in addition to any already scheduled or carried over) a week in advance, on a 5 day deadline. I then send the finalised agenda out 24 hours ahead, with timings for discussion of each item.

        When chairing, if an item is overrunning I can call a halt, or state that if we continue, x item will be deferred, and offer the group (everyone, not just the vocal ones) a quick round the table yes or no to defer or continue.

    • kemmi said:

      Summary emails are very useful for breaking the flow of conversation when it’s flowing the wrong way.

      For geography reasons, most of my work discussions are by email or skype. There are maybe 4-8 people (all very significant in their respective fields, all used to being in charge of decision making), plus me and my manager. There aren’t any huge personality conflicts, but they’re all by nature very discussive, all have opinions, and all find it easy to get sidetracked.

      When the conversation does go off track, you can send a “just to recap” email that brings it back to teh point of conversation and also helps section off what you’re not talking about. Me or my manager will step and say “just to recap, we’re agreed on xyz, with abc suggested. We can come back to HIJ later. Any opinions on MNOP?” Basically, all of the useful information is there at the top of your email, with a line drawn under some things. The point is partly to get everything back on track, and partly to make it so that your email is the one they reply to, so it breaks the conversation. It sounds silly, but it makes it so that it’s easier to keep on topic than go on with the previous argument. Not impossible, but definitely more awkward for them and people will generally take the path of least resistance.

      • monologue said:

        this sounds really good. Basically it’s a polite way of ignoring the nonsense and redirecting. Also if things are not in real time and not that time sensitive, would engaging less often be possible for you? Like checking the thread x often and then kinda scrolling past the crap and commenting on what you think is actually useful or relevant? (since you’re not the chair anyway)

    • Maryaed said:

      Did this remind anyone else of the Republican debates?

  3. LW, I strongly suggest meeting facilitation training for the ENTIRE group if that resource is available in your area. Having everyone learn — together — what is necessary for a productive meeting will likely do wonders for your group dynamic. This is something I recommend to every nonprofit organization that I work and volunteer for, and it’s made an appreciable difference for every group that has done a training. Good luck!

  4. Elizabeth said:

    One problem with online planning like this is that it’s way too easy to get off track even if there are no clashing personalities. Too many cooks in the kitchen kind of thing. I like the Captain’s idea of separating out tasks, so one person comes up with a plan and then people only reply if they have a change to make to that plan. That might be easier to manage than everyone pitching in and responsible for the same problem.

    Or, this is probably a long shot, but is there any way you can switch some of those people to a different committee? If they are all cognizant of the fact that they fight all the time and don’t get much done then they might not even mind.

  5. Karyn said:

    Is it possible to leave the committee? You say it’s not, because some of those duties align with your role on the board. But can you withdraw, tell them what you’re going to do, leave them with deadlines and parameters for decisions they need to make, and let them gnaw on each other without you as an audience?

  6. In my life I run A LOT of meetings (so many, many, many meetings). Chiming in to say that the Cap’s ideas, particularly the three “delegate” ones are perfect and I’ve used all of them to great success in the wild.

    Additionally? Story time! One of the newer senior managers in my company spent a weekend printing out copies of this photo (https://image-store.slidesharecdn.com/badbbb4c-cf79-4ed1-ad7d-09133ba0cf85-large.jpeg) and posting it in all of our 50+ conference rooms. He did it anonymously, over a weekend (and then gleefully told me about it six months later) and it totally changed the chaotic meeting culture at work. Once people realized there could be RULES for meetings, they pretty quickly fell in line and started following them. No announcement was ever made, no training was ever done, nothing was ever enforced top-down or bottom-up. But it made the people who frequently went rogue at meetings more mindful, and it empowered the people who craved some structure but before had been too shy to speak up. (And once he casually introduced the idea that not all meetings had to be a fucking hour long? THERE WAS PEACE AND PRODUCTIVITY THROUGHOUT THE KINGDOM HALLELUJAH.)

    TL;DR: Agendas aren’t a rulebook, they’re a To Do List. Maybe it would help if the group taciitly agreed to a set of rules (even pre-fab ones in an infographic format) about how meetings should be run and business conducted. Tomatoes are delicious and can grow if left to their own devices, but you get way better results if you give them some structure.

