Meeting Personas and Their Toxic Behaviors
Spot behaviors that will make your meeting go down the hill
“Brace yourselves! Another article on how to manage meetings…”
If this was your 1st thought, don’t worry. I’m not going to repeat the already-known tips shown here, here, and here. Today my narrative is different: I amused myself recapping recent moments where my productivity went down the hill and 80% of them happened during or due to a ‘bad’ meeting.
But like everything in life, bad meetings are created by bad (human) behaviors. The following real-life examples highlight persona archetypes that I had the luck (not!) to cross paths with. For the sake of everyone involved, I’ll keep all names fictional.
Persona #1: The Multi-Tasker
Me: “John, did you had the chance to check the report yesterday?”
John: “Humm, yeah… I took a quick look at it.” (scrolling his phone furiously)
Me: “Well, what do you think about the last data entries?”
John: “Just give me a sec, I’m updating JIRA right now with an urgent topic…”
This persona causes me a lot of itch. When I’m the meeting’s facilitator, I only invite critical people to it. Also, to make everyone’s time as productive as possible, I define an agenda with a slot for introduction, brainstorming, and/or Q&A if we want to get a clear and valuable outcome. So, when a key person is deliberately putting his/her head on something else while the meeting happens, it’s just disrespectful. If I would be that person, my solution is straightforward: do a polite checkout. If you have more important things to do, there’s no shame to politely abandon the meeting, stating you have either A) more important things to do or B) no valuable input to give.
Persona #2: The Late-One
Steve: “Hi guys! Sorry for being 15min late, I’ve been caught up in another meeting…”
(someone whispers): “As usual…”
Me: “Glad you could make it Steve. We already discussed the first 3 points of the…”
Steve: “Oh, did you? I have a strong opinion on the 2nd one. Let me just put you up to speed…”
And Steve’s ‘small’ debrief is a killer. He was delayed, interrupted the workgroup and didn’t try to understand the meeting’s flow to see if his feedback was timely or not. If Steve is pushy, then all meeting participants will have a deja vú, discussing the same topic as before, just for Steve’s closure. In such a scenario, the meeting facilitator should not be afraid of taking a position: depending on Steve’s valuable input, he may decide to do a re-run or shut-down the interruption and take it for the end of the meeting, even offline.
Persona #3: The Double-Checker
Me: “So guys, I had the chance to talk with Steve yesterday and he confirmed the dashboard was not tackling the expected data. Fortunetely, he knows how to solve…”
(interrupting) Ralph: “Did Steve analyzed the last December’s pie chart? Because that info was not accurate.”
Me: “Yes he did. He discussed the topic with the Backend Developer and they know the root cause. The solution will be avaiable by…”
(interrupting) Ralph: “Did the Backend Developer ran the query directly on PROD or PRE-PROD?”
Me: “In Prod directly, Ralph. But let’s go back to the solution’s calendar for tomorr…”
(interrupting) Ralph: “Any chance I can talk with them to deep-dive on their analysis?”
Scrutiny is good, don’t get me wrong. But it's only valuable if it makes you move towards something. In this example, the meeting outcome would be the solution’s rollout and when it would be achievable. Keeping a rollercoaster of interruptions just for the sake of understanding low-level data deviates people’s attention from the target. If you are a ‘Ralph’ in your meetings, at least start by the end: explain to the group why the long-train of questions and how those impact the expected outcome. If it’s just plain curiosity, take it offline.
Persona #4: The Spectator
(45min have passed in a 1-hour meeting)
Me: “Do we have any other comment for this topic?”
(all team members except Samantha): “No, we discussed everything. All good.”
Me: “Samantha, you’ve been silent since the beggining, I was expecting to get your view on the impact of these measures to your department”
Samantha: “Humm… No special comments.”
Disclaimer: This persona’s negative impact depends on the meeting type. Of course, if you are on an All-Hands meeting with the rest of the company, you probably may not have the same possibility to participate as others. Or if you are part of a sharing session, you’ll be in the ‘student’s’ role, consuming more than contributing.
But if you are on a “decision making” meeting and you spend the whole session without adding just one single word, something is not right… You should either A) anticipate the boredom and notify the participants upfront about your views before going somewhere else or B) like stated before, you do a polite checkout mid-meeting. Spending 45min of your life trapped in a meeting without anything useful to say is the ultimate level of procrastination. Don’t be a ‘Samantha’.
Persona #5: The Out-Ranker
Eric: “I had the chance to discuss this with the team and they feel we need to go left.”
Mark (CxO): “Eric, please. I‘m sure the course of action is to go right. I’ve seen this film before. ”
Eric: “But we’ve been assessing these for months and…”
Mark (CxO): “Trust my gut feeling Eric, let’s go right.”
