A Field Guide to Dudes Who Ruin Meetings

A field guide to dudes who ruin meetings

If you’ve ever been in a meeting, chances are you’ve encountered one (or more) of the following dudes. Whether they mean to or not, they prevent work from getting done and irritate other people while doing so. They tend to suck up the room’s energy and demand special treatment, either overtly or passively. This can drag everyone else down, making the meeting less effective, less creative and less likely to result in positive outcomes.

A good solution is to avoid inviting these dudes to your meetings, or better yet, to ban them from your office. Alas, those options may not be realistic, so here’s a handy guide that includes tried-and-true dude mitigation techniques.

And yes, they are dudes.

Mister details ruins meetings

Mister Details

This dude misses the forest for the trees. He’s really into trees. And bark. Wow, does he love bark. Did you know that bark is made up of a layer of tissues, the innermost of which is called phloem?

Look, details are important. Complexity is important. There’s always nuance to consider. But, left unchecked, Mr. Details will sidetrack important conversations with tangents, wild-goose chases, edge cases and lectures on bark structure.

How to handle this dude:

  • Build a parking lot: Create a neutral place to capture tangents. Capturing doesn’t mean passing judgment — it’s just a “save for later” function. Be sure to budget time at the end of any long session to discuss the tangents. This way no one feels like their ideas, observations or insights are being dismissed outright. And you never know, that data point about bark might actually come in handy later.

  • Structure activities: Make the level of detail for the discussion explicitly clear at the outset of the meeting. You can do this by having a template, a time limit and/or a specific area of focus that’s laid out when people arrive.

Professor this is bullshit ruins meetings

Professor This-is-Bullshit

This dude couldn’t give a fuck about this meeting. He’s already decided that the mission will fail (and he’s happy to tell everyone about the failure he sees coming). He thinks the whole conversation is a waste of his time. He’s pretty sure there’s something more important he could be doing. However, for some reason this dude still shows up with the intention of being a wet blanket.

How to handle this dude:

  • Use empathy to investigate the problem: Before any major meetings, speak to the dude in private. Ask why he’s got such a negative perspective: Is it because of a misunderstanding, a personal conflict, a lack of engagement or something else? Find ways to give the dude ownership in the project, so he’s accountable for specific tasks or outcomes and can’t just sit on the sidelines rolling his eyes.

  • That said, acknowledge the limits of your responsibility: You are not this dude’s babysitter. If you are his direct supervisor, you may need to have a frank discussion about his attitude, how it’s affecting his job, and what that means for his future employment. If he reports to someone else, it’s worth mentioning your frustration to that person, and asking for some help.

Devil's advocate ruins meetings

The Devil’s Ad-bro-cate

Playing the contrarian can be an important role in any meeting — if everyone says “yes” without asking questions, bad ideas go unchecked and good alternatives go unmentioned. Even strong concepts benefit from poking and prodding before being codified. Still, there’s a big difference between being a creative contrarian and being a dick. This dude takes his role as devil’s advocate way too seriously, and doesn’t know any other way of contributing to the conversation. As a result, other people may be afraid to express themselves openly, or may hesitate to offer ideas that aren’t already bulletproof.

How to handle this dude:

  • Reject perfection: Remember, ideal solutions rarely exist. Instead of tasking the meeting with finding “the best answer” or “the best concept,” frame solutions as “the best for now,” “the best in this context” or “the best given our budget” in order to keep momentum going. Better still, avoid using language like “the best…” or “the only…” so people don’t feel like there’s a single correct conclusion they need to reach.

  • Use “yes, and”: The guiding principle of improv comedy is that there are no bad set-ups, there are only set-ups that can be improved by addition. So if a performer walks on stage and says, “I’m a lazy ferret,” her partner won’t say, “No, that’s a terrible premise for a sketch.” Her partner will say, “Yes, and I’m a fitness instructor with a hot new workout called Weaselcise.” This technique works in meetings, too: simply establish the rule that no idea can be dismissed or shut down, only fleshed out and explored.