    • Karyn said:

      OMG, hour long meetings make my bones creak. We don’t have that much to talk about. We really don’t.

      • Jackalope said:

        I had one job where we had meetings one day a month. As in, a full day was devoted to the meetings. I enjoyed parts of them — we worked in different areas in different parts of the (small) country, so it was good to hear how things were going for the others. On the other hand, a full day was TOO LONG. I remember spending something like half an hour trying to hammer out a way to deal with a problem my team was having with a lock on a cupboard door, and thinking, “This is SO wasting EVERYONE’S time.” It was even wasting MY time, since it could have been figured out by getting together for 5-10 minutes with the handy fix-it guy of the group (you know, the one who can make ANYTHING work with duct tape and paperclips), but it was SUCH a waste for the others.

        • Mary said:

          I work from home and have to go to a big full day team meeting this week, and literally nothing on the agenda is relevant to my bit of the team. *groan*

      • Vicki said:

        This may not help the LW, but it might, or other people might find it useful:

        I used to work at a company that had weekly meetings for the entire editorial department. Agendas were distributed in advance (though sometimes at the last minute), and the expectation was that when they finished the part that was relevant to you, you would leave and go back to work. That meant almost nobody had to sit through the whole meeting (though exactly who varied from week to week), and there were fewer digressions because there were fewer people there to digress.

        The other advantage–which I suspect is why my company started doing it–is that the company gets back the time everyone had been spending vaguely listening to reports on projects they aren’t involved in. Along with “we can make the meetings more productive,” it means more time being spent on what people are actually there for, which is good whether it’s “we’re paying these people to do XYZ, which isn’t achieved by team A listening to team B discuss what color to make the book cover” or “volunteers only have so much time to give, let’s not waste it” and “people volunteer because they care about our cause, or want something interesting to do, and sitting through this sort of discussion is neither.”

    • Jack V said:

      Woah, I was expecting that poster to be a lot more passive-aggressive, which would probably have been justified, but that’s actually really nice as well as really helpful.

  7. FlyingRat said:

    One technique I’ve seen (at a UU church planning meeting, led by a paid facilitator) was the Parking Lot. (We actually called it the Bike Rack instead because we’re all hippy and green, but whatever.)

    You designate a single area of the whiteboard, or some other note-taking device, as the Parking Lot. If an idea comes up in discussion that people are interested in discussing but is not germane to the topic of the meeting, the facilitator makes a note of it in the Parking Lot so it can be revisited later — and then brings the meeting back on topic. The Parking Lot stays around for reference and so people can revisit and work on the items, outside meeting time (if there is time at the end of the meeting then people can figure out the logistics for working on them at a later time/place).

    I don’t know how well this would work in an online/Skype situation, but I found it very useful as a way to acknowledge extraneous concerns while still keeping the meeting on target.

    • Elsajeni said:

      The Bike Rack. That is VERY UU, I’m delighted.

      • kemmi said:

        Is that the same as AOB (Any Other Business)? All the meetings I’ve been to, that’s the last item on the agenda, when people bring up anything not covered in it, or to deal with sidetopics raised during the meeting.

    • Yep! The group I got my facilitation training from taught us to do this. It’s shockingly effective. A lot of times items in the Parking Lot get dealt with naturally in the course of the meeting, without having to be A Thing, and it also gives you an immediate, tangible take-away. Love the Parking Lot.

    • Socchan said:

      Shoot, I gotta suggest this to my own Con Execs. They’re already doing their best with “Save any questions for the end of the section,” but this could streamline things even more, especially if we relegate the Bike Rack/Parking Lot to the General Break. (We’d probably call it the Pig Pen or something, since our mascot is a pig, lol.)

    • Jack V said:

      Ooh, that’s really really good. It postpones the things without explicitly rejecting them, and *then* people can decide if they’re worth spending time on.

    • Smidgenofthesea said:

      Bike rack! We used that in Occupy planning meetings all the damn time and my wife and I still use it when we’re conversing and want to come back to a topic later. I had no idea where the phrase came from.

