Team Meetings from Hell

By Stuart Mackenzie, Michael Maynard and Sarah Phibbs-Moss 24th July 2018

If you’re a middle manager, it’s likely that meetings take up about 35% of your time, according to a report by The Muse. If you’re a senior leader then it’s more likely that well over half your day is spent in meetings of one kind or another. It is estimated that meetings can cost companies in the UK £16k per person each year — a cost of £26 billion a year to businesses. Given the investment you’d think we’d be really good at running meetings. Alas, the evidence is otherwise. Executives consider more than 67% of meetings to be failures.

It’s bad enough attending an ineffective meeting — all the worse if you’re actually chairing it. It often starts by not starting. That is, the “herding cats” process means you’re already running late. And then, as soon as you start, people start strolling in. And then there’ll be those who don’t have a copy of the agenda or have to take an urgent call or haven’t read the preparatory documents (of course they haven’t — they’re far too busy / important / forgetful / disinterested / cantankerous).

So don’t ask why they’re unprepared as you’ll open a floodgate of excuses. Again, another time waster. Even when people do turn up on time and are totally prepared then you encounter the different characters who can undermine any potential success. The not-so-good, the bad and the ugly. 

Still, hope is at hand. Whilst there are no fool-proof mechanisms for avoiding or dealing with such problems, there is action you can take to minimise the damage — both to yourself, other team members, and the so-called “difficult person” themselves.

So, in line with the demands from the HR industry to strengthen manager’s people skills, here is an approach that anyone chairing meetings can adopt.

It is of course invidious to stereotype people, but in order to help identify some of the issues, and offer a solution to deal with them, let’s take a creative look at the cast of tricky characters who make our meetings hell.

The Type: Attacker

Their Behaviour: They simply have to have a go at you in an outburst of criticism.

Possible Motive: They’ve probably been unconsciously wounded by you or the situation in some way. 

How to deal with them: Welcome their challenge. Address their complaint with care, clarity and without justification. 

The Type: Rebel

Their Behaviour: Whatever you suggest, they will challenge and disagree.

Possible Motive: Their power comes from not conforming.

How to deal with them: Incorporate their alternative views into the creative discussion. 

The Type: Joker 

Their Behaviour: Ever-ready with the undermining, mickey-taking comment.

Possible Motive: To endear themselves to others through humour and to score points off people.

How to deal with them: Give specific feedback (privately) expressing how the undermining comments make you personally feel.

The Type: Incredible Sulk

Their Behaviour: They withdraw their energy and don’t participate.

Possible Motive: They resent being there and want their plight to be understood. 

How to deal with them: Quiet acknowledgement and offers of benefits from taking part can usually turn them around.

The Type: Know-it all

Their Behaviour: There’s nothing you can say that they don’t already know.

Possible Motive: To protect their sense of inferiority with bluster and brain power.

How to deal with them: Acknowledge their ‘genius’ and swiftly move on.

The Type: Late-comer

Their Behaviour: Never arrives on time.

Possible Motive: Doesn’t want to be part of the ‘herd’ and also nervous in groups.

How to deal with them: Before the next meeting refer (privately) to ‘ground-rules’, and impress on them how their behaviour impacts others.

The Type: Phone-aholic

Their Behaviour: Continually on their mobile or computer.

Possible Motive: Under pressure and possibly self-important.

How to deal with them: Seek agreement at the start that there will be phone breaks and state the need for focused attention.

The Type: Chatterbox 

Their Behaviour: They hog the limelight, always having an opinion and voicing it.

Possible Motive: Desperate to show their worth, and perhaps try to partner you.

How to deal with them: Recognise and thank them for their contribution, yet set strong boundaries to contain their input.

The Type: Sniper

Their Behaviour: They do their best not to be noticed, but make snide comments from the side-lines.

Possible Motive: To influence and perhaps disrupt proceedings without being noticed.

How to deal with them: Bring them out into the open by highlighting their behaviours.

The Type: Side-meeting 

Their Behaviour: They continually start conversations with others.

Possible Motive: Wanting to be involved but according to their own agenda.

How to deal with them: Use their desire for involvement to bring their conversations into the open.

The Type: Passive Aggressor

Their Behaviour: Whilst appearing benign, they are secretly stabbing you with every look and smile.

