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How To Deal With "Meeting Bullies" Who Undermine Trust

Meeting bullies can undermine meeting and team trust

In most organizations, more teamwork usually means more meetings, which can be productive and positive or quite the opposite. Individuals who exhibit bullying behavior by dominating discussion can damage trust in the meeting and within teams.

In my more than three decades as an executive, consultant and executive coach, other than complaining about bosses who exhibit bullying behavior, frustration with unproductive and unpleasant meetings ranks very close. And a meeting bully inside the meeting room can have a negative influence outside the meeting room as well.

We have all seen or had experience with these meeting bullies. They dominate conversations in the meeting, intimidate their colleagues so that they are reticent to disagree with the meeting bully, or they withdraw and participate at a minimal level.

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A recent study by Lise van Oortimerseen at Wageningen University shows that the frequency and length of time that individuals speak during meetings reflects their underlying relationships and the effectiveness of meetings. Her research data shows growing trust between collaboration partners is visible in the conversations they have during meetings. As trust increases, the participants talk not only more frequently, but also more briefly. Further, discussions in meetings visibly gained speed as participants went into a “flow,” elaborating on each other’s ideas and often arriving at creative solutions. Lise van Oortemerssen also concluded that the role of the meeting chairperson was critical by discouraging lengthy monologues and inviting others’ contributions.

Here’s some suggestions that could be of help for those running meetings in dealing with meeting bullies:

  • Ask specific questions that make it more difficult for meeting bullies to take control;
  • Call on other participants by name to contribute and don’t let the meeting bully respond or interrupt;
  • Interrupt the meeting bully with a request to get to the point;
  • Tell the meeting bully that their point has been made and it’s time to move on;
  • In reigning in the meeting bully, do so in a calm, non-aggressive tone of voice;
  • Focus discussion on outcomes, rather than endless debaters over specific points;
  • If necessary, speak to the meeting bully in private and share your concerns about their participation style and make suggestions for more productive or civil participation;
  • Establish and enforce rules of participation for the meeting, particularly if it’s a regular meeting.

 Meetings are not automatically productive, and nothing can derail a team or meeting like a dominating meeting bully. It’s incumbent on the meeting chair or facilitator to deal with this issue early and fast.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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