  8. Mary said:

    This isn’t relevant to LW, since she’s said that their meetings are actually online, but a few years ago I had to minute meetings by people who were much more senior than me, with a truly awful chair who used to let the committee members get into awful long, irrelevant arguments. (My favourite time was when two people had a vigorous, angry argument in which neither was listening to the other, so much so that they didn’t notice they were agreeing with each other, just using different words for the same thing.) I had to stay til the meeting ended, and really resented losing my evenings, so I developed the tactic of politely saying, “Sorry, do you want me to minute this?” Which had a 100% success rate of making everyone remember that this wasn’t actually relevant to what we were there for, and was delightfully passive-aggressive.

    • Alteralias said:

      Genius.

    • Jack V said:

      Oh, excellent!

  9. resili0 said:

    My colleagues and I have a motto we try to be mindful of when the urge to interrupt kicks in; W.A.I.T: Why Am I Talking? My place of work is unstructured, we co produce material and this brings together a lot of diverse people – the temptation to butt in with helpful ideas or unhelpful comments comes up a lot. The philosophy is to notice that urge to talk over/ dominate the time and to apply that rigor to ourselves. Often when I want to jump in it is because I am not listening; so the motto helps me actively listen.

  10. Xenophile said:

    I have a slightly different problem with meeting etiquette. (If this thread-jacking is inappopriate, I’ll happily re-post this in the forum instead!) In one of my classes, we have a lot of group assignments, some of which count towards our grade, and some don’t. The combined weight of the group work is only 15% so this shouldn’t even be a big deal, but these assignments are taking up WAY too much time and hurting my other classes, and the frustration of dealing with the different personalities is affecting my health.

    Trouble is, unlike in the workplace, there’s no one person in charge and no consequences for people not pulling their weight. There’s one guy who never contributes anything, doesn’t respond to messages and always acts surprised when it turns out that something was due. Several people are so disorganised that they’re shocked to find out when deadlines are, and frequently miss deadlines entirely because they can’t tell the difference between Dropbox and Google docs. I have an undergrad degree in area studies and out of sheer luck the professor decided to focus on my area. No one else in the group has any experience with this region. I find myself having to correct glaring factual errors in their work, and while I try to not be a jerk about it, they push back and refuse to make edits. When they don’t believe me, I find articles to prove things that I thought were common knowledge, and they still dismiss it like, “Oh, it’ll just make for lively debate in class.” These are not matters of opinion, it’s basic facts like “Group A lives in region X.” Frankly, it’s embarassing to submit an assignment with my name on it that says Group A lives in region Y. But what’s really driving me nuts is how long the meetings take and a personality clash with one person in particular.

    Yesterday we were supposed to meet and prepare a presentation. Granted, this week’s question about statebuilding operations was very difficult, especially in comparison with very simple questions assigned to the other groups last week. Also, the two men didn’t attend, leaving the three of us women to work on it. We sat there for nearly FOUR HOURS and didn’t even finish. This presentation is only supposed to last ten minutes! This one woman in particular is driving me nuts. She’s fresh out of undergrad, very young, very sweet, and kind of a real life Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But she gets so excited about big, abstract ideas that she forgets about the assignment at hand, talks at length about tangents, doesn’t listen when other people are talking, and repeats herself over and over. If we try to redirect back to the assignment and say, “The marking criteria require historical examples, so let’s think of some,” she dismisses that by saying no one has ever done what she’s suggesting. However, she just doesn’t know the subject well enough to know that there are lots of precedents. She misuses examples and, when corrected, doubles down so we have to look it up to prove that she’s mistaken, wasting even more time.