(Eric shuts up)
If you’re part of a company where you don’t have transparency & liberty of speech across peers (regardless of the rank) you may end-up on a narrative like this. Bad CxO’s, Heads of X, Department Leads, etc., may cut you off and apply subliminal influence to your position without giving you space & time to elaborate or show a different view. In this small example, Eric was trying to lay the foundations for a solid argument, supported by a long-term assessment. Then Mark, the CxO, intervened and established his position based only on… gut feeling. When such happens, people tend to evaluate their options and avoid a direct confront (or conflict) with an out-ranker who can make their life miserable.
Disclaimer: we’re not discussing the rightness of the ‘gut feeling’; we may even end up with the CxO being right; I only want to highlight that the ‘field should be leveled’ for all meeting participants: you shall respect your colleagues’ opinion and counter-argument with facts, not rank.
Persona #6: The Black Hole
Me: “I see everyone has joined. Let’s start with…”
(interrupting) Tony: “Hey, hey peeps! All good? How about this weather?”
(2min of chit-chat)
Me: “Glad to see everyone in a good mood! So let’s start with the latest turnover data. Samantha can you please…”
(interrupting) Tony: “Just one sec Samantha. I would like to highlight: bla, bla, bla…”
(5min of dissertation)
Me: “Thanks for the input Tony but let’s just hear Samantha now because she has relevant info.”
Tony: “Sure! Off you go, Samantha!”
Tony: “Can I ask one question Sam? Quick one: can we bla bla bla…”
We all know someone who falls in love with the sound of their own voice. If this persona was a Pokemon, (s)he would be the natural evolution of a “Double-Checker”. Not only do they like to elaborate great narratives, but they are also people-pleasers, trying to create inconsequential conversation for group engagement. They don’t know how to refrain from their opinions/questions when someone else has the stage. By far, these persons are the worst ones to ‘control’ in a meeting. They are black holes, sucking the life (and spotlight) from other participants. The best way to convey this: establish ground-rules with the person upfront. Trying to ‘manage it’ during the meeting will result in chaos.
Persona #8: The Philosofer
Me: “After Sales dept. feedback I can see we have here a very complex situation. It’s clear we don’t know enough about ‘X’ and ‘Y’ to make a well-educated decision for now.”
Paul: “And we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Me: “Sorry Paul…?”
Paul: “Complexity is a paradigm that does not cope with reductionist approaches. In our human nature, we relativize everything and usually miss the intrisinc relations between events.”
Me: “Indeed. But getting back on ‘X’and ‘Y’ topics, how shall we proceed?
Paul: “Building a higher notion of the self usually helps.When we create conditions to harness our psique, we reduce the entaglement of unclear toughts…”
(infinite dissertation starts)
Remember people who fall in love with their own voice? This one here is in a lifelong commitment with his/her thoughts. More focused on elaborating his/her own narrative, the “Philosopher” usually provides interesting input for the human mind condition but completely misses the target on the problem statement (and how to help it solve it). Infinite dissertation steals focus away and keep people bored and anxious. Great guy/girl to meet by the coffee machine but a productivity’s detractor when the meeting starts.
Persona #9: The Gossip Agent
Me: “I’m surprised Paul did not finalized the document in due time. Last time we talked he got everything under control.”
Jack: “That’s what happens when you go into a birthday party followed by disco fever until 3am…”
Me: “Sorry Jack?”
Jack: “Yeah, I saw Paul’s post on Facebook!! That guy is always partying hard. The last post was on 1.55am…”
Me: “Well Jack, Paul is not here to discuss it… Also we don’t know if any personal occurance was the reason for Paul to not finish the document. Let’s keep a professional tone and avoid such comments?”
Remember the 1st persona (Multi-Tasker)who gave me itching? This one gives me a big red rash all over…
First: it’s not OK to make special remarks about someone’s life in a professional context. Everyone is entitled to their own privacy and shall have the possibility of choosing if they want to share or not.
Second: Keep your facts straight. In this scenario, Jack had zero evidence to correlate the unfinished document with Paul’s birthday party. Jack only tried to weaponize the occurrence to make Paul look bad among peers.
Third: If Paul’s performance is affected by personal topics, it’s up to Paul to address the root cause and discuss it with whom it makes sense (line management, his Team, HR, etc.). Meeting’s audience is not the appropriate forum, especially with Paul being absent and unable to defend himself.
Truth be told, I had the chance to provide direct and real-time feedback to these persons, focusing on what I thought went wrong in the meeting due to their actions. Some reacted in a not so friendly way but the large majority incorporated the feedback and tried to do better next time. Also, I’m not perfect either. Certainly, I exhibited similar behaviors, which negatively impacted someone in the past; I do appreciate it if others do the same for me with timely feedback.
The objective is to avoid these personas (or becoming one). When exploring the root-cause for some behaviors, it’s clear people would prefer to be somewhere else doing their ‘thing’ rather than being in the meeting. Some become introverts, others want to steal the show or even become manipulators as a coping mechanism. One way or another, these people are not putting their ‘A Game’ for the meeting purpose: bringing alignment within the group towards an outcome. So my suggestion is to apply the ‘golden rule’: summon the meeting as a last resort.