Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Meeting Jerk

Many of us run meetings from time to time. Almost all of us go to meetings from time to time. Depending on the environment, culture, and reason for the meeting, these can be normal parts of the day, or they can resemble angst-driven white-collar battlefields. In any case, meetings happen. Frequently.

Because meetings happen so much and because we all take so much pleasure in complaining about those meetings, there are huge numbers of articles and massive amounts of advice about how to make meetings more effective. These cover everything from "stand up the whole time!" to "keep them small!" to "lead from the back of the room!".


Read too many articles, and you'll turn into a meeting jerk. The meeting jerk is the person who didn't call the meeting, but who is absolutely determined that this will be an effective meeting if he has to make it effective all by himself. Dangit.

The meeting jerk reads perfectly reasonable articles like this one: How to Improve Meetings When You're Not in Charge. He then proceeds to decide that the person running the meeting is ineffective and to follow every point in the article repeatedly and loudly. Every meeting invitation is met with a request for an agenda (including the daily standup) and with pre-meeting thoughts and comments about every item sent to the entire invitation list. In the meeting itself, every point of discussion is concluded with the meeting jerk looking around the room and asking each person if they agree and if they have any more to add. There is an unannounced agenda item added to the beginning of every meeting - "who's going to take notes?" - and to the end - "are we sending notes out? when? to how much of the team?". In short, the meeting jerk does all the right things, to excess and with all the finesse of an elephant doing water ballet.

How do you know there's a meeting jerk in the room?
  • Look for the person who has Robert's Rules of Order memorized and is the one mentioning "meta-meeting" guidelines and etiquette frequently.
  • See if there's someone who frequently causes most of the meeting attendees' eyes to roll.
  • Follow the pre-meeting email trail about the agenda and the post-meeting email trail about the notes. Some discussion is normal; responding to every single email with point-by-point questions and rebuttals is antagonistic.
Let's say you've identified the meeting jerk, and she exists. Here's how to handle her:
  • Call the meeting jerk on her behavior. Let her know that you appreciate the effort but that she's causing a bad meeting environment. Include examples of situations where it's been a problem, and then ask her what she's trying to accomplish. Typically, there are some legitimate complaints and it's simply gone too far. Now's the time to address the complaints directly.
  • Do not deal with the meeting jerk in the meeting. That's a public place and egos get involved very quickly. Have a private discussion with the meeting jerk that involves as few people as possible.
  • Step back and look at your meeting facilitation skills. There are likely to be some problems that triggered this behavior in the first place. Check your agendas, meeting invitations, length, timeliness, and other factors.
  • Agree with the meeting jerk on a code to indicate you're handling things that you can use in the meeting. Maybe it's a word or phrase, or a movement of some sort that tells the meeting jerk, "yes, I know this discussion has gone on too long and I'm going to stop it now" so that the jerk doesn't feel like he has to step in. Over time, this will help build trust.

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