    The nadir of the afternoon was when, after 3 hours of arguing, I suggested that ideal leadership doesn’t really exist in most fragile states, so we need strategies for working with less-than-ideal leaders. Her jaw literally dropped. “But…but…don’t you believe in human goodness? How can you believe that? Why don’t you trust in people?” I laughed in her face. I just couldn’t help it. I know should probably feel bad for being so dismissive of her youthful idealism, but I’m so far past bitch-eating-crackers and I can’t believe she would insinuate that my policy opinions reflect on my character. I appreciate her enthusiasm and her sweet friendliness, but trying to get her to focus on the topic at hand is exhausting and it’s really hard to get a word in edgewise. To make matters worse, my blood sugar was unstable the entire time and I felt physically ill by the end of this marathon debate. I had planned on a two hour group meeting and then going to the gym to stabilise my blood sugar, but it ran so long there was no time and I had to rush home for a Skype call. I was physically sick all evening because I didn’t get to work out. I’m so angry with her for wasting our time but she has no idea why I’m irritated with her.

    Our meetings regularly take two hours for very short assignments. This class shouldn’t be a big deal! This shouldn’t be stressing me out! Should I try to set an agenda or time limit for the next meeting? I worry that I already come across as bossy but no one has really stepped up to get ish done. Should I apologise for being short with her, explain that I wasn’t feeling well, and that I feel like she’s not listening to the rest of us? I have bad memories of being labeled the bitchy classmate in undergrad, so I’ve been watering down statements like, “Oh, it looks like there’s a typo. I think you may have accidentally swapped the names of Group A and B,” or “I noticed your portion wasn’t submitted in time, so I submitted your rough draft from Dropbox for you.” Even that feels passive aggressive. Uggggghhhhh I hate group assignments!

    • Alteralias said:

      Wow. The point of group work is to encourage thinking about the subject with other people, and ideally get more out of it that way, not be some sort of masterclass in coping with bad team dynamics – and that sounds like a group dynamic with a lot wrong with it.

      You might not be able to fix this. If you can get to a point where it is annoying you less and doesn’t affect your grade badly, then you’re winning. It isn’t your job to fix the whole rest of the team anyway, and you’ll feel less like the ‘bossy’* one if you don’t take responsibility for the rest of the team pulling their shit together. They might even get their arses in gear if it becomes obvious that you won’t pick up slack.

      *It sounds like at the moment you have a situation where people get to call you bossy and let you do more than your fair share of the work. At the very least the guys who are not turning up are expecting the rest of the team to do their work for them.

      Is it possible to talk to the professor? It sounds like it would be fairer to split the work up into sections, with each of you taking responsibility for a section, and each presenting that section themselves.

      I appreciate that your course just may not have that kind of flexibility in it, or your professor may be unsympathetic, but I bet they’ve had their fair share of experiences in academic groups that make it impossible to get anything done, there’s a chance they might be helpful.

      You sound like the kind of person who is very conscientious. I can see why the meeting might drag on and you might, out of a sense of obligation, let your own gym session slip, but what if you arranged something which you would be less likely to allow the meeting to mess up? Eg have a friend find you in the meeting room after exactly x hours, for coffee/gym session/discussion on other class topic? You might be less inclined to keep your friend waiting.

      Then you can be “ok we have 2 hours to get through A B C & D which gives us half an hour for each thing. If it goes on longer than half an hour then you’re all welcome to keep discussing after I’ve gone, but lets have a basic agreement on each thing before that”

      Which is another variation on the excellent ‘parking lot/bike rack’ suggestion above.
      Oh and if you do try this please be prepared for the first such meeting to be not much different to usual – in my experience it’s only when you carry through on your intention to stick to your timetable, that people actually modify their own behaviour.

      Once you’ve left, if there’s any way you can give yourself permission to not care about the annoyingness any more, then it would likely help you. Maybe focus on aceing some other assignment if you find yourself dwelling on Team-Annoying.

      Good luck whatever you do.

    • monologue said:

      There’s a lot here but I think one thing you can do that you totally have control over is take care of your health stuff. Whether it’s bring food with you to meetings so you don’t have a blood sugar issue or whether it’s saying, “I only have until ___ time” when you plan the meeting so that you can still do what you need to do afterwards in terms of your routine. Maybe that will help you stay on track too bc you can say, “folks I only have 30 min left, let’s make sure we work out who’s doing what by then, I suggest this”

    • Mary said:

      Should I try to set an agenda or time limit for the next meeting?