Possible Motive: In order not to feel bad themselves, they project it on others.

How to deal with them: Encourage assertion, but beware not to wound. Go gently and protect yourself from their ‘dump’.

Why do they do it?

Mostly, these people are unaware of what they are doing. They are unconsciously destructive. They would probably react with shock and indignation if someone were to suggest they were a disruptive influence. Therefore, as a basic rule of thumb, it is important to focus on their behaviour rather than to condemn them as a person. And give any feedback in a contributing, rather than condemning, way.

As a starting point, it is useful to approach these disruptive customers with curiosity, trying to find out why they are behaving as they do. Not many people have been placed on this earth to deliberately ruin your team meeting. So, there are normally good reasons why they act the way they do. In most cases there is action you can take to alleviate the situation, but you often have to look in unlikely places for the solution.

Perhaps the best way of thinking about action you can take is to explore different parts of the process where you can intervene.

Before the meeting

It is essential that you enrol people in the process. They need to have a personal investment in the meeting. Also think about giving people a role to play (minute-taker, time-keeper, chair a section of the meeting etc.). You might also ask different people to lead on certain topics — either individually or in pairs.

Opening the meeting

Contracting, so that you all agree certain ground rules and behaviours for everyone in the room. You might even have these agreements written up so that people can to refer to them. And make sure those attending feel responsible for the success of the meeting. Involve them in conversation from the start so that their voices are heard in the room early on.

During the meeting

The chair needs to focus attention, move the agenda along, hold the purpose of each item, push for decisions, summarise, and ensure everyone is heard. However, everyone else needs to be equal partners in the process. Keep checking in with people that the meeting is on track from their point of view. Make sure the energy is dynamic throughout and keep ensuring everyone is focused and involved.

After the meeting

If it’s been a tough meeting with several of the difficult people dominating, you might just want to crawl home to a bit of tender loving care and forget all about it. However, there is still work to be done. Firstly think about what you could have done differently. And you might as well take some preemptive action and damage limitation — you don’t want people walking around bad-mouthing the experience they’ve just had. Contact the culprits and discuss with them (without blame) what they think went wrong and what you could have done about it. Hopefully, this conversation will help alleviate future problems.

The Team

It’s worth remembering that meetings are an essential part of building a great team. Maynard Leigh’s framework for this is called ACE Teams. A for Aligned, C for Creative and E for Exploring. The meeting is the crucial place for team members to come together and become more than the sum of their parts. It deserves care and attention to make those meetings dynamic and memorable for all the right reasons — rather than disaster zones.


Defence mechanisms exist for a purpose. They normally indicate that people are threatened in some way. It’s always worth remembering that the apparent obnoxious behaviour that is disrupting your beautifully crafted meeting might just be because the person is terrified in some way. Building relationships with them every step of the way, is often the best policy.

Meanwhile – teams are in the news. Here’s what others are talking about:

Get your creative team on: according to a Harvard Business Review article:

“IBM ran a survey of 1,500 CEOs and found that the most valuable management skill was creativity. ‘Creativity’ is generated within circles – playgrounds – where a small number of highly talented people, usually in twos, threes or small teams, work. Many people don’t see themselves as ‘creative’, even if they are. When you map your creativity circles ‘team’, they are almost always surprise.” - Nussbaum, B. (2013)

What leaders need to know about the future of teams: according to TrainingZone:

“Teams are set to play a critical role in the organization of the future. In fast-moving markets, traditional hierarchical structures are giving way to agile teams that can respond quickly to new challenges, solve problems and innovate at speed.” - TrainingZone (2018)

Meet the author…

Michael Maynard is a writer, public speaker, a philanthropist, executive coach and, until recently, chairman of The Funding Network – the "friendly Dragon’s Den" for charities and potential donors. With many books written and published on communication excellence, team alignment, leadership impact and personal effectiveness, Michael is an expert in devising and providing learning & development solutions. Michael’s articles are often published in leading management publications.

He has worked with thousands of professionals from junior executives to CEOs in world leading organisation such as DHL, Hewlett Packard, Barclays, Ocado, Lloyd's, and the London Stock Exchange to help improve their team leading, personal impact and communication skills.

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