Friday, March 30, 2012

How to Handle Disengagement During Meetings

Guest post by Great Leadership regular contributor Beth Armknecht Miller:

Have you ever been in a meeting where one person decided to display a negative attitude? You know, the person who starts reading his PDA, or the other one who suddenly falls quiet, or what about the one who starts to slide down his chair and on to the floor. Well if you are the one in charge of the meeting what is your role in this dysfunction? I recently heard a speaker, who was talking about the culture of accountability say, "You get what you put up with". Bad behavior and rudeness happen because people continually get away with it.

So lets break down bad behavior into three primary categories:

1. Checked out or disengaged

2. Negative

3. Rude

Because of the proliferation of PDAs, I want to specifically discuss the scenario of disengagement. Reading PDAs and "multi-tasking" have become common place in business meetings. So you are leading a meeting and notice that one or more participants are texting or reading email on their smartphones. What options do you have at this point in time? First, you need to assess if this is a theme or an instance i.e. does the person disengaging have a reputation for checking out and not actively participating or is this something unusual for the team member. If this person has a reputation for disengaging then it should be addressed within the meeting. As the leader of the team you have the following options:

1. You can ignore the behavior, limiting the team to less than high performance and continue the dysfunction by not managing the bad behavior. If this is your choice, you may want reevaluate why you are managing a team.

2. You have the option of communicating to the person that you recognize that they are not currently part of the meeting. Ask them "Is there something urgent that you need to take care of at this time?" It may be that an emergency has come up which she needs to address. And if this is the case and she is key to the meeting, then reschedule the meeting. If she isn't key to the meeting, then dismiss her to her emergency. However, in my experience this usually isn't the case.

3. You can wait until after the meeting and then pull the person aside to discuss what was driving the behavior. If there wasn't an emergency, find out how they think their behavior impacts the meeting, other team members, as well as their effectiveness in the job.

4. You can wait for an opportunity to ask her a pointed question specific to the conversation, such as "What do you think of Rick's idea? This will either bring the person back into the conversation and/or will create a moment of embarrassment. Depending on their response, you may need to have a follow on conversation with them one on one.

5. Or you can address the whole team and open the discussion to everyone. What are their thoughts about team members checking out? What would their suggestions be to become a more high performing team and have everyone engaged? This option may uncover process or content issues of the meeting that you haven't considered may be part of the disengaging behaviors.

So as a leader it is your choice, allow the dysfunction to continue and you may wake up without a job in the future. Or, address the issue and set the tone for more productive meetings that will lead to team success.

Beth Armknecht Miller, of Atlanta, Georgia, is Founder and President of Executive Velocity, a leadership development advisory firm accelerating the leadership success of CEOs and business leaders. She is also a Vistage Chair and Executive Coach. She is certified in Myers Briggs and Hogan leadership assessment tools and is a Certified Managerial Coach by Kennesaw State University. Visit or or follow her on twitter at SrExecAdvisor.


Mike Henry Sr. said...

You can also consider another possibility... that your meeting is boring, or worse, even unnecessary. If you organized the meeting and people are disengaged, what's the point? Did you need them there? Could you have simply consulted them one-on-one and excluded them from the meeting.

I think disengagement is a symptom. Check out a great book titled Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. It's a brief, challenging look at the real cause of disengagement.


Beth Armknecht Miller said...

Mike, Your point regarding meetings is well taken. In fact, I often see ineffective meetings at work when coaching executives. I actually blogged about boring meetings last year which references an article from Fast Company magazine.

Thanks for the book recommendation as well.


swot said...

I think the key is to ask for positive feedback; negative/rude comments will evaporate from the problematic person once they start communicating their vision of the problem (if they have one, at which point, they will probably be quite).. For the person, who was quite and disengaged it is a chance to become vocal, hense will start paying attention.

Beth Armknecht Miller said...

Swot, great idea for those who aren't challenged with looking at the positive. And for the quiet person, I have found that often they aren't disengaged, they are quietly processing internally. I always reach out to these introverts when facilitating a meaning because even though they may not have a lot to say, when they do speak it is worth the wait!