      Yes! I think that is completely reasonable! Meetings are not supposed to be open-ended! Nobody wants that! I think I’d actually do it combined with an apology:

      “Hi All – I think I was pretty tetchy with people at our meeting last Sunday, and I apologise for that. I hadn’t expected the meeting to go on nearly as long as that, and I was absolutely starving by the end. Low blood sugar makes me grumpy, so I wasn’t much fun to be around by the end and I apologise for that.

      Having said that, I think four hours is simply too long for this kind of meeting, and I am afraid I struggle to commit to that length of time. Would everyone be ok with scheduling our next meeting for no longer than 2 hours? This might mean we need to do a bit more individual work in advance of / after the meeting, but hopefully that won’t be a problem?”

      Then I would schedule something which means you need to leave not later than 2 hours 45 minutes after the meeting start, so you have a little bit of leeway but also a firm deadline.

      Also, my sympathies – university group projects when the team is a mess are THE WORST. So much harder than anything I’ve encountered in the actual workplace!

    • Clarry said:

      You’ve hit on one of my bugaboos or pet peeves or whatever you call that problem in education that no one seems to notice. The class is in area studies so ostensibly the lectures, reading and assignments are supposed to be in support of the goal to learn area studies. Yet your teacher has set it up such that some part of your grade and your time is taken up with management and working with a group. For heavens sake, if you’re supposed to be learning to work with a group, why isn’t that advertised in the course list with all the resources supporting working with a group? There are a few things you can do:

      1. Go to the teacher, but don’t complain about your group-mates. Put it in terms of your understanding how important the skill is to learn to work on group projects, and ask for help, tips, pointers on what to do in certain situations. Say “we all have different ideas on what it is to work towards a deadline. I’m sure this will come up when I’m out in the industry too. What do you suggest that I might do to help me learn the management technique so I become good at reconciling the problem?”

      2. Learn the group management skills on your own. For one thing, stop worrying about coming across as too bossy. Under the best of circumstances, you’ll be seen as showing great leadership. Really, the teacher has demonstrated that s/he is only too glad to have you take over the job of teaching the other students in the group. He or she has abdicated their position. The only thing you can do is make this self-study.

      3. I’ve said I don’t have much faith that your teacher will come through as I suggested in 1. More likely, the teacher will give you the brush off and tell you to handle it. So you go to your group and say “hey, I have lots of experience with this subject. Does anyone mind if I just do this assignment and put all our names on it?” Then just do the assignment without their “help” which does nothing but eat up your time and stress you out. Tell your group-mates that you’re glad to tutor them if they have any questions, but make sure you put it in those terms: tutoring. You know; they don’t. You’re helping them. At least in this class and in this situation, you’re not equals.

      4. For the next assignment in case someone says that they’ll do it this time, quietly do the assignment on your own anyway. When the inadequate work is presented to the group, you step in and say “or we could turn this in instead. It’s all finished, fact-checked, proofread, and ready to go.” No, it’s not fair, but fairness isn’t the goal at the moment. Learning what you can from the class and not being stressed out is. Doing the assignment will achieve your goals. If your group-mates insist on turning in terrible work, tell your teacher that you did the assignment on your own and would like his/her feedback on it.

    • Cathie said:

      If nobody is in charge of your group, there’s your opportunity — BE the person in charge. Secretly, everyone else will be thrilled with this.
      I suggest this approach: when your next presentation is coming up, email your group that due to the pressure of your other work, you won’t have time for an introductory discussion for this presentation. Instead, you announce, you have prepared a 3-page draft of what the presentation could cover and here it is. Then schedule a ONE HOUR meeting to finalize it.
      Drafts are great — they provide focus and direction for discussions, and prevent drift, even if the final version looks nothing like the draft in the end. And a draft doesn’t have to be complete — you can include “assignments” for others in the group to do more research in specific areas — but the draft will set the overall direction, tone etc. An hour should be ample to finalize it, and your constant reminders about the time during the meeting will derail the wild flights of speculative fancy that you are trying to deal with now.
      Of course, you will get pushback and you must expect this — muttered accusations of how you are trying to hijack the group and who do you think you are, etc etc. Keep stressing how busy you are and how this is the only way you can participate in the group from now on, so if anyone else wants to volunteer to do the next draft that would be great etc etc. And if nobody else volunteers, just do it again yourself. Yes, this is likely going to end up being a more work for you than the rest of the group is doing, but consider it an investment in your own mental and physical health. Good luck!

