Rescuing a Hijacked Meeting


What is the purpose of a meeting? Why do we need to get a bunch of people together (physically or virtually) at the same time?  The two main reasons cited are to distribute information or collaborate on projects.  Meetings can be a nightmare, eating up valuable time you could use to finish all the crap you need to turn in today.  And, unless you work in an uber-advanced corporation, you should be happy you only have 10 hours of meetings scheduled for this week. One thing that makes most people hate meetings is when one is hijacked.

What does a hijacked meeting look like?  Let’s pretend we are participants at some of the annual Health Fair planning meetings.

Example 1 (Flight Delay)

The initial Health Fair planning meeting is scheduled to begin at the top of the hour and the organizer is Jennifer who is chronically late. Once she arrives, she begins chatting off-line with one of her employees while everyone sits around waiting for the meeting to start. Your meeting is delayed until Jennifer releases the hostages and allows the flight to take off.

Example 2 (Armed Hijacking)

Jennifer: I’m so glad everyone could come to the Health Fair Initial Planning Meeting. We have a lot to go over so (Jane interrupts)

Jane: We need to talk about whether Bob is going to be able to come to work tomorrow. I am not, I repeat, not going to cover his shift again. Jane points across the table. Have you covered for Bob before? You have to come in at the crack of dawn…

Jane has completely taken over the meeting. She excels at filibusters so you should pretty much pack up and leave.

Example 3 (Surreptitious Kidnapping)

This is when your meeting slowly loses focus because one person wants to investigate all the rabbit holes.

David: We need two volunteers to put up awnings for the Health Fair.

Tony: How are you going to secure the awnings?

David: We have rope and stakes to secure them.

Tony: Are you using metal or plastic stakes? And what gauge of rope will you give us? I just bought some rope at the hardware store last week. Do you know how much it costs per foot? It is a rip-off.

These would be extremely appropriate questions if Tony ever helped set up the awnings. Since the likelihood of him being in the vicinity of the Health Fair during set-up is zero, he should just remain quiet. The kidnapping happens slowly with each question pulling you further and further from your target.

Example 4 (“I’m not a hijacker” Hijacker)

This is when you sit through 10-15 minutes of someone expounding on the importance of staying on topic, not being too wordy, and respecting everyone’s time.  Really?  Are we so immature that we don’t already know that you are wasting everyone’s time?  It’s a super special day when you get to sit in two meetings with the same person wasting your time with the same rant.

Handling a Hijacking

If you are the meeting organizer and someone else has hijacked your meeting, try the following:

1. The best way to handle a hijacking is to avoid it.  Don’t invite those prone to hijacking a meeting if their presence is not absolutely needed. Maybe another member of the team can relay the content.

2. Always have and follow an agenda.  Bring people back to the main point as soon as you feel the meeting has lost focus.  There are some meetings that I put a time limit on each subject because I know it is a hot topic.

3. Ask people to hold their questions until the end.  This works well if you are giving a status report but not quite as well if you are collaborating.  Whenever you do this, make sure you plan enough slack in your meeting so everyone has an opportunity to ask questions. The worst thing you can do to your attendees is to have them hold their questions but not give them adequate time to discuss it at the end.

4. Take topics off-line.  Don’t be afraid to tell your attendees that a topic should be discussed at a later time.  There are topics that are valuable to discuss but the venue isn’t right.  Make additional appointments or meetings if the off-line topic is too big to chat about after the meeting has concluded.

5.  If all else fails, stand up.  Standing up should be a last resort because it shows you have lost patience.  Changing your position in the room is a strong show of dominance and will typically break their flow of consciousness long enough to regain control.  If that doesn’t work, ask the hijacker to leave the meeting.  Weigh the pros and cons of this move; they may have vital skills you will need later.

If you are not the meeting organizer or in a position of authority, curbing a hijacking is a little tougher.  You can use your influence to make suggestions for the attendee list.  Since the agenda is published, it is fine to redirect people to the topic at hand and offer to chat about things off-line.

If meetings do not get better, ask yourself whether you really need to be in the meeting to begin with.  Are you providing so much value that your absence will side-line the project?  If all else fails and you must attend, bring “real work” or write a blog while the hijacking melee proceeds.

What other types of meeting hijacking have you witnessed and how was it handled?

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