How to deal with a team member that disrupt project meetings

By ITIL® from Experience©

The situation is that one of the project team member is always late to meetings. As a result:

  • Meeting time is used to brief the individual on discussions held before they arrived, wasting everyone's time. Often discussions concluded before their arrival are restarted wasting more time or worst it confuses team members resulting in more discussions to get everyone back on track.
  • Even more time is wasted because of unnecessary questions since the individual does not pay attention as they are busy replying to emails on their smart phones or by having side conversations with other team members
  • The individual is negative towards the project and often makes snarky remarks.

People are tired and feed up of these dysfunctional meetings. Moreover, the project appears as if it is not being well managed.
This behavior can be signs of passive-resistance1 . The easiest solution is to ask that the individual be removed from the project. However, this person can become the project's biggest critique. Road blocks may start to appear to sabotage the project's progress. Before escalating the issue to the project's sponsor or the individual's manager/supervisor consider putting the individual in charge of taking the meeting's minutes and recording action items.

Benefits of this approach are that the individual:

  1. Needs to be on time to take the minutes
  2. Has to pay attention to the discussion in order to take the minutes
  3. Is kept busy, thus may have less time to come up with pesky remarks (a technique used by teachers to handle a disruptive child in a classroom)
  4. Has a vested interest in ensuring that conversations are not endless and confusing since they are responsible for taking the minutes.

It is important to ensure that responsibilities for this assignment are very clear. Propose a template and format for the minutes. Since there are many styles of minutes, provide an example of a verbatim style of minutes where every word is transcribed. After all you want to keep the person as busy as possible and focused on the job at hand! Also ensure that there is a deadline when the minutes and action items must be sent out to the team members or published on the project's web site.

When meeting with the individual to assign the task, explain that meetings are not working well and that you need their help to make them more effective. Provide clear instructions verbally. Then follow this conversation with an email that reiterates these instructions. An email such as: "Thank you John for meeting with me this morning. As discussed...". This email is evidence that the task was delegated with clear instructions and expectations. This email may be useful if the individual does not perform as expected and needs to be removed from the project due to non-performance.

If you do not have the authority to assign this task, talk to the project sponsor about this plan or to the individual's manager so that they can assign the task, using the same approach. Do not assume that the manager will convey your instructions correctly. Thus, still meet with the individual and send that email with a carbon copy (cc:) to their manager to ensure that everyone has the same understanding.

Potential results of this approach include:

  1. More functional meetings
  2. The individual is engaged in the project
  3. The individual is less openly critical of the project (after all no one wants to be part of something that doesn't work)
  4. It gives you and the individual a common objective to discuss personal “differences” (i.e. make team meetings functional)
  5. It causes a serious discussion on the cause of the individual's resistance.

If this approach does not work and the individual cannot be removed from the project due to non-performance, consider creating small task forces or work teams to focus on key elements of the project like on a particular process. Have one delegate of the task force report the findings and status at the project meetings. Not to leave any one left out, assign the individual to a work group who's assignment is not critical for the project.

A point often overlooked is that organizations sometimes favor of outside help staff key projects and forgets to consider their internal resources. Thus, this individual may feel that they have been pushed aside. Giving them more responsibilities is a good way to reach out and enlist them to the project.

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate. Gruenter and Whitaker

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