What are the best ways to deal with annoying — even harmful — interruptions?
Determining why someone is disrupting and then reaching out to him or her as leader and mentor often is the most effective solution. Disciplinary action — if it comes to that — should be taken outside the context of the meeting. Why? There’s no reason to sour your team dynamics, experts say, and nobody responds well to public humiliation anyway.
“There are many types of meeting disruptions,” notes consultant Shari LeDonne Frisinger, president of Houston-based CornerStone Strategies LLC, “including late arrivals, holding sidebar conversations, texting or e-mailing during the meeting, and debating one specific detail too much.”
But definitions don’t matter as much as causative factors, she adds. “It’s more important for the leader to be concerned with the ‘why.’ What is the underlying reason for the disruption?
Is the offender unprepared and stalling for time? Is it because the offender does not find value in the meeting or topic? Does the offender want to drag the meeting out? Is there a discrepancy between your goals and the offender’s goals? Is there an undercurrent of negative emotion between two attendees?”
Until those issues are resolved, Frisinger says, “You are likely to continue having disruptions.”
Of course, many principal investigators like the give-and-take of vigorous academic discourse and see “debate” where others see interruptions. “It’s often a function of the style and comfort of the person managing the meeting,” notes consultant Rich Boyer, partner and senior consultant at ModernThink LLC, of Wilmington, Del.
“In the PI environment, it’s important to be able to disagree without being disagreeable,” Boyer says. A commitment to vigorously debating ideas and challenging each other’s thinking in the pursuit of better ideas and results in a respectful way — is the key.”
“A nearly silent team meeting usually indicates a lack of trust,” says Teresa Dobbins, with Linda Miles & Associates of Virginia Beach, Va., adding that, “It’s important to be able to discuss not only the good things, but also the not-so-good things. The facilitator (PI) should be able to bring everyone back to the task at hand.”
When to act quickly, tactfully
“Some disruptions can be acknowledged with a nod of the head and a clarification without missing a beat,” Frisinger says. “Others need to be tactfully handled immediately. For example, you can say to the disrupter: ‘Can you take about 3 minutes to explain why you are asking?’That lets the staffer make his or her thinking visible, allowing alternatives to be explored or details to be cleared up.”
For some, the best solution is to prevent interruptions before seeking treatment options. Appointing a meeting facilitator can help move issues along in a less disruptive manner, Dobbins says. And the assignment “gives the facilitator a new respect for the meeting and makes him or her feel important.”
Also, Boyer suggests, you should be “clear about what the agenda is and the topics you want to cover. Be clear about the (meeting) outcomes you need.”That’s especially important for groups— like your lab staff — that meet regularly. “It’s important to have almost a menu to follow,” he says. “And how you follow up is important, too. If there are next steps or outcomes, build in some accountability. People get frustrated if they don’t see action afterward.”
Of course, the rubber hits the proverbial road when there’s an unexpected interruption and you have to handle it on the fly. Some interrupters fit Frisinger’s “all about me” model — those who take a piece of your statement and go off on a tangent, relating it to their experiences. “That person probably likes the attention,” she says. “You can provide that by saying, ‘That sounds like quite a story, and I’d love to hear about it. How about sharing it with me after the meeting?’Then immediately return to the real focus.”
Some staffers interrupt by harping about an extraneous detail on which you misspoke. How to handle that? “Ask a question that gets the interrupter to explain — giving him or her an opportunity to show some expertise, which is what they wanted in the first place,” Frisinger says.
Do not resort to discipline during a meeting. “It’s embarrassing to all involved, not just to the offender,” says Frisinger. It also puts a damper on the overall atmosphere and can hinder productivity and fruitful discussions.
But do something.
Remember that causing interruptions may be the first sign of a far deeper problem with the offending staffer, Frisinger says. “If you’re having a (frequent) problem in meetings, chances are you’re having problems outside meetings, too. The interruptions may be symptomatic of a bigger issue.”
Finally, some PIs might consider whether they are contributing to the problem. They should “objectively assess their own behaviors along with those who report to them and begin a conversation outside the meetings to ascertain underlying problems,” Frisinger concludes.