Which One Are You?

Meet the Meeting Killers

In the Office, They Strangle Ideas, Poison Progress; How to Fight Back

By SUE SHELLENBARGER, Wall Street Journal

When it comes time for a meeting, co-workers can be deadly. Discussions get hijacked. Bad ideas fall like blunt objects. Long-winded colleagues consume all available oxygen, killing good ideas by asphyxiation.

When it comes time for a meeting, the office can be deadly. Long-winded colleagues consume all available oxygen and good ideas get killed by asphyxiation. Sue Shellenbarger explains on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty Images.

Co-workers wander off topic, send texts, disrupt decision-making or behave in other dysfunctional ways. Even the best leaders can resort to desperate measures to keep the discussion on track: chocolate rewards, Elmo dolls and ice-cold rooms.

Multitasking at meetings is such a given that unless a leader sets a “no devices” rule or schedules “tech breaks,” nearly everyone texts or sneaks a peek at email during meetings. And yet, that is nothing compared with real sabotage.

Naysayers are the ones who “whatever you bring up, it will never work,” says Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate-training company in Atlanta. One of her strategies is to take serial naysayers to lunch before meetings to let them vent and try to reach agreement. Once the meeting begins, she sets ground rules, requiring anyone who complains also to offer a solution.

Another problem personality is the silent plotter, Ms. Brownlee says. “They may be the quiet person sitting in back, but as soon as the meeting is over, they’re over there by the Coke machine, planning your demise,” she says. She makes a point of calling on plotters during meetings to try to draw out their feedback.

And for the toughest offenders, ramblers, Ms. Brownlee sometimes puts an Elmo doll in the center of the meeting table and tells participants, “Anytime anybody in the session thinks we’re getting off track, pick up the Elmo doll.” This allows co-workers to express frustration without interrupting, she says.

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