    • eegghh said:

      Oh boy. The very first thing that comes to mind here is “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. If this is truly 15% of your grade and you are confident you are going to hit it out of the park everywhere else in class, I’d recommend that you release yourself from the burden of making everyone else in your group play at your level. Don’t get sucked into an argument with the foolish. If you get the project done and handed in to a point where it passes, anything equivalent to a C grade/.75 is equal to getting 10 out 15. That means pretty mediocre work still works out to taking no more than a 5% hit in your total class grade

      Therefore you just need a containment strategy that gets you to a mediocre product ready to go in the timeframe available.

      Start with an agenda. You don’t have to be bossy, I’d just say, “I like being the facilitator so i’m going to keep time and set our agenda and make sure we leave on time!”. The second thing is give everyone a piece to work on on their own- and give the worst stuff to people who do not come to meetings! If they don’t come to the meeting and they don’t have their part done, shame them in class with a blank slide in your presentation that says “Point III- Radical Solutions” and then in the middle of the slide it says (Add Jake’s notes when he hands them in). Then pretend to be so embarrassed! “How did that get in there? Sorry, we were waiting on some data!” Also make yourself into the person who puts all the pieces into the final draft. This way you can correct minor factual errors like naming the wrong place before the presentation, the wrong person won’t see it until after you already present it, correctly. If they try to “un-correct” the correct fact they’ll be clearly exposed as the dummy.

      I had a group who always ran over fighting about minutia and my course correction had two phases First: get everything non controversial off the docket. We ran through the agenda and found everything everyone already agreed on or had only minor points to correct, and finished those. Often everyone agrees to most things, and it’s 2-3 points that are the sticking point. This is also good because you can emphasize how everyone is MOSTLy on the same page, with 2-3 things left. Then with your remaining time- which is now much shorter because you finished 80% of the work in 20% of the time, you split it up into the remaining subjects and decide what has to be resolved and what can be dropped if necessary to help move forward. Once you get there, when time runs out, if two people are really arguing and everyone else is picking sides, just vote. Maybe give them each 20 uninterrupted seconds to summarize their position. Votes are for, “leave this out entirely, go with idea 1 or go with idea 2.” And that’s the end of it. It is very fair and in my experience this has worked with some very passionate people .

      The last part is to tell everyone that the rule has to be, “we go with what we have unless someone else has a better solution ready to go”. This I have found IMMENSELY helpful in all group work. Finished mediocre work is better than the conceptually brilliant idea someone else is suggesting but no one has started working on. If one of you disagrees with something someone already wrote, fine, bring an alternative that shows why your draft is better to the next meeting. Often people are critical because they think they can do it better, but they don’t really WANT to do the work required to improve things, so if you say, ok, do you want to edit Peggy’s chapter and fix the footnotes? They will shut up so fast!

      I would be tempted to take a young and idealistic person down a peg too, but you know what, she’s going to get disabused of all her fresh faced hope in the course of life. If she’s getting agitated and steamrolling, it might be a function of wanting to know everyone heard her- probably just be like, “great idea Sherry. We’re still finishing up with Melissa’s slide though, so lets write it down and circle back, or talk about it over drinks another time, right now we have 17 minutes left and three things left to assign.

    • babblemouth said:

      Tangent: This is why I’m driven nuts by the concept of giving group work in college to prepare yourself “for the real world”. This would not fly in ANY work environment I’ve ever seen. First, no group would be left completely unsupervised – unless you’re dealing with an absolutely terrible boss. Similarly, you’d be able to escalate something like this: “Hey boss, we’ve been working on project X for Y weeks now, and I feel we have a lack of direction. Could you maybe join our next meeting to help put it back on track?” You’d have systematic check-ins BEFORE the moment the project has to be delivered, and the question of who has been doing what would 100% come up.
      My university teachers always gave me the BS story that group-work is a proxy for real-world work. Not only is this wrong, but it gave me a false expectation when i first started that when I had a problem, I couldn’t escalate, because we’re just supposed to work this stuff out on our own.
      The only thing university group projects are a good proxy for is absolutely terrible management.

