Bosses, Bullies, and Braggarts: How to Tame Meeting Dominators

September 20, 2018 2:24 pm

You’ve been there before – a meeting where the boss wants to forego analysis and make a decision now; a co-worker who runs roughshod over quieter team members; or a subject matter expert who won’t stop talking. Whatever their motivation, meeting “dominators” are a leading cause of ineffective meetings.

Keeping dominators in check begins with your meeting design. It is possible to include controlled participatory techniques such as a round-robin format (where everyone speaks in turn) or a sub-grouping of individuals by particular attributes (i.e. function, cross-functional, area of interest, a defined number of participants like ‘pairs’, ‘triads’, etc). This approach gives dominators a smaller field to try to manipulate. Additionally, continuity can be maintained by “ping-ponging” ideas. Once an idea is stated the facilitator asks other participants to paraphrase or elaborate only on the stated idea, never letting the dominator hijack the agenda.

However, no matter how great your meeting process, it is still difficult to leverage participant insight and experience when a few want to dominate the discussion. As a result, the meeting facilitator must put extra effort into establishing a strict meeting management approach. This includes setting norms or guidelines at the beginning of the session. When there is the potential for an intimidating subject matter expert or senior level participant to dominate, head them off before getting into meeting content. Ask the group: “what operating guidelines or norms do we want to follow today to ensure we hear everyone’s thoughts?” If no one comes up with a norm, examples you can mention include:

  • Everyone speaks no longer than two minutes
  • No one revisits a decision made unless there is new crucial information
  • We paraphrase back or ask questions about what others said before critiquing ideas
  • During ‘idea generation’ we will use ‘yes, and…’ to build on the thoughts of others, rather than ‘yes, but…’ which may tear them down

By establishing norms, the power of the group can be used to stifle the dominators. Test the norms for agreement to ensure everyone is willing to live with the guidelines during the session. Then, seek permission to referee the norms, being very clear about how you’ll respond to rule breakers. For example could you intervene when people break a norm like … “Jake, in light of time and our norm around everyone participates, I’d like you to wrap up so we can move on?” Check this out with the group so there are no surprises when you intervene.

However, even with norms in place, politics, culture, and/or personalities may lead to meeting domination. Immediate action is required the minute you realize that doing nothing will make matters worse. Remember, though, the goal is to increase group participation, not to shut down the dominator. Redirect the inappropriate behaviour as quickly and unobtrusively as possible by intervening. For example, if the dominator is hogging time ask, “Jason, can you sum it up in 1-2 points?” Or, if you’re close to a scheduled break use the time to remind the dominator of the norms. Ask the dominator for suggestions of how best to keep the meeting on course. Finally, if all else is failing, change your meeting design. You can halt a dominator by shifting from an open discussion to a more structured one that brings everyone back into the foreground. Don’t be afraid to impose a round-robin with a time limit for each person to speak.

Meeting dominators will always intrude but that doesn’t mean you can’t control them and make your meetings productive and valuable. So in summary:

  • Equalize participation by using approaches like round-robin and sub-groups
  • Set and referee group norms
  • Redirect inappropriate behaviour as quickly as possible

Have you used a successful technique in the past to handle meeting dominators? We’d love to hear about it!

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