Admiral Hierarchy ruins meetings

Admiral Hierarchy

Bosses are busy people. With so much on their minds and schedules, they can’t always participate fully in meetings. Still, this dude likes to drop in to “keep an eye on things,” or to remind people of his presence, which isn’t always helpful. He hangs out, observing, chiming in at random, sometimes using his boss-status to play favorites, cut people off or issue demands. But he won’t roll up his sleeves and join in for real, because he’s “just watching.” You can always spot this dude because he’s in the back of the room, paying more attention to his phone than to the meeting.

How to handle this dude:

  • Limit his interaction: Rather than allowing him to participate in unstructured ways according to their whims, specify moments for him to engage: for example, he could kick off the session or come in at the end to address the team. This respects his time, but also yours and everyone else’s. Bear in mind that if he is the gatekeeper, you’ll need to sell ideas to him outside the meeting. It’s worth having a clearly defined plan for doing so.

  • Make it “his session”: Alternatively, if his buy-in is necessary at every step, make sure he is invested from the start and plan out ways for him to have ownership where it’s needed. A clear agenda is helpful here, breaking down topics, times and roles so there’s no confusion about who’s in charge when. Remind everyone at the meeting that staying focused and respecting roles benefits the team as a whole — this way you’re not singling anyone out, especially the boss.

Cool Tool ruins meetings

Cool Tool

Meetings shouldn’t feel like funerals, but they shouldn’t feel like $5 open mics, either. This dude derails the group by cracking jokes, showing off, acting out and behaving like he’s way too cool for the work at hand. While he may get laughs, he may also belittle other people’s points of view, distract people who want to focus and leave everyone feeling like nothing has been accomplished.

How to handle this dude:

  • Check behind the curtain: A wisecrack may contain an uncomfortable truth or challenging opinion, and sometimes people find it’s easier to express these things behind a veil of humor. If there is something in the joke that merits discussion, address it head-on, and thank the joker for bringing it up. Letting people know that it’s OK to speak honestly will help them feel confident about raising issues without punchlines.

  • Smile and move on: Alternatively, giving the wisecracker too much attention is what gives him power. Changing the topic, moving on or pushing through can also be effective if there’s no substance to discuss.

Dr Downer ruins meetings

Dr. Downer

This dude is incapable of seeing opportunities in challenges — he only sees more challenges. What’s more, he remembers all the failures the team has had, and spends a fair amount of time dwelling on things that have gone wrong before. While understanding challenges (and being realistic about what you’re up against) is a huge part of finding solutions, it’s hard to be motivated when there’s a cloud of doom hanging over everyone’s heads.

How to handle this dude:

  • Put challenges on the agenda: Provide structured time for a thorough discussion of the challenges and risks at hand. Just make sure it’s limited, focused and the prelude to a larger conversation about what can be done.

  • Designate part of the parking lot for future roadblocks: If this dude sees potential problems in every solution, document them in your parking lot and move on. This way, you have a useful list of challenges to solve for in the future, but your conversation in the present can keep moving.

This dude definitely ruins project progress

Chill in the Meets, a Mean Dude on the Streets

In the meeting, he’s quiet, attentive and friendly. Or he’s an eager collaborator, volunteering to help during activities and praising other people’s ideas. Then, as soon as the meeting is over, he moves swiftly to sabotage or shoot down everything that’s been agreed upon. What’s his deal? That’s the problem — nobody really knows. This dude is cutthroat and manipulative, and extremely difficult to deal with, because he’s so skilled at disguising his agenda. The one thing you can say for sure is that he’s only looking out for himself.

How to handle this dude:

  • Establish momentum: Visible progress is the best way to get this dude on board. It’s hard to quash ideas if there’s demonstrable proof of their success, or if there’s evidence of their alignment with business priorities. Remember the power of concrete/specific vs. hypothetical/vague language, i.e., “This will help us reach more consumers in the 19 to 34 demo,” not “I think this might help us reach more young consumers.”

  • Keep it impersonal: Frame key ideas as being important to the business, not to individuals or departments, so he has less incentive to think in terms of personal politics. He may want to take down an executive he sees as a rival, but he doesn’t want to be on record as trying to thwart the company’s success.

Believe it or not, we’re pretty sure there are even more types of dudes who ruin meetings out there, so now it’s your turn: share your close encounters with dudes in the wild (well, in the conference room), and let us know how you handle them.

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This piece was made in collaboration with the talented Erik Bergstrom & Mary Phillips-Sandy.

Juliann Babb