  11. Ow. I feel your pain.
    Is it possible to discuss this with the teacher? You have a group of six(?) and only two people are actually working: half don’t show for group meetings and one is actively derailing the project.
    If this group project is supposed to prepare you for work, point out that the classroom has no HR to mediate, and no student has authority to boss the meeting, and no student will face penalties as long as one student is willing to do -all- the work. This is not prep for the world of work.
    If this group project is supposed to cut the teacher’s workload from N projects to grade down to N/6 projects to grade, you’re pretty much up the creek.

    I love this picture: http://www.hercampus.com/sites/default/files/2015/11/17/GroupProj.jpg

    My tutor wrote this one up – apparently, group projects are an abomination from the school years through the work years.
    https://tziviaadler.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/tutor-on-group-projects/

    • Katia said:

      I work at a school and occasionally take classes, and was beyond tickled to find out that the part that was suuuuuper easy for me — putting all the group’s information into a powerpoint, which also, could do DURING said work — was something that was just beyond all students in my group. And they were so impressed with it! But yes, group projects are the actual worst in general.

  12. The Captain has flagged up sexism twice in her response, but unless the OP’s original letter was edited Im not sure where thats coming from. Is there a nuance Im missing, other than that the people being discussed are not the same gender?

    • JenniferP said:

      The person being called “bossy” is female.

  13. LW #644 said:

    LW #644 here! (I normally comment under another name.) The advice I got from writing in to the Captain had a huge impact on how I run (real-life) meetings. Maybe it’s useful to list what’s worked for me?

    – giving each agenda item a set amount of time and explicitly listing that on the agenda

    – circulating the agenda further in advance, to give people a chance to argue e.g. “no, that topic definitely needs more than 10 minutes” etc.

    – reducing background noise as much as possible (after a comment on the post made me realise that hearing problems were part of the reason why one person kept interrupting others and repeating what had already been said).

    – continuing to deal with interruptions by redirecting things back to the agenda (but no longer feeling bad about this!)

    – continuing to carve out some post-meeting time for socialising so the group gets to interact in a non-fraught context.

    – continuing to do all my pre-meeting prep in the coffee shop across the road, then turn up at the last minute so I didn’t have difficult people draining my energy before the meeting even started. I guess the equivalent for online meetings is try to do a self-care thing either before, after, or before *and* after?

    I didn’t get as far as allocating tokens for speaking but I did start keeping track in my head of who was getting “airtime” and actively bringing in people who hadn’t said anything.

    The one thing that I thought would definitely work but didn’t: giving the person who was always hogging the meetings a specific task to do between meetings. To cut a long story short, she messed it up and in the process revealed she still sees the previous (male) chair as the “real” chair. (I’ve now quit the post for reasons unrelated to this.)

    Anyway, the Captain’s reply and the advice in the comments were incredibly helpful to me and I would like to thank everybody again.

    • solecism said:

      Thanks for the update! Always good to hear back from people about how events played out. Glad you upped your facilitation game and found what worked for you.

  14. MCL said:

    I chair a work committee that has members with some pretty disparate communication styles, and we had a disaster of a meeting that devolved into an argument. I resolved to be a better chair, and talked to a colleague who has a lot of experience running meetings. Here’s what I did (our next meeting after implementation of this list was productive and enjoyable):

    – create ground rules as part of the meeting. Raise hands before talking? Speakers need to be respectful? Decisions made by voting? And we made it so that members are clear that they can help enforce rules as well as chair. Shared responsibility! Bring rules to all future meetings. Mine are on a flip chart.

    – time limits on agenda items! Give lots of time for meaty discussion.

    – I did a ton of leg work and spoke to all members before the meeting. May not be practical for you, but it helped me see where their concerns were and I shaped the agenda on those.

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